Trial by Television?

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What impact could ‘The Best Little Prison in Britain?’ have on the Island’s image in the UK?

The Isle of Man Prison

It’s the docusoap that the whole Island has been talking about. Understandably there’s a debate about the moral and ethical rights and wrongs of featuring convicted criminals in a ‘docusoap’, and what impact that might have on the victims of their crimes. But there’s also another talking point about what impact the primetime ITV series could have on the Isle of Man’s image in the UK. Richard Allen, from leading Isle of Man communications firm MM&C, gives his view.

Continuing to attract people to visit for business or pleasure, to live and work here, or set up businesses, is important for the Island’s future – so it’s widely accepted that the Isle of Man needs to project a positive image to the UK and the world. In that context, The Best Little Prison in Britain series invites this question: Does it help or harm the Island’s image in the UK, or is it all just a storm in teacup that will have no discernible impact?

The first point to consider is does UK network TV coverage matter now we live in a multimedia world?

Official ITV figures show that 3.9million viewers watched the first episode which represents nearly a quarter – 23.5% – of the UK TV viewing audience at that time. Coincidentally, in the same week that the first episode was broadcast Ofcom published data about 2018 which revealed that, on average, UK viewers watched 26 minutes of streamed content per day, and 192 minutes of terrestrial TV. Yes, it’s true that the figures showed a continuation of the gradual shift in recent years from watching TV to streamed content (and Ofcom’s 2018 stats show that shift continues to move faster in the 16 to 24 age group than for older generations) but it also indicates (along with other data from reliable sources) that the demise of terrestrial TV that’s long been predicted by media experts is some way off. TV still matters when it comes to influencing public opinion.

It’s not easy for the Isle of Man to get primetime coverage on one of the UK’s national terrestrial TV channels. In a typical year we might see the TT on ITV4, perhaps a few features on Countryfile, The One Show, or other magazine-type programmes, and every few years a one-off series such as TT Blues. The Best Little Prison in Britain is, therefore, a relative rarity with six half-hour episodes at peak viewing time on ITV’s main channel. The potential impact it could have on the Isle of Man’s image in the UK is significant.

Let’s face it, it’s not often that you see the Governor of Isle of Man Prison (or any other Isle of Man organisation) on Good Morning Britain, or the Isle of Man as the focus of TV reviews in most of the UK broadsheets and tabloids. Add to that the volume of social media comments by UK viewers, and it becomes more difficult to just casually dismiss the impact this series might have.

OK, it’s highly unlikely that a significant number of those 3.9million viewers are going to make a decision about what they think of the Isle of Man based on one TV show, and I would hope that most viewers realise that prisoners in any country (or Crown Dependency for that matter) anywhere in the world are not representative of the general population. Having said that, snapshots of Isle of Man community life are not featured on national network TV in the UK every week. If they were, then maybe programmes like Best Little Prison wouldn’t matter so much because on balance the total amount of coverage would provide more context about Island life – but, as it stands, I would argue that every minute of UK network air time counts in PR terms, so there is a risk that this series could have an impact on the Island’s image.

A PR match winner, or an own goal?

A publicity shot to promote the series with, nearest the camera,
Isle of Man Prison Governor Bob Malcolm

The fact that the show is inaccurately titled ‘The Best Little Prison in Britain’ has led many UK viewers to think that the Isle of Man is part of the UK. That’s a misconception that the Isle of Man has worked long and hard to correct, so this series isn’t going to help in that regard.

The first three episodes which had been aired at the time of writing included references to the Isle of Man having one of the lowest crime rates, and Isle of Man Prison having one of the lowest reoffending rates compared to anywhere in Europe. Great PR messages that are likely to be received positively by UK viewers where crime rates are generally much higher than here. However, it’s interesting to note that those messages appear to have been lost on many viewers (both on and off-Island), at least judging by the reaction in TV reviews and debate, and social media comments. Comments about the prison being ‘like a holiday camp’ and references to the regime being ‘soft’ on criminals seem to be the most widespread reaction – the point being that many viewers (and critics and commentators in the UK media) appear to have been left with the impression that the Island’s judicial system does not offer a strong deterrent to criminal behaviour, despite repeated references in the show to the Island have low reoffending rates.

The series also appears to exploit the long history of stereotypes in British popular culture based on the premise that island communities are a bit ‘odd’ and ‘behind the times’ when compared to British towns and cities. From films such as Whisky Galore! and The Wicker Man, through to TV shows including Father Ted, The Fast Show (with its ‘We’re from the Isle of Man’ sketches), and AA Gill’s acerbic columns in The Sunday Times about his visits to the Island, it’s been a well-trodden path of decades. Like any other Island looking to promote its image in the UK (and especially as one wanting to strengthen its reputation as a modern, progressive, international business centre) the Isle of Man has to fight against that type of bias. Again, Best Little Prison doesn’t appear to be doing the Isle of Man any favours in that context.

The verdict

The jury is still out on the impact that this series might have on the Island’s current reputation in the UK. Inmates and prison staff who appear in the series are now be labelled by many UK journalists as ‘reality TV stars’ – and that means anything remotely newsworthy which happens to them in the future could produce headlines in the UK media. Time will tell whether those headlines reflect positively or negatively on the prison, the judicial system, and the Island in general. If this is a case of the Isle of Man’s reputation in the UK being the subject of trial by television, the final verdict may not be delivered until a long time after the credits rolled on the last episode.

Richard Allen is Senior Communications Writer at MM&C

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