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Advance knowledge

09 May 2014

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EXPOSÉ is a crucial element of TV journalism, employing the immediacy of visual image to confront us with uncomfortable truths about our society, our world, and ourselves - and shock us into doing something about it. It is one of the justifications of the medium as a serious player in public life. Behind Closed Doors: Elderly care exposed (BBC1, Wednesday of last week) was a classic example of the genre, using undercover reporting to demonstrate how badly elderly people are treated in some so-called care homes.

It made distressing viewing: a woman crying out for several hours for a nurse to help her to the lavatory, then being told off for being incapable of walking there herself; the clandestine unplugging of "difficult" residents' emergency bells; the unrecorded bruising on arms and legs. All these are deeply shocking. But, once the immediate trauma of the programme wears off, serious questions arise.

It received such saturation trailing in advance as to give me an uncomfortable sense of the Corporation's self-satisfaction at its hard-hitting radicalism, after which the film itself had an air of anti-climax. And the focus on the patients' ill-treatment, and the distress of the relatives in having their own worst suspicions justified, is a relatively soft target.

The programme suggested different, harder lines of enquiry: why are some care-workers so inadequate - is it lack of training, or physical exhaustion because they have too few colleagues, or an inherent lack of compassion which means they should never have been employed in the first place?

How much profit are the owners of our 17,300 care homes making? Why does statutory inspection still overlook the shocking abuse of vulnerable people? Why are owners allowed to bully and dismiss staff members who complain about the unacceptable treatment of residents? These subjects would push far harder for reform and real change.

The north is a gritty place, its tough windswept beauty presenting both a contrast and an echo to the violence and crime that is entirely endemic to the region - according, that is, to two new drama series launched last week. BBC1's Happy Valley (Tuesdays), and ITV's Prey (Mondays) give us an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast: both are brilliantly acted, both are entirely compelling, and both are beautifully directed and composed. Happy Valley has space for comedy in the cop-heroine's battle against her community's saturation with drugs, and the ineptitude of the downtrodden accountant who sets its brutal kidnapping in motion.

Prey is darker: a reworking of the familiar story of lone virtuous cop wrongly charged with the murder of wife and child, exposing deeper and deeper layers of corruption as he seeks to prove his innocence and expose the true murderer.

Both series manage to draw us into complex emotional and moral worlds, to convey pain and fear and passion, studies in weakness and impotence. The genre demands that in the end virtue will triumph - but the question is, will that resolution seem believable, or merely (sorry about this) a cop-out?

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