BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Opinion | 28 OCT 19
Featured in
Issue 207

Has Boris Johnson Been Watching True-Crime Netflix?

Or, the links between Brexit and suspense television

BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Opinion | 28 OCT 19

‘Brexit is a crime scene,’ whistleblower Christopher Wylie remarked in 2018. Certainly, the debate has unfolded like a police procedural. First, the Leave campaign accused the European Union of criminal behaviour – for either interference (in bureaucratic regulation) or negligence (in hands-on policing of borders). Next, Remainers suggested that the perpetrators were among us, illegally exploiting data and manipulating information. A crime scene, unreliable witnesses, conspiracy theories, accusations back and forth, an absorbed audience struggling to piece together the facts: Brexit takes place as a detective series.

True-crime dramas, as the label suggests, combine documentary and fiction, looking at real offences but through a partly fictive lens. One of the most successful of recent years, The Keepers (2017), is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about elderly citizens investigating the unsolved murder of their erstwhile school teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik. Its trailer is indicative of its register: pixelated imagery of government buildings and monochrome stills of biblical statues – often with flies abuzz – interchange with bombastic title cards: ‘Abuse’, ‘Lies’, ‘Conspiracy’.

The Case Against Adnam Syed, 2019. Courtesy: HBO

More recently, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann (2019) alleged to re-open the old case of a British toddler who went missing on holiday with her family in Portugal. What it ultimately opens up to, it transpires, is not new empirical data or witness testimonies but a series of speculative scenarios, filmed in the style of a suspense thriller, which may or may not have happened. In other programmes, such as The Case Against Adnan Syed (2019), a spin-off from the podcast Serial (2014–ongoing) that popularized the genre, or Making a Murderer (2015–ongoing), the use of fiction is less explicit, but they still rely on the power of formal suggestion as opposed to evidence.

True-crime dramas share certain assumptions: a crime has been committed but hasn’t been conclusively solved; the legal system is unable (or unwilling) to exercise justice; filmmakers have the skills as well as the moral compass to expose the truth; and fiction speaks to reality relatively unproblematically – or at least no more problematically than crime-scene investigation, police interrogation, witness testimonies, science, reason and deduction. True crime, then, ‘discovers’ truth in post-production: selecting, omitting and supplementing events, reordering, reframing and re-enacting them so that they corroborate a pattern, an anomaly or a clue. In effect, it measures the actual world through a fictional one.

Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, 2019. Courtesy: Netflix

Certainly, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and their cronies are masters of this genre. Just think of the Leave campaign’s very premise: the UK has been exploited by the EU; the status quo is in on it. Invested parties, proudly without expertise, promise to right the wrong. There isn’t a plan but there is a story. And there is no reason to believe that story doesn’t have a happy ending (although all evidence suggests otherwise). Throughout, the players have performed the roles of amateur detectives impeccably: plainspoken but with a wink; unpredictable but with the pretence of authority.

Politics has always relied on narrative. It’s the party or person with the most persuasive story that wins. Once upon a time, those stories were long and complex. Today, they tend to resemble an angry soundbite or an inarticulate tweet. Like the now-emblematic, Leave-campaign advert emblazoned on the side of a double-decker bus – which falsely promised to divert Britain’s GB£350 million weekly EU contribution to the NHS – these statements do not need to be grounded in reality.

The Case Against Adnam Syed, 2019. Courtesy: HBO 

Brexiteers have learned this lesson from true crime: because fictional worlds are epistemically inaccessible, they are ontologically inconclusive. Fiction always contains moments of indeterminacy, as literary theorists term it: things that are assumed to be unknowable (such as how many hairs a villain in a Sherlock Holmes novel has). Making a Murderer regularly sets up storylines without resolving them, using cinematographic devices of suspense: zooming in and out to suggest revelation; racking focus to imply something or someone is exposed.

As negotiations for the UK’s departure from the EU approach their final stage, the subject matter is still up for debate: it is a crime scene in which the body remains to be found. Just as no one has been taken to court for the killing of Sister Cathy, or imprisoned for the abduction of Madeleine McCann, everyone is judged – and made to look suspicious – in the process.

Making a Murderer, 2015. Courtesy: Netflix 

The leaders of the Leave campaign successfully generated mistrust of the EU amongst their supporters, not by making any actual revelations but by merely hinting at possible revelations – by creating an aura of suspense. This infinitely extendible and expandable moment of uncertainty can accommodate every possible solution until proven invalid. Brexiteers see clues everywhere, but for crimes that are as-yet undecided. We should be more concerned with how this sensibility establishes its own truths than with pointing out, time and again, what is fake according to us, here and now. We need to learn the rules of these new fictional worlds: it is there that the answers can be found. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 207 with the headline ‘The English Channel’

Main image: The Keepers, 2017. Courtesy: Netflix 

Timotheus Vermeulen is professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo.