Media and Drug Policy in the UK: New research from the People and Dancefloors project

In this latest research article, published in the Journal of Alternative and Community Media, we contextualise the People and Dancefloors film within a wider landscape of productive and representative practices in the UK, focusing specifically on the BBC’s Drugs Map of Britain series.

As followers of People and Dancefloors will know, we have always sought to engage the media in practical and critical ways. At the start of the project, we produced a film in an attempt to use the short documentary format as a way of pointing out the hypocrisies of “the media” when it comes to their discussion of drugs and drug users.

Our aim with this article was to deepen that critical engagement by foregrounding the relationship between media representation of drug users and UK drugs policy. We argue that base and simplistic representations of drug users in the media effect the formation of dangerously arbitrary and unscientific drug laws and classification systems. These laws and systems tend towards increased criminalisation. They are more concerned with punishing the public than they are with protecting them from any harms that might be caused by drugs. As David Nutt notes “in both the US and the UK drugs have always been useful political tools to give the voters an impression that the government is making their lives safer whereas in fact it is doing exactly the opposite”.    

Indeed, many experts in the field have demonstrated that punitive measures only serve to exacerbate public harm. Readers will remember the stupid policies of the UK’s former home secretary, Priti Patel, whose most famous gesture was to accompany the police on a drug raid at a house in Surrey looking like a cross between Nurse Ratchet and Dog the Bounty Hunter. Despite the political efficacy of such publicity stunts, and their attempts to hide the lack of any interesting or useful policies, they do not contribute to a decline in deaths caused by drugs. In fact, recent figures show that in 2021 such deaths have continued to increase.

Concurrently (and as we demonstrate in the article) programmes such as the Drugs Map of Britain series continue drawing on old tropes of working-class criminality and degeneration as staple features of their representative practices. Here again our article draws on a range of books and journal articles that examine the ways in which media texts construct implicit and explicit links between drug-use, the working-class and social malaise.

As we write in the article, “the result is a link between drug policy and media representation that is characterized by ‘moral panic’, public outrage and knee-jerk governmental responses that are resistant to scientific evidence and the testimony of drug users. Insofar as media representations are echoed in government discourse a link is established that stymies the development of sensible drug policies”.

Patel’s Dog the Bounty Hunter episode, concurrent as it is with an increase in drug related deaths, adequately serves to demonstrate this link. And while many studies have been carried out on the representation of drugs and drug users, in its second half our article attempts to move away from this textual approach in order to focus on the kinds of productive practices that might serve to undermine this link through more sensitive and experientially derived representations. Using the People and Dancefloors film as an example, we wanted to think about the kinds of things filmmakers could do in order to negotiate these issues in a sensible way.

As we argue, however, this is not a question of merely allowing drug-users to “speak”. The Drugs Map of Britain series often does this, yet manages to frame this speech in ways that dismiss harm reduction and advance the same old punitive discourse. To quote our article again, “where the BBC film simultaneously presents and dismisses harm reduction through its mode of representation, People and Dancefloors presents a harm reduction discourse that is derived from lived experiences that are framed by social positions. In this way, it can be seen as an example of film as a ‘radical pedagogical tool’”.

This term was coined by Deirdre O’Neill in her book on how working-class people can use film production practices to think about and express different aspects of their lived, material reality. In this article we try to do the same thing with drug users – to think about how film production can be used to render the experience of being a drug user, beyond the one-dimensional “realities” that constrict dominant media representations.

As usual, feel free to read, share, and offer constructive feedback/criticism of the article, which you can find here: https://doi.org/10.1386/jacm_00106_1

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