A Transnational Study Of Law And Justice On Tv

Editors: Peter Robson and Jennifer L. Schulz
Publisher: London: Bloomsbury, 2016. 320p.
Reviewer: Lars Ole Sauerberg | January 2018

Crime fiction in print form has, since it started with Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, been an extremely popular literary kind. The popularity has turned out to be undiminished when it comes to platform shifts since the start, first to film and radio (drama), and, most recently, to TV, with the series format especially suitable for the small screen.

The academic study of mass media representations of law and justice has, to date, been conducted largely according to the methodological protocols of the law-and-literature movement led by legal scholars and of the cultural-studies approach led by media scholars.

The object of study in the anthology of essays edited by Peter Robson and Jennifer L. Schulz is the TV coverage of the full range of legally related activities from crime investigation by the police over courtroom proceedings to punishment, in the words of the editors “apprehension (police focus); adjudication (lawyer focus) and disposition (prison/punishment focus)” (pp. 3-4), and in “all forms of legally themed programming (dramas, reality shows, documentaries, etc.)” (p. 4).

The declared aim is expressly not to pursue a tradition of law-and-literature, or aesthetic/literary approach, or to apply a traditional cultural-studies method, but to introduce a quantitative/empirical angle and include an institutional angle, that is taking into consideration the conditions on which TV works in the fourteen countries covered in the survey. The overall purpose is to better understand the ways in which TV law and justice appears to their audiences against the double backgrounds of national grounding and international orientation.

The fourteen essays, dealing with representations of law and justice on TV in Australia, Belgium (the Flanders region), Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, and the USA, are all empirical studies of the TV offerings of law and justice on TV in November 2014.

It may be noted in passing that three of the countries share a past in the British Empire, nine of them are EU countries, eleven are NATO members, and the two not belonging to any of the three – Israel and Switzerland – definitely see themselves as western countries. In other words, large areas of the world – Scandinavia (except for Denmark), Eastern Europe (except for Poland), the Balkans, The Russian Federation, Africa, and Asia – do not figure in the study.

Criteria for the selection of the countries are not recognized explicitly as a methodological problem in the survey. Whereas the EU and the NATO affiliations hardly count in this respect, the various legal legacies and traditions of the various countries certainly deserve to be taken into account. Especially since the major outcome of the survey that, as a whole, the dominance of US-produced TV series in the countries surveyed (except for the UK) – and probably beyond them as well – relies on an idiosyncratically national American norm based on a mixture of constitutional and common law and on an accusatorial court-procedure practice. The common- or precedence-law aspect would be shared by the UK, which gave it to the former American colony, and also by most of the countries in the former British Empire, and Israel. But to countries used to a Roman-law tradition, such as the Mediterranean ones, which subscribe to a tradition of inquisitorial law practice, this would feel like a definitely foreign legal culture. That this difference exists, is noted in some of the essays, but not in the prefatory summing up of the survey results.

There is no general methodological grid applied uniformly to all individual-country analyses, but a rough outline of general TV history, succeeded by the law and justice on TV analysis before a synthesis or summing-up section, is followed by all. Despite the agreement to stick to quantitative parameters, all the survey authors manage to part with information about issues perhaps not strictly quantitative, but qualitative with a bearing on the quantitative findings. Here belong the Australian remark on the fascination with the “convict narrative” (p. 21), the Belgian (Flemish) liking for Flemish shows (p. 33), the absence of race and ethnicity on programs aired in the UK (p. 51), the difference between Canadian law traditions and what is offered by way of US-produced series (pp. 64-5), the saturation of Danish TV by English-language programmes (p. 78), the French predilection for puzzles (p. 97), the public sector in Germany commissioning “fresh local produce” (p. 111), the influence of the political elites on Greek TV programming (p. 124), the public heroes in Israel being soldiers, not law people (p. 143), an Italian tendency to poor knowledge of and disillusionment with the law (p. 162), the liking for the loser antihero in the TV-crime fare of Poland (p. 176), the effort to create home-grown Spanish law and justice TV (pp. 181-91), the three-language problem in Switzerland (p. 209), and the near total dominance of US-produced TV for the US market (p. 224).

The editors make a point of arguing that law activities within the three phases of law application are part of a total whole and cannot and should not be studied apart from each other. It is true that in many TV features and series there are no strict borderlines between the work allocated to the police, to the personnel of the law courts, and to the prison officials. Still, very few titles focus on life behind bars, whereas, as admitted by the editors, most of the titles reflect the police work prior to the court proceedings leading to the passing of sentences, and a minority are proper courtroom TV drama.

Another aspect not touched upon is the food-chain dynamics of law and justice on TV. As the focal point of the survey is the offering of a broadly defined kind of small-screen entertainment in a specific month in a specific year, such an aspect is hardly strictly necessary. Still, the fact that by far the majority of crime and courtroom fiction in the print version is produced in the USA, and the sub-species of legal thrillers written almost exclusively by authors with legal backgrounds, surely counts also when it comes to development into screen stories.

The survey, within its chosen and well defined limits of scope and approach, offers, first and foremost, reliable quantitative affirmation of the American dominance of law and justice on TV (with the exception of the UK), and of the dominance of series featuring police focus over lawyer and punishment focus. It also accounts for differences in programming policies due to national and/or cultural and institutional differences.

The survey will serve as excellent framework and basis for further studies along the quantitative/empirical lines laid out. But it is open to debate if the insistence on a totally quantitative approach exhausts such curiosity as there may be about differences from country to country. Some of the contributions indicate the need for assessing qualitative features in addition to the quantitative ones, such as the authors of the French contribution draw attention to the fact that in this country there is a long and well established inquisitorial tradition that “takes a vertical approach to the law and justice. The judge represents the authority of the state and the state is the seat of power. The French see justice as an instrument of the state” (p. 98). This tradition is in strict opposition to such common-law traditions as are found in the UK and in the USA, where the law is “made” in each case, not meted out from statute books and their civil-servant attendants. The author of the Italian contribution suggests that “As for lawyers, Italians appear to be better served by television than their American colleagues” (p. 160). Also the Italian law tradition resembles the French one, in that “lawyers seem to have the ‘gift of judicial ubiquity’, since they cover all the roles associated with justice: investigator, defender of the innocent, accuser of the guilty and even judge, given that their version of the facts anticipates or completely replaces the formal ruling or sentence” (p. 160).

Surely, there must be a need for looking into and assessing effects on the TV audience in a given country watching material from another country – in most cases the USA, but also, with the current cult of Nordic Noir, of the North-European history of legal-administrative “compromise” – with which the recipient country is more or less unfamiliar. As the author of the contribution on Poland has it: “The Polish legal system based on the system of statutory codes differs considerably from the common law system based on precedent, where the lawyer’s expertise thereupon often determines the court’s decision” (p. 175). In Switzerland, which is a three-language country, Swiss people “see US or German law most of the time” (p. 210).

Quantitative/empirical analysis tells us a lot about current TV offerings and audience habits, but the approach seems, all the same, to be in need of qualitative supplement, so as to be able to account for differences that have their origins in different law traditions and cultures, which in turn must be illuminated by broader historical and/or political issues. We do not need the full picture all the time, but since the editors of this survey emphasize the need for legal people to act with an awareness of all relevant extra-legal contexts, this aspect certainly deserves inclusion.

Lars Ole Sauerberg, Professor (emer.), dr.phil. , University of Southern Denmark, Denmark

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