On ‘Midsomer Murders’ and the scuppering of public health initiatives

I was amused to read a pice in The Independent yesterday relating to this article in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. A group of researchers in Edinburgh, concerned about the unrealistic depiction of murder in television drama, have compared the frequency and method of murders and the characteristics of the perpetrators in all episodes of MM from 1997-2011 (as I shall henceforth refer to it) with data relating to real murders in Lothian & Borders from 2006-11. Here, then, is my summary:

(A caveat: I love MM and, to be honest, this blog post is a bit self-indulgent.)

A very robust methodology, involving watching around 80 episodes of MM in order to ascertain the characteristics o the act, the murderer and the victim was employed. In MM, there were 217 murders, carried out by 105 people. In Lothian, 55 murderers carried out 53 murders. In Lothian, 89% of murderers were male, significantly higher than the 57% who were male in MM. In MM murderers were much more likely to be white British (hardly surprising, given the demographics of the cast – until 2012, it was almost entirely white, and only in the last eighteen months or so have the murderers hailed from outside this green and pleasant land) and there was much less evidence of mental disorder (11% compared to 47% in the (Lothian sample). Victims of murder in Lothian were also significantly younger than in MM (35 vs 52). 

So. How do the means of murder stack up against each other? In Lothian, 58% of people are killed using a kitchen knife. in MM, that drops to 5%. It seems that the residents of Midsomer much prefer more inventive methods, including poisoning, drowning, fire and the classic ‘blunt instrument’.

So what do the authors conclude? Well, they seem genuinely worried about the impact of crime dramas on the public perception of risk. Most people, it seems, are murdered using kitchen knives, but you wouldn’t get that impression if you were to watch MM. perhaps that means that viewers will not understand the reality of the prospect of murder and that they may not take adequate precautions, such as storing knives securely.

I always like research which references popular culture, but I confess to being a bit puzzled by this. To my mind, public perceptions of violence are more likely to be coloured by televised and print news, which is often very good at scaremongering. Despite being an MM devotee, I can’t say I have ever found myself actively considering whether I would be drowned in a barrel of whisky or unsuspectingly ingest ground glass, or, indeed, find strychnine in a biscuit tin. Part of the reason I like MM is that it requires little thought and is essentially, light relief, although probably not quite as light as Morecambe & Wise (or whatever the 21st century equivalent might be). And MM is hardly unusual in its choice of bizarre murder methods. All the great detectives spend most of their time solving planned murders – Poirot, Holmes, Columbo; even Jonathan Creek. They all involve a degree of ingenuity (as the authors of tis study quite rightly say, who wants to watch a stabbing with a kitchen knife every episode for all eternity?) and showmanship. But they are fiction, and the whole point of fiction is that it is decidedly not real life. So whilst I understand the authors’ concerns, I confess that I do not entirely share them, and that I shall continue to enjoy MM, and Poirot, and Holmes (but, I hasten to add, not Columbo) entirely unhindered.

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