How many women detectives are there in the police force?

Evidence from British television would seem to indicate that they have at least achieved parity in the upper ranks, and that one in three bobbies is now accustomed to reporting to ‘Mum’ (as ‘Gov’ has increasingly become). Laddish ladies with attitude would appear to be solving crimes with the aid of female intuition up and down the land, and at a rate of knots.

But not so. You have only to visit the relevant Home Office website and Mr Blunkett will set you right. Only 17% of police officers are female, and that percentage drops to six or seven in senior ranks. There are proportionally fewer women in the police forces of England and Wales than women priests in the Church of England; and about the same proportion of women Assistant Chief Constables as there are female Archdeacons.

Why then, you will be asking, this disproportion on our screens? There are, it seems, two related answers.

The first is that screen writers have understandably become tired of the narrow formulae which govern detective fiction. Not everyone can be a Colin Dexter or a Ruth Rendell. The run-of-the-mill practitioners need a gimmick to liven up the proceedings, and a woman policeperson with a chip on her shoulder, striking a blow for the sisterhood, is an off-the-shelf stereotype with which to liven up the proceedings. Hence also the rash of female pathologists – manicured hands in rubber gloves handling the softer parts of the victim’s anatomy: how very daring!

(The vogue for women pathologists, bye-the bye, owes a good deal to the success of Patricia Cornwell and her Kay Scarpeta stories. Scarpeta’s niece, you will no doubt recall, is a lesbian. But that is another plot entirely.)

There is also a more sinister explanation. The British media are dominated, swamped one might almost say, with left-leaning bien-pensants for whom this sort of distortion is part of a conscious agenda. They portray the world, not as it is but as they think it ought to be. The results are sometimes merely comic – have you noticed how frequently the football results are announced by well-groomed ladies? Sometimes they more manipulative. Tiny and unrepresentative pressure groups are routinely given equal status with established authorities. Social trends are exaggerated or even invented.

Of course it has always been so. When the chattering classes shared the stiff upper lip mentality, BBC wireless announcers wore dinner jackets and sported top draw accents. Now that ‘openness’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’ are the buzz words, regional accents are the order of the day and Parkinson looks hopelessly formal in his lounge suit and noisy tie. There are almost as many Scottish accents on the box as in the Government.

We should be wary. Many are now prepared to admit the dangers of media violence and the effects it may have on society at large. But what of more subliminal influences? What when televisual role-models for girls sideline motherhood as a vocation, suggesting at the same time that boys are congenital idiots, with minds on nothing but sex and booze? And what of a series, like Queer as folk, which glamorizes a lifestyle beset with dangers?

We cannot expect literature and drama merely to reflect life: they exist to illuminate it and so to shape it. But we need to be sure that television is doing so responsibly and with proper artistic integrity. The average soap opera (where the words ‘artistic’ and ‘integrity’ scarcely apply) has a lot to answer for. Its urban or sub-urban world of marital infidelity and sexual licence may be ‘true’ (in a narrow, literal sense). But is it either good or beautiful? It is the underlying ethic of a play or programme which establishes its worth. And in that area (as those who have complained about The Passion of the Christ in terms of its gratuitous violence and tendency to incite anti-Semitism have shown) it is easy to mistake the wood for the trees.

Paradoxically it is not ‘ghastly good taste’ (in John Betjeman’s memorable phrase) that we need, but media which treat us to a varied diet of the politically incorrect. If some crimes are to be solved by a dizzy duo of single women who fancy their boss rotten, let others be solved by Jack Frost on a high cholesterol diet and with a healthy dislike of ‘community policing’.

It is not, however, in romans policiers (however dominant they are becoming in programme scheduling) but in attitudes to religion that we see most clearly the mindset of the media moguls. Multi-culturalism in the media has shown itself chiefly in the form of antipathy to Christianity, which in its orthodox forms has been virtually banished from the screen. Recent treatments both of Jesus and the Virgin Mary have owed more to obscure Gnostic texts than to the gospels.

But for Christians there has been a delicious irony: the dilemma of the politically correct in their treatment of Islam.

‘Cultural diversity’, the Holy Grail of the modern institutional liberal, is proving its own worst enemy. Every suicide bomb and every terrorist atrocity is (amongst other things) a protest against inclusion in the Liberal Cabinet of Ethnological Curiosities, where Enlightenment gurus place all religions. Islam, as always, is quite literally fighting back. So adjustments have rapidly been made.

The followers of the prophet (intrinsically war-like, rigidly fundamentalist and oppressive to women) ought logically to come in for serious flack on the same grounds (the Crusades, faithful adherence to biblical teaching, and the refusal to ordain women) as Christians. But not so. ‘Fundamentalist’ – the WMD of the liberal vocabulary – has been adjusted, in an Islamic context, to mean ‘terrorist’. (It was, after all, always a term of purposeful inaccuracy and indiscriminate abuse). Meanwhile ‘reasonable’ Muslims have been given airspace to assure us that the Koran is a manual of women’s rights, and jihad has no place in a thoroughly modern Mohammedanism. One suspects that Ann Atkins is more to the taste of the average British Muslim than the smooth Cambridge academic who appears on the Today programme; but no matter.

I will believe all this when there are as many women detectives on the force as on the tele, and the stands at Villa Park or Elland Road are awash with the sort of ladies who announce the results on the Ten o’clock News

Until then…

Geoffrey Kirk watches detective stories in South East London.