May 12, 2021 | 15 minutes read | Tags: The Red Carpet, Abolition

On Line of Duty, or, When is Copaganda not Copaganda?

While filming season one, the Metropolitan police refused to assist in the making of the show, due to concerns over its portrayal of police corruption. This lack of affection, however, does not go both ways: The police may not have liked Line of Duty, but Line of Duty loves the police.

On Line of Duty, or, When is Copaganda not Copaganda?
“I was absolutely outraged by the level of casual and extreme corruption that was being portrayed, as the way the police is in 2018. It’s so far from that. The standards and professionalism are so high... Both series actually make us look a bit cool and interesting – a net positive, probably. They bring in interest and applications.”

– Cressida Dick, on Line of Duty and The Bodyguard, speaking to Radio Times.

For the tape, this is Red Fightback, and the following article contains spoilers for all six seasons of Line of Duty.

On Sunday the 2nd of May, I, along with 12.8 million other people, settled down to watch the finale of Season 6 of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty.

Line of Duty started life as a shaky camera’d BBC 2 drama with respectable, but not enormous, viewing figures. In the years since it launched in 2012, it has grown into a juggernaut. Episode 7 of Season 6 was the most watched episode of any non-soap TV drama since modern records began in 2002. In an age of Streaming platforms and declining live audiences for TV, Line of Duty’s achievement is even more impressive: it could well be the most influential British TV Drama of the last twenty years, and it’s certainly the most popular.

Or at least, it was.

Because, on Sunday night, viewers tuned in, expecting everything that Line of Duty had become to be on full display. Twists, gunfights, shocking deaths, tense interviews, and a final reveal of the identity of The Fourth Man, or H - The show’s “big bad,” a senior policeman who runs a network of corrupt officers.

What they got instead, was something far more interesting - and controversial.

Ted, Steve and Kate from an earlier season.
Ted, Steve and Kate from an earlier season.

For the uninitiated, Line of Duty tells the story of Anti-Corruption Unit 12 (AC-12), a group of three police officers assigned to investigate corruption within the force in a unnamed city in the Midlands - generally thought to be a fictionalised Birmingham. Every season pits the three stars - Vicky McClure’s perennially undercover Kate Fleming, Martin Compston’s waistcoat-wearing Steve Arnott, and Adrian Dunbar’s uncompromisingly moral Ted Hastings - against a special guest star, whose slow and inevitable downfall we witness over the course of a season, like punters at a Shakespearean tragedy.

From the very beginning, the show has been controversial. While filming season one, the Metropolitan police refused to assist in the making of the show, due to concerns over its portrayal of police corruption. This lack of affection, however, does not go both ways: The police may not have liked Line of Duty, but Line of Duty loves the police.

Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson
Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson.
"This is the return of Tory sleaze.... ....We don’t need another Conservative Party appointee, marking their own homework. Actually, Mister Speaker, the more I listen to the Prime Minister, the more I think Ted Hastings and AC-12 are needed to get to the bottom of this one.”

– Keir Starmer, during PMQs.

"We’re getting on with rooting out “bent coppers”. We’re also appointing and hiring thousands more police officers, fighting crime on the streets of our cities while they oppose the Police and Crime Bill.”

– Boris Johnson, in response, during PMQs.

Keir Starmer, incidentally, was the Director of Public Prosecutions who set up night courts for kids swept up in the “London riots” which rose up after the murder of Mark Duggan by the police. On the other side of the coin, he failed to prosecute the police officers involved in the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes.

The bill Boris Johnson references in the same exchange, is the very same bill people across the country mobilised to fight against, just one day before the finale aired. This bill, if you are not familiar, would grant the police sweeping new powers in every sphere. These powers would hit the most oppressed members of society the hardest.

Jed Mercurio has spoken about how he hopes that the show will inspire people to investigate and explore the real life cases he alludes to, such as the murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan, a case some have linked to corrupt police officers and right-wing journalists. But how many people watching Line of Duty, a series supposedly about the corruption of the police, actually engage with the most important anti-carceral struggles of our age? Can Line of Duty be a stirring critique of the institution of policing, when Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer - a man actively trying to increase police powers and a former public prosecutor - can reference it without irony? Can it really claim to be pushing for people to investigate corruption for themselves, when according to Cressida Dick, it leads to people joining the very institution it is supposedly trying to critique?

Whether Jed Mercurio intends it or not, any work of art which isn’t explicitly revolutionary can and will be co-opted by capitalism. At the end of the day, there are plenty of people who can watch Line of Duty and still believe, fundamentally, in the ‘good’ of the police.

In contrast to the tireless pursuit of justice displayed by AC-12, not a single police officer has faced charges related to a death in custody since 1969, despite 1,784 people dying after contact with the police since 1990.

Likewise, despite the high death count of officers killed “in the line of duty” during the run of the show, only 1,600 police officers have died on duty since 1680. More people have died after contact with the police in the last thirty years than police officers have died in the last 340. Policing is not the dangerous job that LoD and other shows make it out to be; most police officers never have to fear for their lives - they’re too busy making other people fear for theirs.

I remember being struck, as Season 5 - starring Stephen Graham as rogue undercover cop John Corbett - aired, by the way real police forces reacted to the show. Many police social media accounts posted about their excitement and enjoyment of it. I couldn’t understand this: to me, the world of Line of Duty is a bleakly realistic one, where the police are a corruption ridden institution which does far more harm than good. I couldn’t understand why the police would actively associate themselves with a show so harshly critical of their whole being. Unless, of course, it wasn’t so harsh after all.

“I believe our police officers are generally honest and effective. Line of Duty isn't a police-bashing show. All police characters in the drama know right from wrong and strive to do the former. But I wanted to explore how these decent people, who generally enter public service for idealistic reasons, can somehow slip off track.”

– Jed Mercurio, writing for the Guardian in 2012.

Jed Mercurio, the writer and showrunner, has spoken about how the opening moments of Season 1 of Line of Duty, in which unarmed immigrant Karim Ali is shot during a botched counter-terrorism raid by a firearms squad while holding his baby in his arms, were inspired by the murder - and the coverup of the murder - of Jean Charles de Menezes by the Metropolitan Police in 2005. Cressida Dick, incidentally, was the lead officer on that fateful day.

What’s interesting about the opening moments of Season 1, is how the show pulls its punches. The officers wrongfully kill Ali and then lie about it, depriving his family of justice. But the officer who pulls the trigger is shown to be distraught in the aftermath, torn up by guilt. The officer who relayed the order to shoot-to-kill, Steve Arnott, refuses to be silent about the murder and so transfers from Counter-Terrorism to AC-12. In fact, the only officer shown to be unconcerned about the death, was the senior officer on the case: Owen Teale’s Philip Osborne, the show’s stand-in for Dick.

Owen Teale.
Owen Teale.

Owen Teale returned to the show in Season 6, his character having risen to the rank of Chief Constable in the force. He was a fan favourite to be revealed as The Fourth Man or H. Personally, I agreed. But the implications troubled me - if it was revealed that this character, who had from the beginning represented all the racist corruption embedded in the police, was revealed as the primary villain of the show, it would effectively be doubling down on one of the major problems with the show’s understanding of police ‘corruption’ itself. Namely, as a subversive parasite buried within the force, rather than something endemic to the very nature of policing - the idea that corruption is an external thing which takes over the police, a sort of zombie bite which corrupts a previously pure institution. Despite Ted Hastings’s repeated insistence that there is “institutional corruption” within the force, the idea that just catching the top man would “fix” the whole problem played into the idea that police misconduct is a matter of a “few rotten apples” who have been subverted by the external force of the OCG (organised crime group).

In episode 5 of Season 6, DI Steve Arnott and Superintendent Hastings listen to DC Chloe Bishop recount the story of a racist assault which ended in the death of a fictional young Black man named Lawrence Christopher in police custody. The case is clearly referencing the deaths of Stephen Lawrence and Christopher Alder, with both cases involving major racist actions by the police.

Ted Hastings looks horrified by the details of the case. He remarks that the police officers involved are a “Disgrace to the uniform!” in his typically indignant way. After the case is outlined, he leaves.

Are they? Is racist violence so very unusual amongst the police that those who perpetrate it are a “Disgrace to the uniform?” Or is it the case that this - this violence - is exactly what the uniform represents? The cold blooded suppression of the working class, especially the Black and non-Black people of colour who represent some of its most exploited elements?

Chloe Bishop, who outlined the details of the Lawrence Christopher case, is a young Black woman. She’s become a star of the season, well-loved by fans and critics alike. Not least amongst the reasons for this is the speech Shalom Brune-Franklin, the actress who plays Chloe, delivers to Steve Arnott while packing away her notes on the case. “How could anybody be okay?” She asks Steve, after detailing the racist abuse Lawrence Christopher received in the hours leading up to his death.

Chloe Bishop.
Chloe Bishop.

It is interesting to note that Season 6, alongside introducing Chloe Bishop and a greater discussion of racism than has occurred in previous seasons, has also introduced the show’s first major queer character, in lesbian cop Jo Davidson. Similar to Essex and Hampshire Police, who used actors to play police officers as part of their campaign to promote supposed diversity and inclusion within their force, Line of Duty presents us with police officers who supposedly come from marginalised identities in order to deflect from the violence of the actual institution.

