Charlie Brooker’s excellent television series Black Mirror continued last Monday night with an episode that made exponentially more sense wen watching a second and third time. Furthermore, it is an episode that will resonate well with critical criminologists looking at public attitudes toward crime and punishment – hence why a blog post that wouldn’t look out of place as a television review is appearing on this site.
“White Bear” was the title of this latest episode, which follows a day in the life of Victoria Skillane. Skillane wakes up in a dark unfamiliar house on a chair facing the television. When she opens the curtains and ventures downstairs, she looks out of the windows and sees several people filming her on mobile phones. She then exits the rear of the house and sees more people doing the same from neighbouring houses.
“Can you help me? Do you know who I am? I can’t remember who I am” she eerily says to these people, who simply carry on filming. She is then drawn to the front of the property by the flash from a child’s camera, where a car pulls up and a stranger wearing a balaclava emerges, gets a gun from the boot, and chases Skillane on foot in an apparent attempt to kill her. People from nearby houses flock to roadside to record the chase, again on mobile phones, as Skillane begs for her life. When she reaches a nearby petrol station, she meets a man and a woman (who remain nameless for the remainder of the programme) who are seemingly the only people not under “the signal” (transmitted through television sets). Skillane and the woman manage to escape from the petrol station before the male is fatally injured by the anonymous shooter.
The female pair are then picked up by somebody seeming to help them and taken to woodland for protection. This man then turns and threatens them with a gun. When the nameless woman escapes once again, Skillane is psychologically tortured by being shown dead bodies hanging from trees, being threatened with a shotgun, and then tied to a tree. When the man attempts to tie her to a tree with drill in back, the other female returns and shoots the man dead. The pair then flee once again, this time to an abandoned building where the signal’s ‘transmitter tower’ is. When the pair try to turn off the signal, the room becomes overtaken with ‘hunters’. However, after a short fight scene, the wall opens up and the space becomes a theatre – with the host being the previous male that tortured Skillane in the woods.
Skillane is subsequently bolted to a chair and forced to watch news footage of crimes that she has apparently committed. The crime involved her, along with her fiancé Ian Rannoch, abducting a young girl. Skillane then recorded Rannoch abusing the girl and then burning her dead body in woodland. Boos and shouts of “murderer” erupt from the crowd. “HOW DO YOU LIKE IT?!” they scream.
Skillane is then led out of the theatre, placed inside a transparent transit van, and parade through the streets for onlookers to hurl abuse and items towards her. “Shout and scream and let that bitch know you are out here” is the instruction given by the ringleader of this crafty operation.
Eventually, the van reaches the original house, where Skillane’s memory is painfully erased, ready for the next day at “White Bear Justice Park”.
So what can we draw from this story?
Charlie Brooker’s television always takes a darker, cynical view of what the future could potentially be like as technology advances. Despite being set in the modern day and utilising seemingly realistic technology, but is ultimately just fantasy. However, Brooker’s dystopian view of the future of criminal punishment has an uncomfortable feeling about it – that it could come to fruition in the (not so distant) future.
As a society we are increasingly obsessed with the idea of retribution and ‘seeking justice’ for victims. It was my fear when watching Black Mirror last week that there would be some viewers thinking “actually, that’s not such a bad idea”. These fears were realised when a couple of days later I heard some people advocating a system of punishment that they had “seen on the telly the other night” (referring to the system described above). These claims were justified with claims of commercialisation of justice – with members of the public paying to “see justice being done”, therefore funding these Justice Parks.
However, I saw certain parallels between the dark world created by Brooker and the reality of modern-day public thought about justice. Justice is becoming more accessible through widespread social-media sharing of court judgements and the televising of proceedings. In addition, there seems to be a hunger for literally seeing justice being done. This is evidenced by the sheer number of people who have flocked to video-site YouTube to watch the execution video of Sadaam Hussein (former Iraqi dictator) – currently around 15,000,000 if you combined the views on the first page of videos.
Furthermore, the way in which Skillane was paraded in front of a baying crowd has numerous parallels with contemporary incidents of angry mobs outside court rooms, with particularly high-profile cases being from the trials of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables (children convicted of the murder of toddler James Bulger), right through to just last year at a pre-trial hearing of Mark Bridger(currently on remand accused of the abduction and murder of missing youngster April Jones.
For me, the White Bear episode of Black Mirror was a particularly illuminating view of modern-day thinking about how we punish those who have committed particularly heinous crimes. To provide just two quotes from the show:
Spectators that don’t give a shit about stuff
They [the public] were always like that [baying for blood and retribution in relation to violent crimes] … they just needed the laws to change [around the torture of offenders]
Not only is it illuminating, but it is a warning. This warning is for both the public, and lawmakers, about the dangers of allowing the current trend of punitivism to continue. We need to promote a strengths-based, desistance-facilitating approach to criminal justice as opposed to the pattern of mass imprisonment and continual reoffending that we are currently faced with. Doing so is good for justice, reduces reoffending, creates less victims, and is of lower cost for the taxpayer.
To view the programme (recommended), click here.
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Join in the debate! Comment below, or find me on: