There’s an article about the Shannon Matthews trial on the Guardian website which I think makes for very interesting reading, and though it’s quite lengthy, I urge you to have a look at it. Go on, I’ll wait here…

It triggered two thoughts in my mind, the first of which is that it’s perhaps revealing that the liberal Guardian should effectively be implying that the existence of a ‘state support framework’ can lead to some people becoming so reliant on it that they effectively become shielded from taking responsibility for their own actions. I can understand this, though – in a perhaps silly comparison, I think you can see this in any workplace or shared home, where some people don’t wash up their mugs or whatever because they’re so used to someone else tutting and doing it for them; on a wider level, I’m sure that there are people for whom more than mere crockery is involved, and who make a certain number of major decisions about their life – or don’t make the decisions at all – on the basis that someone will probably be there to catch them if they fall. Not so much a Nanny State as a substitute Mummy state in some cases, I fear. Anyway, that’s the social aspect of my thinking on it.

The other thought that it stirred was related to the effects of the media, and more particularly of the responsibilities of those involved, especially writers. The sentence in the article which triggered this was

“Her body language was borrowed from the daytime talk shows she rarely missed. She carried herself in court just as she would have done had she been on Jeremy Kyle’s stage with a caption underneath her reading ‘FIVE MEN LEFT ME WITH THEIR KIDS’.”

Now, I don’t know if this is entirely accurate in the case in question – it’s more editorialising than reportage – though I think lurking behind it is a notion which has occurred to me more than once; the idea that programmes such as The Jeremy Kyle Show, by their presentation of the sensational as everyday, can give the impression that they’re telling the viewer that “this is the way the world is”.

If you watched shows like this all day (and even with the limited number of TV channels I have access to, it seems pretty possible to do so, with all the Trishas and Jezzas and Montels and Rickis and Sally Jesses circulating on the schedules), you could easily get the idea that the best way to deal with disagreement is to shout at each other, and that the world is awash with self-serving folks whose only ambition is to obtain money and fame and have as much sex with as many people as possible without any concern for the consequences (anyway, if there’s a kid involved, then you can always have a DNA Test special to drag their ‘deadbeat dad’ into the spotlight).

There are quite a few people in the world who are like this, sure, but I’d like to think they’re not in the majority – but the prevalence of them on TV could easily lead to the impression that this is how ‘everyone else behaves’. And if everyone else is just going to try to screw you over (in whatever sense), what’s the point in you trying to be honest, or loyal, or whatever? “If you can’t beat ’em”, and all that.

I’m simplifying, sure, but I think there is a bleed between items portrayed in the media and reality; not only within the news and factual programmes where you can see items become very important very quickly only to drop off the agenda with equally startling speed (remember how SARS was going to kill everyone?), but also in fictional programmes and films. On this side of the screen and in the streets, it’s not tricky to spot people wearing Matrix-style coats, and large numbers of people appear to believe that they’re in a music video at any given time, and indeed I think this relates to the way people interact as well – soap operas all too often portray arguing and shouting and throwing things as the only way to resolve disagreements, and fidelity as an option, and so on, and I do wonder how often people look at these portrayals of the world and this yes, that’s how the world is.

I’m not saying that TV programmes shouldn’t present the world in this way – firstly, I wouldn’t presume to say what should and shouldn’t be done, and secondly I’m well aware that most of these elements are inserted into storylines to create conflict and drama (though the two should not be seen, as all too often seems to be the case, as being synonymous) – but I do wonder if this created world of never-ending conflict and rowing both presents an overly negative depiction of an ostensibly real world, and also means that dramas are constantly needing to up the ante to make things seem ever more dramatic; EastEnders famously had a huge ratings success with the Den-Angie marriage breakup story, which consisted of human-level actions (rows, presentation of divorce papers) played out in fiery language and with the occasional ‘dramatic’ scene (Angie’s attempted suicide), but now the major storylines tend to involve more visibly dramatic events such as murder (Emmerdale’s Tom King storyline, which I think is still unresolved after over a year), a man sleeping with his son’s wife and being buried alive by his wife by way of revenge (EastEnders), and a character being mown down by a driver hired by a jealous love rival (Coronation Street).

It’s fairly easy to poke fun at the glossy US soaps of the 1980s such as Dynasty, which had season cliffhangers featuring a wedding where terrorists broke in and shot (apparently) everyone, or where an alien spacecraft abducted one of the cast (okay, that was in the spin-off, but you know what I mean), and even to mock more recent soaps such as Passions or Night And Day for being ‘unrealistic’ and straying into the realms of the un-tetheredly fictional, but I think that you don’t have to look at the more extreme cases before you can argue that the storylines in current ‘reality-based’ drama could be more in line with the lives people actually lead.

If – as often seems to be the case in soaps or ‘continuing drama’ – you want to tell a serious story which actually informs the viewer about (to take recentish examples) being the parent of a child with Down’s Syndrome, or dealing with being HIV-Positive, then that’s going to be all the more powerful if it takes place in a locale that has some resonance with the viewer.

Last night’s episode of EastEnders focussed on their storyline about child molestation within a family unit, and whilst I think it was really quite well-written (with the exception of one line about being ‘used and abused’, which troubled me as I couldn’t decide if it was in-character cliché for Bianca or just too ‘on the nose’), I feel it’s more plausible if this sort of storyline doesn’t take place in a street where people bury their spouses alive or every third character has ties to the London Gangland (who, on the basis of recent episodes of Emmerdale, are opening branches – or at least nightclubs – around the country).

I’m not pretending to have any kind of well-formed solution to offer here, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be prescriptive about what can and can’t be put into fiction or media (other than to say “anything and everything”), and I’m sure I’m not saying anything new, but the above notions are currently churning round my mind like socks in a tumble dryer; I guess I’m perhaps driving vaguely towards the idea that writers may have ‘reponsibilities to the audience’ in some way, or perhaps that it’s simply important for stories to have a certain consistency of theme and tone, but as I seem to have lost myself rather in the tangle of these notions, in lieu of some neat conclusion, I’ll instead ask: what do you think?