Crime: Are We Tough Enough? Episode 1

A five-part series for the BBC presented by Chris Daw QC and Ayesha Nayyar (aired January 2020)

Reviewed by Aadhithya Anbahan


Are we tough enough on crime? It’s a question that, indirectly or directly, society has been increasingly grappling with over recent years. From attention-grabbing headlines on some horrendous offender or other released early, to the constant reminder that our prisons are overcrowded and that institutionalising young people simply does not work, we, as a society, are stuck in a seemingly irresolvable Catch 22 in relation to our own criminal justice system.

It is this very proposition that Chris Daw QC and Ayesha Nayyar set out to tackle in the most recent television offering from the BBC that analyses our approach to crime and punishment. The finale of the five-part series will involve a jury who, having been presented with various arguments in favour and against being tougher on crime, will proffer a verdict.

I was distinctly weary when I heard of yet another dramatised view of the court system that would likely demonstrate minimal relevance to the real situation at hand. However, the adversarial approach of the series, reflective of the trial process itself, makes for refreshing viewing.

The greatest strength of this show, in my opinion, is that it places the public as a jury of sorts, in tandem with the finale jury. The presenters are both experienced criminal practitioners in their own right and, from the very start, clearly seek to persuade the audience of their points of view; neither sit in limbo on that awful proverbial fence.

Nor do they hold their punches when going to battle. ‘She [Ms Nayyar] fundamentally misunderstands how the courts actually work,’ Chris states in his opening argument to the audience. Harsh, but so is this entire discussion. This is not an easy, palatable societal custom that they are out to dissect; the subject matter and wider implications are uncomfortable. Crimes are weighed against another in consideration of whether unfettered imprisonment is the necessary price to pay for causing another’s suffering.

The show challenges its audience to contemplate what type of society they want to build for the future. One that values justice? Or mercy? These are hard questions and the presenters and interviewees are robust in their pursuit of some resolution (and do not shy away from putting noses out of joint).

Does this show fall culprit to the foibles common to many of its predecessors? Although a wide range of individuals were interviewed, which is impressive for a first episode, I’d say they tended to represent the extremes of the system and were not always pertinent to the titular question.

The audience’s heartstrings were well and truly tugged when the case for being tougher on crime opens with the account of a victim of an acid attack in a domestic violence context. It is difficult for anyone to distance themselves from this young woman’s plight as the victim of her ex-partner’s heinous act of violence. The trial, understandably, was a difficult experience for her; she was ‘tripped up’ and seemingly accused of being a liar. Is the argument presented here anything more than a successful lean on the audience’s compassion? If trials were not conducted robustly by the defence, then the very foundation of our justice system, that one is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ falls at the wayside. Chris’ rebuttal to this emotional opening lasts fewer than 30 seconds and is swallowed up within a necessary, but somewhat dry, narrative regarding the layout of a crown court.

Whilst an informed, open-minded viewer might query what relevance the robust cross-examination of a witness, imperative for any just trial, has on the question of whether we should be tougher on convicted criminals, I fear that, for many, such stories continue to sensationalise and encourage the deeply concerning attitude of trial by media.

I hope that the successful ‘thrust and spar’ aspect of the show, with each side represented by a worthy champion, will absolve the effect of leaving audiences with a sense of moral discomfort if they favour one perspective over the other. I’m not satisfied that this is totally achieved by the close of Episode 1, but stay hopeful for future episodes.

Overall, this show hits just the right balance between information and analysis. As most programmes of this type, it can veer towards emotive narratives to dramatise the state of our society and the criminal justice system. Whilst I’m not necessarily the target audience, I would prefer to watch a straight televised discourse on this. Yet, for practitioners, it pulls together a number of strands of the debates that most of us will have had around dinner tables and robing rooms. For that very reason, I shall be watching on with great interest in the eventual ‘verdict’.

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Aadhithya Anbahan

Aadhithya Anbahan has a housing and regulatory practice at St Ives Chambers appearing in the High Court, circuit courts, district courts and magistrates’ courts.