This past Sunday, 9.6 million people tuned in for the first episode of the latest series of police drama Line of Duty – a great coup for the BBC and show creator Jed Mercurio.
It was, however, maybe not such a coup for the progression of our society’s treatment of people with Down’s Syndrome. Those same 9.6 million people will have heard lead character Superintendent Ted Hastings call suspect Terry Boyle, who has Down’s Syndrome, “the local oddball”.
I, like many viewers, was pleased to see actor Tommy Jessop, who plays Terry, re-join the Line of Duty cast. Tommy is an incredibly talented actor who holds numerous accomplishments and is no doubt a role model to many. Line of Duty should be applauded for his casting, which undoubtedly sets a good example for others.
It was therefore all the more disappointing to see such a progressive set-up undermined by a miserable dialogue decision.
After I tweeted that the script writer of Line of Duty needs to reflect on the use of this language, the BBC and Mercurio made statements indicating there was no wrongdoing on their behalf. I strongly disagree.
In order to become a more inclusive society, we need to continue to question our own choices, including the language we use.
When we see characters on screen call Black people the n-word or characters who are gay the f-word, we know the writers are telling viewers about the speaker’s character: they’re racist, they’re homophobic, they’re a bad person. What did Hastings saying “oddball” teach us about him? That he’s ableist? If we’re supposed to dislike his character now, that wasn’t clear throughout the rest of the episode. I suspect this is not the case.
If Hastings had been challenged or reprimanded by the other character in the scene or if there had been some significance to the plot over the use of this word, then the subsequent defence put forward by the BBC and Jed Mercurio might make sense. As it stands, it seems like reactionary reflexes to avoid proactive self-reflection.
To say that Hastings used “oddball” in reference to the eccentricity or loner behaviour of Terry Boyle whilst also arguing that he used that word because he hadn’t met the suspect doesn’t tally – excuses made after the fact rarely do. I would also question what behaviour we saw of Boyle that deems him an eccentric or a loner, in particular.
Line of Duty calling the character an “oddball”? That had no relevance: to the storyline, to people with Down’s Syndrome or to our society.
In order to become a more inclusive society, we need to continue to question our own choices, including the language we use. When it’s pointed out that we’ve made a mistake and said or done something that excludes, hurts and harms other people, that’s the time to pause and reflect.
This is not a case of “I’m right and they’re wrong”. I’m not after a win. I simply want the program to reflect the impact on the mothers, fathers, professionals and people with Down’s Syndrome who will have been hurt by the choice of a throwaway phrase that perpetuates a sad and old stereotype.
As is often pointed out when I challenge others, I am indeed a former police officer. But that doesn’t mean I have a rose-tinted view of policing. Many of my criticisms, including on very recent events, are available for anyone online.
One day I hope we’ll have many more characters on our screens whose learning and/or physical disability isn’t the main point of their character’s storyline but beside the point. But Line of Duty calling Terry an “oddball”? That had no relevance: to the storyline, to people with Down’s Syndrome, or to our society.
Jim Gamble is a former police officer, CEO of INEQE Safeguarding Group and trustee of Positive Futures, a charity which supports people with learning disability, autistic spectrum conditions and acquired brain injury. Follow him on Twitter at @JimGamble_INEQE