Fans of the “greatest TV series of all time” (© just about everybody) will know that surveillance is the glue that holds together an urban palimpsest travelling across, down and through the mean and the murky streets of Baltimore. Created by David Simon, The Wire charts the labyrinthine interconnections of “place”, drugs, prostitution, police, politics, media, and money.
The Wire depicts Baltimore life from the bottom to the top; the street corner where the drugs are sold to the Masters of the Universe donor-parties for Senators and their flunkies. Sound familiar and decidedly non-fiction? It feels it. Re-watching series three of The Wire this week, courtesy of BBC2 and Sky Plus, I’ve also been struck by how much it echoes London now. And how many seeming parallels there are with the News of the World phone-hacking claims.
The Wire’s best moments of surveillance occur when a pay-phone, or bleeper, and then, later, pay-to-go mobile phones, are hacked. For the small surveillance team run by Cedric Daniels these are the key moments of progress in their story – and mission as “police”. The team tries to work up from the information they glean from the phone hacks – towards the street bosses, Barksdale or “Stringer” Bell – by connecting one drug drop, or one murder, to the person above. Meanwhile the “Street” is moving into property, laundering, and cleaning up, and is always ahead of "the Game". The “product” on the street corner is the fuel but very quickly not the endgame. Think along the lines of a NOTW newspaper front cover to the SKY Arts HD channel showing, say, Parsifal live from La Scala.
So who are the street players in all this NOTW version of The Wire: we the consumers who want pure celebrity/political hits. We’re supplied on the street corners (and online) by the news sources who are reliant on the hacks and their “agents” and don’t (as long as we don’t know) care how we get our score. We become addicted (we get “Heat”) and soon enough demand outreaches supply. But there’s always more product, as long as someone can hack the mobile – or be given the CD – and of course some of the people whose phones are hacked are not totally immune to a hit of celebrity revelation themselves. The beat goes on and on: however often Jimmy McNulty, or Nick Davies, make a breakthrough there is the inevitable two steps back. Too many interests are at stake. And Premier League contracts. Or re-election campaigns.
And higher up the Jobian ladder beyond even The Wire’s Barksdale or “Stringer” Bell – or indeed – with the NOTW story, Andy Coulson, lurk even bigger figures; big enough and hard enough to reach, who might recall in the older of us another Colson (sic) – “Chuck”, special council to President Richard Nixon, and commonly named as one of “Watergate Seven” – a group involved, as I remember, in Wire tapping themselves. History: first as tragedy, then farce, and now a digital dance of revelation and newspaper wars and political cowardice. But this time it is a circular dance, and with no end until the file-shared music stops.
In fact a late night dose of Newsnight, followed by The Wire and topped off with a TCM rerun of All the President’s Men shows us how far we’ve come since 1972-4. The new Woodward and Bernstein edits celebrity news; the politicians hire ex-NOTW editors for their streetworthiness; and everyone wishes it was all like the West Wing. Instead we’re all hustling the street for news of – what? – Nigella Lawson’s texting skills? Elle McPherson’s views on the Economy? John Prescott’s latest DIY initiative?
And we worry about ID cards?
Modern media-political life, despite our need for West Wing simplicities, is surveillance-driven shallow and intrusion-thick heavy: it’s really like The Wire: bleak, Dickensian, filled with quick-fit sex, and very few happy endings. Except that few of us want to save it on Sky Plus to view at our leisure: it feels too rank.