|Wednesday, October 24 2007 -   Precedents/History
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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
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.
The 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%.
And yet Britain is more alarmed by crime than the rest of the west, with the least confidence its government is "cracking down". Eighty-three per cent wrongly think crime is rising. Ipsos Mori's Ben Page has no compunction in saying: "We're obsessed with crime and the media is to blame." He finds 57% say they think crime is rising because they see it on television, 48% because they read it in newspapers. Unfortunately, when asked whom they trust to tell the truth, it's the very same sources that mislead them - TV and the press.
Britain spends more per capita on criminal justice than any other nation worldwide. Fear stoked by the media impels politicians to distort priorities and waste a fortune on what doesn't work. The prison population soared again last week to a new high of more than 81,000. And yet Home Office research shows that prison has a negligible impact on crime figures.
Why is crime falling here and all across the west? Cars and homes are locked up better, but mainly it's the economy, with less youth unemployment. The Home Office watches economic growth figures more closely than police numbers for its predictions: it warns to expect flattening or rising crime over the next years of tighter spending and lower consumption.
There are surprises for sociologists: traditionally, violence between strangers rises in boom times, with more money for drink. But despite cheap drink and widespread bingeing, it has stayed pretty constant. The violence that has fallen most steeply is domestic and between acquaintances: it is suggested women report it more and escape violent relationships sooner.
It was encouraging to hear one wise Whitehall expert suggest: "I think we are becoming a more civilised nation. Remember when you couldn't take families to football matches? Remember bicycle chain gangs and flick knives? Parents hitting children was commonplace but now it's rare, and fewer young people are illiterate. Addicts may relapse, but drug programmes do cut crime." Professor Mike Hough, of King's College London, sees that same civilisation: "In Victorian and Edwardian times, in the 1920s and 30s, a far higher general level of violence was accepted. Now people report quite minor incidents that would have been ignored."
So who speaks up publicly for the truth about crime? Virtually no one. Vested interests in police and law want to inflame crime fear. Democracy is at its worst when all oppositions abuse fear of crime to attack governments. The government dares not fight back robustly: teenagers are dying, drugs are rife and victims of muggings and rapes don't take kindly to any hint of complacency. Lower crime means little to thousands of children brought up in violent, drug- and alcohol-destroyed homes, still without the wraparound support they need. However, Jacqui Smith is no David Blunkett crime-headline seeker: as a result the Home Office says the volume of crime stories is starting to fall.
Proportion is everything. Everyone is shocked by acts of horror, yet people can only make sense of the world by knowing if things are getting better or worse.