Podcast Review: Sword and Scale

Sword and scaleWhile I usually review podcasts one at a time, factual podcasts are almost by definition harder to review – there can’t really be much of the same discussion about narrative, theme, structure, and so on.

There can certainly be some, but it’s much harder to take criticism of a non-fiction work quite as deeply as a work of fiction in most cases. So, I present reviews of two podcasts I really like, but both have some areas which render them far from perfect. The second part of this series will be published next week.

Sword and Scale is a non-fiction podcast, released twice a month in a slightly longer form than normal, with episodes lasting from around an hour to an hour and a half. Sword and Scale is fundamentally about criminal justice, although saying that doesn’t feel quite right; and that is, I think, my main issue with the podcast.

Sword and Scale takes the form of a new story every week about the criminal justice system, but at their heart the stories are usually more about the criminals than the justice system. I feel that this is the central problem that makes me uneasy about the show. Trials are rarely discussed, although the conversation is always interesting when they are. Sword and Scale instead feels as though it tends towards long, detailed pictures of the crime itself, in a way that more than once made me uneasy, as it is is probably intended to.

The tagline of the show itself signifies this issue; “The podcast that shows that the worst monsters are real”, showing that Sword and Scale cares far less about justice than it does about painting shocking, gruesome portraits of inhuman monsters. While this is an entirely valid tonal choice, it’s one I can’t help but dislike.

The host repeatedly reminds us about the shocking, inhuman nature of these crimes, using judgmental wording to describe the incidents and those who perpetrate them – a measure which seems unnecessary if the acts themselves are self-evidently appalling – and has the end result of appearing almost pushy in trying to convince the audience that things that we already knew were terrible are in fact terrible.

Sword and scale taglineThis judgmental tone has deeper problems than merely feeling annoying. One of the main goals of those who study crime and criminal justice is to understand why people do these things and what we can do to prevent them and, if that fails, to understand how we can make the process of bringing people to justice function more smoothly, efficiently and justly. While Sword and Scale does sometimes attempt to understand the motivations of those involved, this discussion often feels like it doesn’t go particularly deep, a choice which would have made the show much more compelling.

Instead, the show chooses to characterise its subjects as “monsters”, a move which seems to me to be profoundly counter-productive. Not only does it hinder discussion of how these people came to do these things, in favour of the simple notion of “well of course they did these things, they are monsters and monsters do monstrous things”, but it also defeats the main reason to tell and explore these stories: the great tragedy of criminal justice, that criminals are simply people just like us.

Characterising a criminal as a monster ignores the central issue of criminal justice, the problem of how we can prevent normal people from performing criminal acts, and how can we restore them to normality if they do. Labelling the criminal as a monster ignores the often very human reasons why they do what they do, and hinders our empathy, which has been used in the past to justify horrendous acts against those accused of crimes.

It is worth noting that not every episode is like this; some episodes, such as those focusing on the “satanic panic”, do focus on the failures of the criminal justice system, the way in which people think about criminal behaviour, and how investigations are done. These episodes are much more enjoyable and interesting, although they do feel somewhat excessive in length, with a number of extended audio clips which may not have been necessary to tell the story.

Sword and Scale isn’t a “bad podcast”, it is well produced and evidently well researched. While I can’t help but feel that with a slightly different direction it could be great, not every podcast needs to be the podcast I would personally like it to be. For what it is, a new, interesting crime story twice a month, Sword and Scale is fairly enjoyable and worth a listen, if only to see if it is a style and subject matter that you enjoy.

Sword and Scale is available on iTunes, podbay and on their own website.