Chloe, we are effectively told, is one of the good ones. An honest copper just trying to do her job. A young Black woman fighting against racism by... joining the police.

In Line of Duty, even as actual police officers are near-universally bent, the idea of being a police officer is shown to be synonymous with being moral. As various characters (including Kate Fleming) say throughout the show, your first duty as a police officer is to “protect life” - a far cry from the death and dismay we see the British carceral state leave behind at every turn.

Indeed, the last gasp of morality from many of Line of Duty’s worst characters is linked to their supposed duties as a police officer. The last words of Lennie James’s cocky Tony Gates after catching that season’s OCG kingpin are “I was never bent.” Keeley Hawes’s brutally efficient Lindsay Denton’s last words before being shot by Craig Parkinson’s weaselling Dot Cottan are “Because I’m a police officer!” - shouted as she sends a list of suspected paedophiles to AC-12 before being killed. Thandiwe Newton’s extraordinary performance as Roz Huntley reaches its greatest heights in the moment where, after confessing to the murder of Tim Ifield, she asks, “Am I still a police officer?” before cautioning her attorney Jimmy Lakewell in order to uncover the truth about the OCG’s Balaclava Man. Kelly Macdonald’s deer-in-headlights Jo Davidson repeatedly insists “I’m not bent” while confessing to the work she has performed, under duress, for the OCG. Every one of these “bad guys” has a redemptive moment towards the end of their arc, premised on them getting back in touch with those “idealistic reasons'' for joining the force that Jed Mercurio mentioned earlier.

In the world of Line of Duty, and the minds of its characters and creators, being a copper is fundamentally a good thing. It’s when you become a “bent copper” - when you cross the line into breaking the laws you are supposedly meant to be upholding - that things go bad. Criminality is what the show rails against. But it never asks why some things are crimes and other things aren’t. Why stealing food is a crime, but letting someone starve is perfectly legal. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges and stealing food...” comes to mind.

That’s not to say the show doesn’t critique the police; it does, and in stronger terms than any other detective show I’ve seen. But it doesn’t fundamentally challenge the institution of policing. And neither does its audience.

So! It’s Sunday the 2nd of May. You’re watching your TV screen as the music builds, and a faceless figure is escorted into the “Glass Box Spectacular” of the AC-12 interview room. H is finally about to be revealed. The camera pans around and it’s... Buckells?

Ian Buckells.
Ian Buckells.

Detective Superintendent Ian Buckells is one of Line of Duty’s longest running characters, appearing first in Season 1 and then later in Season 4, before returning in Season 6. He’s a bumbling, misogynistic and racist incompetent, a man who treats sex workers as disposable and was implicated in the racist murder of Lawrence Christopher. He’s bossed around and mocked by superior and inferior officers alike. He’s a fool, through and through, and yet, as he admits during his interview “I made mugs of you lot.”

The outrage was instantaneous. Fans, critics, casual watchers and many others took to social media to express a disappointment bordering on rage. What is it that people were reacting so strongly to?

Buckells was disappointing. Even when he finally dropped the act in the interview, there was no Keyser Söze transformation, no Scooby Doo unmasking of the apparently incompetent Detective to reveal an evil mastermind who had matched wits with AC-12 for three seasons and nearly half a decade. Instead, we were presented with a man who was nothing special. As Ted Hastings concluded, Buckells was simply greedy, not to mention lucky enough to work in an institution which let him get away with murder. We might refer to him as a Paper Tiger - a figure who seems intimidating and powerful, but is actually held up by nothing. What allowed him to succeed for so long as “H” was the institutional corruption of the force. The everyday blind-eye turned by police officers to their colleagues' wrongdoing. The blame, ultimately, didn’t lie in a single evil genius, but instead in a system which “Mistook corruption for incompetence.”

People hated it. Let’s not mince words; the ending was almost instantly despised. Why? Well, it was unsatisfying. We have been taught that detective stories end with the good guys catching the bad guys, and all being right with the world. Like knights in shining armour slaying dragons - incidentally both sets of stories take the armed henchmen of the ruling class of the time and put them on pedestals - detective stories are meant to conclude with corruption and evil being just temporary assaults on the status quo of our fundamentally just society.

But what if our society isn’t fundamentally just? What if it is designed to be fundamentally unjust?

People hated the Line of Duty ending because it offered - however tamely - a criticism of our police and our society which goes beyond a few bad apples. It identifies that the blame for institutionalised corruption lies within the whole institution.

