Yes, it is the Year of Our Lord 2020 and I am still talking about copaganda. In my continued hunt for shows to watch that isn’t ER. I found myself down a rabbit hole of watching UK Border Force, a show all about the border agents of the UK either out trying to find illegal immigrants, undocumented workers or those bringing drugs or other illegal items into the Queen’s Dominion. It’s a pretty slow-paced show; usually just people bringing in too many damn cigarettes through customs. But every once in a while the show gets really fast-paced when someone brings in drugs via their body cavity or in the lining of their luggage. Every once in a while someone will bring in too much cash and the best episodes feature dogs on the job. But one thing came to mind as I continued, there was a shocking amount of casual racism, jingoism and xenophobia in these shows.
The UK version was not the only border force show I’ve seen, I’ve seen the US version which is…well, American and the Australian persuasion which seems very concerned about fruit: I’m serious so much of the episodes in New Zealand are concerned about mostly Pacific Islanders bringing in native fruits that could “damage local flora and fauna”; there’s even a hilarious part where a tourist bringing in an apple that was left in their backpack from another flight causes a $5,000 fine. And while I’m not here to minimize the threat of ecological threats it all does seem so excessive. Especially when it comes to the treatment of indigious peoples bringing in food or medicine that is culturally relevant or significant to them: these border agents are literal colonizers telling the people who were here before them that their native fruits and veggies and medicine are “dangerous” and “unregulated” and have the authority to have those goods destroyed.
Another main focus of these shows is the finding and capturing of illegal workers and immigrants with varying levels of sensitive language. Because these shows are sensationalized, it’s easy to think of them as linear good and bad. Those who work illegally and take jobs away from native Britons or Aussies are bad and the good guys are those enforcing those rules. But many of these people are coming from poorer regions of the world and are often of color and the irony is not lost on me that those in colonizing countries demanding that people of color “enter the country the right way”. Again, I am not an idealized liberal who doesn’t believe in borders and I do very much agree that it’s always best to enter a country legally, but if you are from a poor village in India or Africa and coming over to England to work is the only way you can make money to support your family: you will do what you need to do. We’re also not going to ignore that much of “developed” world had no issue relying on the labor of people of color regardless of how they entered the country (it was not of their own will) and to this day benefit sight unseen on the backs of immigrants and people of color working whether it be legal or not.
Shows like this work because they are inherently framed as a struggle of good versus evil. The good and brave border force agents are here to keep the country safe and the bad and evil people taking up jobs and resources and not paying taxes are bad. The editing and framing is dynamic and stories are shortened and stripped of nuance and complexity. We’re meant to, through framing, camera work and editing think that all actions taken by the border force are good and meant to keep us safe while anything that puts that safety at risk is bad. But most of the undocumented workers at the chip shop aren’t causing harm. The student who overstayed on his visa is not likely a terrorist and while the person who smuggled drugs in via laptop is in fact a criminal, they’re likely doing so for money.
There are bad people out there who want to bring in drugs and illegal cigarettes and weird pornography and there are in fact terrorists who want to hurt people. But border force shows continue to push a linear narrative in situations that are oftentimes full of nuance. People don’t flee their home countries for no good reason but we don’t have time in a forty minute reality television show for nuance.
It’s all a form of propaganda; a show to let you see just how hard border enforcement works and to show them the “danger” they put themselves in to keep us “safe”; but we’ve already covered that due to the nature of framing and editing that danger is clearly played up for the sake of sensationalized television. The chases, the thrill, the finding people trying to enter the country without permission in trucks and the drugs, oh the drama of the drugs. It makes the border force agents look capable, exciting and like they’re really doing something; just like all the other cop shows before it. Live PD was created almost explicitly to show cops as human after a string of police shootings of unarmed black men (a string that continues on to this day). Shows like this are meant to humanize the police and law enforcement but showing us as viewers just what the police do for us. It’s meant to remind us of the danger and hope that a little good press will make it easier to swallow the bitter pill of police violence. Look at all these cops doing the right thing; ignore the ones that have committed murder in cold blood. And it’s comforting for a while to see it; it’s called “security theater”, sorta like how you feel safer with extra TSA agents after 9/11 even though they really haven’t stopped any actual terrorists and have only succeeded in being angry at my flat iron, concerned by my bra’s underwire and upset at my potato chips in my backpack. These actions are meant to make us feel safe and secure and reassured while we are meant to ignore all of the wrong going on underneath the surface.