Popularized and criticized, popularized and criticized: the media has always been at the center of the Metropolitan’s Police image. As the growth of London was matched by an increase in crime, media hysteria ensued, as publishers identified a sordid interest from the British public for crime stories. Victorian society was also obsessed with self-progress, thus punishment (particularly penal punishment) was viewed as vital for controlling society.
In 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel passed the Metropolitan Police Act after three previous Parliamentary Committee investigations. Focusing on London, the 1,000 appointed members of the force were divided amongst different regions of the society. The role of the force was to prevent rather than detect crime (a separate detective group was formed later in 1842). It was important for Peel’s vision that the force identified with the mass public: thus they were appointed predominantly from the lower social classes and were not highly paid.
One of the original members of the Detective branch, Jonathan Whicher, assisted in one of the most famous murder cases of the Victorian era: Road Hill in 1860. The setting had all the components of a compelling murder mystery. A locked-up house, a child victim and, in Whicher’s mind, a solid clue: the bloody nightgown belonging to his lead suspect, the step-sister to the victim, Constance Kent.
Yet this importance clue was never found and Whicher’s reputation suffered as a result. The case remained unsolved and the force was greatly criticized for not explaining a seemingly straight forward case quickly enough by local magistrates, who suspected the nursemaid anyway. However, Whicher’s reputation was redeemed five years later, after Kent admitted to the murder and was sentenced for thirty years penal imprisonment. The case, though, is an example of police authority being undermined by a higher social class, as well as damaging attitudes towards the lower classes.
The most notorious unsolved murder mystery: Jack the Ripper cannot go without a mention. Spanning three years, the Ripper has been linked to 11 murders. The lengthy inquiries and the Ripper’s teasing notes meant that the press greatly speculated over the identity of the murderer. Eventually, though, press hysteria calmed down after many aborted arrests, and the public were sympathetic: the case was seen as too complex for the force.
The World Wars saw a popularization of the police force, as their knowledge of weaponry and martial skill were needed on the home front, and in controlling black market activity. However such popularity was not to last long beyond the Second World War. Riots in the 1970’s and 1980’s caused anger at the police, while accusations of racial discrimination in an 1981 report by Lord Scarman and unfair treatment of rioters also contributed to the decline in public support for the police.
More recently, the force has been criticised for their treatment of protestors in the 2011 Anti-Cuts Riots. Social sites and mass texting undermined efforts by the police to keep control and led to the prolonged riots. Apart from Peel’s aims of a relatable police force, the media had controlled the portrayal of the force. Now they are the villains but could easily soon be the public’s saviors again, protecting society from the dangers popularised (rather ironically) by newspapers and televisions.
Nowhere has this been seen more than in the ‘Plebgate’ scandal earlier this year. Three police officers were accused of giving false accounts of an encounter with MP Andrew Mitchell’s in which the politician was accused of calling the police ‘plebs’. Senior members of the police force have apologized for the officers’ communication with the press and have recently claimed to be encouraging the officers to do the same.
This incident upset much of the public: the officers have manipulated the public’s anger on politicians yet were deceitful in doing so. Although the entire force cannot be treated in the same manner, it is intriguing that one sector’s image can differ so much. Instead of a rational and linear line of progression of image like that seen with the role of teachers and nurses, the image of the police force has long been dictated instead by the media.