What it doesn’t do, however, is examine why the institution of policing is corrupt. Line of Duty’s lukewarm critiques were met with immense backlash, but as any abolitionist will know, they didn’t go anywhere near far enough.

Ted Hastings repeated refrain this season was this: “When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?”. He asks this of his superiors, of his fellow officers, and of the audience. But it’s a strange question, and an incorrect one. The police have never cared about honesty and integrity; there is no mythical golden age that Ted so longs for. Jed Mercurio is at least slightly aware of this - Ted is himself portrayed as an all-to-fallible human, his own misogyny, patronising ableism, and racism as much a part of his characterisation as his outlandish Irish colloquialisms. The other officers of AC-12 aren’t much better, covering up for Ted’s manslaughter of John Corbett. Steve Arnott, in particular, often considered the “main character” of the show, has a recurring tendency to have sex with vulnerable women he encounters during his work, whether witnesses or suspects. In the world of Line of Duty, almost no cop is ultimately blameless, not even those of AC(AB)-(13)12. Despite this, the show still buys into the fundamental premise that the police exist to make people safe, and that their failure to do so is a mistake of the system, not the way it is designed to operate.

In order to not be Copaganda, Line of Duty would have to do more than throw the occasional bone to the real-world institutionalised nature of corruption. It would have to go beyond what critiques are laid out by the inquiries into the Stephen Lawrence murder and those of the Daniel Morgan podcast, Untold. It would have to interrogate the very nature of policing itself, and understand that the violence is not an accident or a symptom of a disease: the violence is the point. The defence of capital is the point. The racism is the point. The police are not corrupt due to improper procedures or a lack of public inquiries, and in fact, the term ‘corruption’ is all wrong, implying as it does that something pure has been sullied. Instead, the truth is that the police were created to be violent, and any corruption that emerges from that is a byproduct of the corruption of capitalism as a whole.

The police in Britain emerged from colonial forces and anti-Irish patrolmen, such as the Peace Preservation Force in 1814. They are founded on racism and colonialism, and are designed to suppress the struggle for liberation and to protect property. In the world of Line of Duty, a copper’s first obligation may be to “protect life” - but in the real world, that’s a fairy tale. We see time and again police officers working with fascists whose ideologies are premised on mass death, and we understand that this is not an aberration, but the entire principle upon which policing functions. Line of Duty criticises police conduct - whether it’s the framing of people with learning disabilities or the shooting of unarmed suspects - but at no point does it stop and reflect on the nature of the laws the police are asked to enforce, and the reasons that they do so. Cops in Line of Duty aren’t the ideological descendants of white supremacist militias empowered to protect both whiteness and property, but instead mostly good people in bad situations, struggling with budget cuts and making terrible mistakes that spiral out of control.

In the final scene of Season 6, Ted Hastings has been forcibly retired by the (still in power) Chief Constable Osborne. He marches into the office of Anna Maxwell-Martin’s brilliantly passive aggressive Patricia Carmichael, and informs her of his own corruption - his manslaughter of John Corbett. He tells her that, with his retirement, it’s her job to “Carry the fire.” And with that, Ted Hastings walks out of the offices of AC-12, and out of the police force.

Jed Mercurio clearly has one thing in mind with this scene - an anti-Boris, anti-Brexit plea which evokes a ‘better’ and simpler liberal era, probably involving the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. But what can we read from it, as revolutionaries? As abolitionists? Well, maybe nothing - we’re not generally in the business of listening to cops. But allow me to be sentimental, for a minute.

Line of Duty is a flawed and contradictory show. A piece of copaganda which tries to pretend it’s not copaganda, and at its best comes closer to succeeding than any other mainstream drama. It’s a show about awful cops trying to catch other, worse, cops, and it’s a show which tries to investigate the sides of the police that are generally ignored - even if, in the end, it actually only increases their recruitment figures.

The injustices explored in Line of Duty are real. The deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes, Christopher Alder, Stephen Lawrence, Daniel Morgan, and many others, are real. AC-12 are not real, and never could be. We know the police will never genuinely investigate themselves; to do so would be to undermine their very reason to be. Who will save us from the police, then, if the police cannot and will not?

We understand that our only liberators will be ourselves and each other.

We understand that the only way to fight back against the corruption in society that is the police, that is capitalism, is via abolition and revolution.

We understand that the future is communist, and that in that future there will be no cops - and no need for an AC-12.

So. Carry the fire. We have a world to win.

Crowd at a demonstration holding a banner that says 'Kill the Bill'.
Crowd at a demonstration holding a banner that says 'Kill the Bill'.