Every year Bournemouth University holds a ‘Festival of Learning’, during which academics across the University run public engagement events to communicate their research. Inspired by the potential of popular culture to open up abstract and complex legal issues (Osborn 2001; Pawlowski and Greer 2009; Denoncourt 2013), the authors co-organised an event called ‘ Public Law on TV: Popular Culture and the Constitution’. This was not a conference in the traditional sense: although colleagues did attend, the sole intention was to spend an evening addressing the public and introducing them to constitutional ideas. Nonetheless, perhaps due to the uncanny ability of academics to become institutionalised, the event was structured like a conference - albeit one incorporating a quick game of Who Wants To Be A Public Lawyer?.
Five short presentations on public law matters as represented in popular culture were given by the two authors, by fellow Bournemouth academic Joan Mahoney, and by two first year undergraduates. The speakers touched on the judge in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, human rights in Breaking Bad, class in Doctor Whoand War of the Worlds, the separation of powers in Harry Potter, and the representation of female politicians compared to the female protagonists of Mad Men. This conference note gives a short summary of the event and draws out the highlights of each paper, before making some general concluding remarks about the effectiveness of popular culture as a tool for engagement.
David Yuratich’s opening talk focused on how ‘The Judge’, a villain in Season 2 of Buffy, raises a series of questions about the constitution. For the unacquainted, this Judge is an ancient being who supposedly cannot be killed by any weapon forged. To his bewilderment he can however be blown up by a rocket launcher, since it was ‘made’. Leaving aside the statutory interpretation discussion that this may provoke, the focus was on explaining to the public how the common law helps the judiciary and the constitution avoid being fatally stranded in the past like Buffy’s erstwhile nemesis. It proved a useful tool for delivering basic principles of constitutional law - particularly the ability of Parliament and the common law to keep up-to-date with social norms.
Argyro Karanasiou discussed in her presentation the human rights dilemmas posed to viewers of Breaking Bad. The series tells the story of Walter White, a chemistry teacher terminally ill with cancer, who - unable to cover his treatment expenses - turns into a meth lord alias Heisenberg. What would happen if Mr White was British? The role of the NHS and the taxpayers’ right to health care were addressed in this respect, sparking discussion about whether the constitution should protect moral and ethical values. Argyro also noted that Hank, a drug enforcement agency agent, plays a central role in the programme. His attempts to catch Heisenberg offer the viewer the opportunity to understand procedural rules involving human rights. One such example is scene where Hank tries to search a caravan that is doubling up as a meth lab. The dialogue is a crash course in police search and seizure powers under the US Constitution, but also reflects classic UK constitutional cases such as Entick v Carrington  EWHC KB J98 as well as notions of privacy protection more broadly.
Joan Mahoney’s paper, a fuller version of which is to be presented elsewhere this year, considered how far the class systems experienced by the Ood in Doctor Whoand by the Eloi and Morlocks in War of the Worlds reflected the willingness of law and politics to resolve social problems in the respective time periods.
The two students set about demonstrating the knowledge they had gained in their public law studies. Samantha Bell’s presentation, entitled How Not To Run A Country, drew on separation of powers theory to explain why Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic was able to consolidate and abuse its position. This was then contrasted, generally favourably, with the extent to which the UK separates its powers - with the judiciary identified as the principal bulwark against abuses, especially after R (Jackson) v Attorney-General  UKHL 56. Peter Hollomon-Ley’s piece on how the welcome rise of female politicians has, analogously to the female leads in Mad Men, not been enough to vanquish chauvinism and sexism from Parliament was equally informative.
What was particularly striking about each presentation was how it enabled a lay audience to discuss constitutional issues they had only recently been introduced to. There is an established literature on the pedagogic potential of popular culture (Osborn 2001; Pawloswki and Greer 2009; Greenfield, Osborn, and Robson 2010; Denoncourt 2014). Certainly the academics who presented agree with and have experienced those insights first hand, but the communicative advantage it handed to the lay audience was still impressive. It manifested in two ways.
First, popular culture helped the understanding of a particular concept and, having introduced that idea, led to a discussion. This occurred with Buffy, which provided the opportunity to discuss how the common law has kept up to date with recent attitudes on human rights. It enabled discussion of Lord Reed’s judgment in Osborn v Parole Board  UKSC 61 that rights protection in the UK is a pervasive principle of common law independent of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and its implication that any UK withdrawal from the Convention would not remove the constitutional imperative for rights protection.
Second, a discussion of the programme in question acted as a proxy for a debate on constitutional issues. This came out particularly well with discussion of the flawed system of judicial protection in the Harry Potter universe (the existence of which surprised the authors but apparently not the audience) and, as noted above, the privacy law issues raised by Hank’s attempted search of Walter’s motorhome-come-meth lab in Breaking Bad. The further potential of this was uncovered in the evening’s denouement, where an interactive game of Who Wants To Be A Public Lawyer was unveiled. A series of constitutional questions raised by films were raised and used as a starting point for wider debates. Among other examples the group used Frozen (2013), where the Queen is locked away and unable to use her powers, to explore Bagehot’s ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ sides of the constitution; and considered whether the Dude’s refusal to wear proper clothes in The Big Lebowski (1998) can or should be justified under the ECHR. Sadly there was not time to assess whether the innovative use of farcical aquatic ceremonies in lieu of elections in Monty Python and the Holy Grail(1975) should oust the first-past-the-post system.
In all, this was a highly successful experiment that will hopefully be repeated. The event reinforced the ability of popular culture to spark an understanding of and engagement with legal issues. The non-lawyers in the room were given an easy way to explore constitutional ideas, no matter how vague or complex the issues; the lawyers seized on popular culture’s ability to add new perspectives to old questions.
Osborn G (2001) ‘Borders and Boundaries: Locating the Law in Film’ (2001) 28 Journal of Law and Society 164.
Pawlowski M and Greer S (2009) ‘Film and Literature in the Legal Classroom’ 43 The Law Teacher 49.
Greenfield S, Osborn G and Robson P (2010) Film and the Law (Oxford: Hart).
Denoncourt J (2013), ‘Using Film to Enhance Intellectual Property Law Education: Getting The Message Across’ 1 Electronic Journal of Law and Technology.