Laura Barnett-journalist: “This programme bears about as much resemblance to reality as a badger does to a stealth bomber”
First broadcast in 1996, today Silent Witness enjoys a TV audience of over 7 million viewers and claims an increasingly popular reputation as the latest show in the 18th series draws to a close. However, despite its high viewer record, the show has faced criticism over the years for depicting gruesome and harrowing scenes as well as for its failure to convey the work of forensic pathologists accurately.
The programme is focused on the post-mortem process; however, the procedures depicted in this popular crime drama are glamorized and exaggerated. Its iconic name stems from the ability to uncover clues about a murder from the body- which has been rendered “silent” through death. In this way, it is a “witness” to its own murder, as it contains vital clues about what has happened. However, the bright, modern laboratories that Alexander and her team work in surrounded by touch screen computers are a long way away from the hospital mortuaries in which most forensic scientists work, some of which date back to Victorian times.
Ultimately, this programme is centred on entertainment and relies on the shock factor, leading to unrealistic expectations and perceptions of forensic scientists. In contrast to this, the show also depicts realistic and brutal violence and aggression. These themes are an integral and inescapable component of media, something which has a pivotal role in socializing people and providing information. In this way, it could be argued that in normalizing violence we may be disinhibiting aggressive behaviour and innoculating the public against the horrors committed in our society.
This link can be seen in one episode of Silent Witness which was scrapped after the plot was seen to mirror the real-life, shocking Rochdale child sex grooming case. Furthermore, Silent Witness came under criticism in August 2012, after the series 15 episode 'Redhill' was declared to be “too violent”. More recently, the BBC was condemned as 'insensitive' and 'very misguided' for airing an episode of Silent Witness, entitled “Sniper’s Nest”, in which a sniper killed eight people including a police officer on the same day 12 people were shot dead in the Paris terror attack in France.
Ultimately, there is a paradox between unrealistic crime displays which create false impressions of police and forensic workers and over-exaggerated violence which cuts too close to the truth to be deemed “appropriate” or “sensitive”. While violent shows may not necessarily provide role models for criminals, the continual exposure to macabre behaviour can be seen to normalize shocking murders and create a negative outlook on life. In the same way, newspapers continually reporting on negative events can be seen to desensitize people to the atrocities committed around the world. In the end, a balance must be achieved between reality and illusion, in order for people to appreciate the facts about what happens in the world. Shows like Silent Witness are, therefore, valuable in our society, not just for entertainment but to inform, albeit we must be careful not to accept everything we watch as the truth.