Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Crime and the Press

Don't let the truth get in the way of a bad crime story

We live in extraordinary times: theft is down, so is violence. But sensation-seeking media fuel fear and distort priorities.

Polly Toynbee - The Guardian

Great lies, bold, bare-faced and unapologetic, are relayed every day by every orifice of the media in ways that would make Kim Jong-il proud. A malign conspiracy manufactures the myth that crime is out of control, soaring proof of David Cameron's "broken society". It's a falsity that fools most of the people all of the time.

The latest crime figures suggest an opposite story: crime has plummeted since the mid-1990s in a way unknown for generations. We live in extraordinary times, with less theft and less violence. Did you see that on the 10 O'Clock News when the figures came out? No, you saw Fergal Keane emoting about teen gun crime, with a glancing reference to crime figures. Regular viewers of the increasingly sensationalist BBC "flagship" news programme might not glean that firearms offences fell by more than 600 last year, or that serious injury from gun crime fell by 11%. A horrible spate of teen-on-teen slaughters needs reporting - but news editors prefer powerful anecdote to inconvenient contrary facts.

Context-less crime stories scare the daylights out of people, stirring anger and unhappiness, while denying the more surprising truth. News editors' convention - and often political motivation - seeks bad news, though readers often find good news a great deal more surprising.

Web Mall and Digital MarketplaceThe Guardian was an honourable exception last week, giving space to the good crime news. All recorded crime is down by 7%, more serious violence offences down by 14%, lesser violence down by 12% and sex offences down by 9%. Yet even the Guardian couldn't resist the headline: "Crime down by 7% but drug offences show 14% increase." Alan Travis's excellent report did mention the one crime statistic to rise: cannabis figures were up. He also said it was not due to an increase in use but police issuing new on-the-spot warnings which are quicker to record than hauling small-time dope-smokers down to the station.

The trouble with recorded crime figures is that they record what police do, so they vary according to political vagaries. Far better is the British Crime Survey (BCS), published at the same time, and that shows crime stable, neither up nor down. It's regarded by experts as more reliable, unearthing more crime by asking 40,000 over-16s how many have been victims of what. Though it misses out children and white-collar "victimless" fraud, its value is in tracking trends with the same questions every year.

But these fairly self-evident complexities are not the problem: it is opposition politicians, their press and sensation-seeking news desks who cherry-pick and distort shamelessly. If the Press Complaints Commission were not the proprietors' patsy, it would proactively censor and fine misreporting of crime figures designed to deceive. The Office for National Statistics should forbid this deliberate abuse of official figures: where are their stern letters to the editor about this? The Sun: "14% rise in crime"; Times: "Violence is rising as confidence falls"; Telegraph: "Drug offences rise 14% after policy 'shambles'" - and much, much more.

What is undisputed by serious criminologists is that crime has plunged by more than 40% over the last decade. The BCS finds that the chance of being a victim of crime is now at its lowest since the survey began in 1981. Since a peak in 1995, burglary is down by 59%, vehicle theft by 61% and personal theft down by 45%.

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