Channel 4 has defended a new drama about a group of young Britons who travel to Syria to join Islamic State, saying it has been carefully researched and deals with an “important subject to confront and explore”.
The State, a four-part series written by Peter Kosminsky, began on Sunday night with an audience of 1.4 million.
Kosminsky and the production team spent 18 months on the programme, including speaking to Isis recruits who had returned to the UK.
The first episode followed two British men and two women who go to Syria to join Isis, where they are segregated with only the men being trained to fight, and all four are encouraged to forget their past lives in the UK.
Any violence they may experience is reserved for later in the series. Future episodes will show what Kosminsky described in pre-broadcast publicity as “an arc of disillusionment” about Isis recruitment. “I absolutely hope it will have a deterrent impact,” he said this month.
But the programme won the support of Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the international centre for the study of radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, who has studied Isis closely. “It had very clearly been extremely well researched,” Winter said. “It certainly wasn’t superficial research going into this. I was really impressed.
“There were a lot of scenes straight from Islamic State propaganda. It was clear the researchers had watched a tonne of propaganda to make it seem as legit as possible.”
Winter said some of the criticism levelled at the programme was ludicrous. “There was a headline, something like ‘The State under fire for giving a face to terrorists’. But that’s the point. It’s absolutely necessary that we realise these are people who have done bad things but they’re still people … If it provokes a conversation – a more nuanced, less emotional conversation – then I think that’s a good thing.”
A Guardian review called the show “clever, gripping and genuinely enlightening”, but the headline on a Daily Mail review said the programme was “Pure poison … it’s like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s”.
Channel 4 said: “The State is based on extensive factual research and offers an unflinching insight into the horrific actions of Isis, which we believe is an important subject to confront and explore.”
The broadcaster added: “Across the four episodes the series explores in depth the cruel reality of the characters’ experiences of life in Syria, and at no point does it endorse nor encourage others to follow in their footsteps. Though it is a difficult and challenging subject, we believe it’s more important than ever to confront these urgent issues.”
Bethany Haines, the daughter of David Haines, who was killed by Isis in 2014, had called on the channel to postpone broadcast of the programme.
Writing in the Mail at the weekend, the 20-year-old said: “The last thing those families need is a drama about Islamic State on TV at the same time their lives have effectively been torn apart by that same group.”
On Twitter, some viewers rejected criticism that the drama glamourised life in Islamic State, and others called the decision to broadcast the show “brave”.
Kosminsky, who directed the successful BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, said this month he feared being “accused of being an apologist for a truly nasty organisation” because to understand why young Muslims joined a “horrific death cult” he had needed to show what attracted them to it.
“We are trying to say: bear with us while we try to understand what’s going on,” he said. “But of course to do that you have to sympathise with the characters and allow them to be initially excited and glad and then slowly see the disillusionment creep in.”