Today we had the annual report from the Office for National Statistics on crime. As ever, it's a model of its kind: takes you remarkably easily through the complex issues about the two sets of crime data: crime as recorded by police forces; and British Crime Survey (which records the actual experience of crime of a representative sample of the British people). It's nuanced, fair, clear, balanced. All without dumbing down, It is in fact something we should perhaps be a little bit proud of, and certainly grateful for.
I'll blog later on the detail, but the bottom line is, there is some evidence suggesting that the staggeringly large, unexplained long term fall in crime since 1995 (which has been mirrored across most of the developed world) may be bottoming out, or even for some types of crime, rising again - but it really isn't clear from the data we have. What is clear is that we are still hugely safer than we were in 1995 or even in 2005.
I am interested in the media response. The long decline in crime has of course been a source of deep unhappiness to many, particularly the media and parties of the Right, because fear (of crime, amongst other things) is such a mainstay of the Right. If they can make you scared - of crime, or immigrants, of terrorism, of war - you will be more submissive to the established order, and less inclined to question things about society which the Right would rather you didn't question. (Of course, not all fears work satisfatorily: fear of climate change, for example, does not fit their agenda.)
The decline in crime, and the consequent reduction in the public's concern about crime (see the figures previously on this blog, at: http://www.julianlevay.com/articles/crime-as-an-issue-in-this-election), clearly troubled the Right media. Here's a comment I made on this phenomenon some years back in the Guardian:
"Yesterday we had some extraordinarily good news on crime. Rates for burglary and robbery were down 8% and 9% on last year, drugs and violence down 4%. Murder is the lowest for 20 years, knife crime also down. Surveys show that risk of being a victim of crime is at a historic low. A remarkable story, which you covered at length.
Here's how other papers covered it. The Times had a news in brief item on page 9, the Telegraph a few column inches positioned within a story about Munir Hussain. Both linked it to a cut in funding for a (very small) community safety programme. The Telegraph happily found rises in some rural areas. The Sun and Mail decided to spare their readers this upsetting news altogether, while devoting pages to stories of violent crimes.
Crime remains, of course, a huge and worrying problem. But what chance can there be of tackling it rationally, if as a society we have become so addicted to fear that we are simply unable to process positive news?"
So, no surprise that today' figures - or rather, some of them – were greeted with something like glee by the Right tabloids.
The Mail's article on this today is a model of its kind: essentially misleading, but mostly without actually lying.,
Start with the headline:
Soaring incidents of theft and knife crime are behind the largest rise in recorded crime for a DECADE
Well, if you read the ONS report, it's very clear that:
So the headline is basically junk. But there's more: the grouping of 'theft and knife crime' is a masterpiece. 'Theft' offences increased by 123,000; knife crime, by....6,000. So the increase in knife crime is minute, compared to the increase in theft. And the joining of the two in one group is entirely arbitrary. But what the reader absorbs is that reference to knife crime, as being the cause of soaring crime. Job done!
The there's the oldest trick in the book: distorting graph scales. So, on police figures, violence against the person rose from 430k to 465k, which in a graph, doesn't look much if the vertical scale starts at zero. But if you start the vertical scale at 410 – and then put the bars in bloody red – you'll get the impact you want. Repeat this deception for all other crime groups. Job done.
Then throw in a photo of bleeding victims of the Manchester bombing – of course, that didn't even happen in the year in question, but the reader won't notice. And those numbers are tiny, irrelevant in the scale of this analysis of 'soaring crime'.. Never mind, it leaves the vivid impression that this is what 'soaring' crime is about - bleeding, mutilated figures being helped to safety by shocked bystanders: it gets the reader's juices going, which is what the Mail wants.
In some places, the Mail's story blatantly misrepresents the data. In recent years, the BCS has started to include figures for computer based crime (scams, ransom-ware attacks and such). There are a lot of them – they pretty much double the BCS stats. But we only have the data for a couple of years and the ONS say, very clearly:
Valid year-on-year comparisons of CSEW estimates including the new fraud and computer misuse figures will not be available until January 2018, when 2 full years of data are available.
So we've no idea how this new sort of crime might have changed over the years. Such niceties do not confine the Mail, who state:
When fraud and computer misuse offences are included, the total number of estimated crimes hits 11 million, which is above the level of that estimated in the same period a decade ago.
That's rubbish, because we have no such data for a decade ago.
Does this manipulation and mis-statement of data matter? Of course it does. Crime is a serious problem, so it's vital we understand it as best we can. But that isn't the Mail's agenda, which is to create fear. And here's the impact the Mail is looking for on its readers, in a BTL comment on the article:
Its sky rocketed! its scary out there and the worse part is much of it doesnt get reported anymore so the real numbers are a lot lot worse. 15-20 years ago where I'm from you rarely heard of st ab bings and mu rde rs now its nearly a daily story infact on average from the last stats I read in that area r a pe is reported every two days! and thats just the ones who are brave enough to come forward and tell teh police! its shocking your not safe here any more.
Of course, this is pitiable nonsense: the ONS show that crimes of violence involving injury are down 60%, compared to 1995. Yep, down by way more than half. But the Mail exists to hype up such fears, not to correct them – and it works.
As a consequence of the media's scaremongering, we have a doubling of the prison population since 1995, at vast cost (money not going into the NHS, and a prison system near to breakdown), for almost zero benefit. And still we build new prisons - we've been building prisons continuously now for a third of a century, since the early 19080s.
And sadly, it's not just the Mail – the Guardian article, though far more informative and balanced, also can barely conceal its glee, albeit for a different political purpose – the figures may cause trouble for May:
(And, to be even-handed, one should note that most of the rise in prison numbers occured under Labour, not the Tories; that Labour drove numbers up deliberately eg through the lamentable legislation introducing IPP sentences; and that even today, Corbyn's New Old Labour says nothing about our excessive use of imprisonment, and the contribution that makes to appalling conditons in prison. Labour has no crime policy of its own: just borrows the Tory ones.)
But ultimately, I don't blame the politicians, or even the media. The media give us what we crave: and that's clearly bad news – things are bad, worse than ever, will get even worse, and someone's to blame. We are an unhappy country; because, I think, at some level, we desire to be unhappy. Proof of that, surely, is the complete absence of any interest in the media, or from any political party, in the remarkable fall in crime, one of the great social problems of the 20th century: a triumph of modern civilisation, which we preferred simply not to notice. Until, that is, this year, we can at last hope it just might be going up again.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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