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Crime interest

Rod McKenzie Rod McKenzie | 11:19 UK time, Tuesday, 3 June 2008

There is a debate among senior BBC journalists about our coverage and prominence of crime. My colleague Kevin Marsh has blogged on the subject - and his views are worth a read. Rather than replicate those arguments, I present a practical hands on journalists' dilemma over the argument...which you will have views on...

Radio 1 logoLike it or not - viewers and listeners are interested in crime stories. They may make them worry - they may appeal to the heart - or they may make them wonder if the authorities could do more to halt the perceived march of knife crime. There's nothing new about crime interest and viewers, listeners and readers - it's an even older phenomenon than Jack the Ripper, after all.

So why do news organisations - especially those who are audience driven or influenced - give such prominence to crime, when as authorities point out, violent crime is falling - and you are very unlikely to be a victim?

Faced with a list of stories which might include will-Hillary-pull-out-of-the-US-election race, a think-tank report on social policy and last night's Vauxhall conference might imagine why our on duty journalists might be drawn to lead their bulletins on a murder - especially one with a strong narrative attached.

Should we react automatically in this way? Of course not. Should we add context to our reporting when we lead on, say, knife crime as explained in Kevin's blog? We certainly should.

But is the audience interested in the story in the first place? Our evidence is that they are - and that whatever we say - they are very worried about violent crime. So on that basis should we cover the story? Yes probably.

In Birmingham City centre, 1Xtra reporter Briar Burley didn't take long to find a young man who carries a knife. He told us "it' inches....anyone who attacks me...I go for the neck and throat". Our reporter challenged him about the likely fatal consequences of such a move as well as the illegality of possession. He was unmoved: that's why I'm doing it.

We know younger people are more likely to be crime victims than homeowners in leafy suburbs - but among both groups fear is high - and arguably reflect a sense of powerlessness of the Police to stem "the tide".

Those who got in touch with Max's show on 1Xtra afterwards held a variety of views. Some said the Police "didn't care" - others claimed the government's new viral advertising on the web was a waste of money and likely to further glamorise knife crime. Others wanted more education at an earlier age of the hazards and dangers.

So whether you think there's too much crime on the news and it fuels an unjustified fear - or whether it's a real worry, perhaps triggered by personal experience - which leads some of our listeners to illegally carry knives for self defence - crime as an issue isn't going to go away and the media doesn't have the solution. Or does it?


  • Comment number 1.

    My gripe is you definition of crime. You seem to think a teenager being stabbed is a crime that is worth all the attention in the world. highlight knife crime, highlight hoodies, highlight muslims. these seem to be the only kind of crime you are interested in.

    small personal tragedies, which are part of our increasingly violent society.

    But corporate crime, Govt. crime, that goes unreported, unhighlighted and generally ignored. The massage is clear, if you hold a knife and kill someone that is a reportable crime. Sell a couple of millions of quids worth of arms to a warlord, or start an illegal war, or defraud people of millions from tv comps, and it is seen as something else.

    Even better, Work as part of a national news organisation and pervert the true events to suit your own agenda, (re: David frosts Bhutto Interview), or ignore the contradictions that exist surrounding 7/7 ( the magic bus footage)

    To me that is just as big a crime as a couple of hoodies stabbing each other due to 'respect' issues.

  • Comment number 2.

    The media reports on what people want to know, and people want to know the juicy details about other people's misery so they can feel a little better about their own misery, comparing it with the miseries of others.

    The media is only 50% of the problem - the audience is the other 50% :P

    Think that's cynical? Explain the popularity of tabloids and the fortune of Rupert Murdoch :P

  • Comment number 3.

    The missing apostrophe in the third sentence ("journalists") is one thing, but then it got me reading the article more closely and noticing what is surely a typo in the penultimate paragraph and a split infinitive in the penultimate sentence.

    Come on, it's not too hard to write precisely.

  • Comment number 4.

    It’s simple Rod. If people day in day out hear the same story topic then it becomes a concern. A couple of years ago, it was Bird Flu; before that War; recently Climate Change. If you start reporting repeatedly tomorrow that there isn’t enough electricity to go round in the UK, that will be the next hot topic. The longer you lead with the story, the more people will rate it as an issue. The BBC at the moment isn’t providing balance – where are the stories about children who aren’t carrying a knife, who are having “normal” childhood experiences.

    As strange as it is to say it, the recent Britain’s Got Talent did more to show the true “other side” to the story than the BBC has tried to recently. Over the weeks the programme was broadcast, the public got to see a wide variety of what children get up too, after school activities, revealing some amazing talents. The eventual winner (in case you missed it) was someone who the “rules of television” didn’t allow on live TV after 10pm at night – a teenager.

    For every child involved in knife crime, how many children are not? It’s not about brushing the issue under the carpet but it is time for your journalists to stop being lazy and report balance news.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    authorities point out, violent crime is falling - and you are very unlikely to be a victim?"

    You report crime because it's drama, pure and simple, however I would have thought you'd have had more nerve than to believe what the authorities tell you. How are these statistics compiled? Are they an average or a percentage of solved crimes?

    I cannot believe that crime is down in this country, my own eyes do not believe it. Perhaps it is simply because law abiding citizens no longer bother to report the minor crimes because they now know the police are more concerned with hitting targets then actually clearing up their neighbourhood.

  • Comment number 7.


    I'm sure the government is sick in the face of trying to explain how its statistics are compiled and why our statistics are some of the best and most independent in the world. Its important to be critical of presentation of statistics - but as someone who 'checks' government statistics independently I can tell you the actual numbers themselves are not subject of unfair play.

    Anyway - although EVERY time the stats come out even the Tabloids point it out, I'll say it again, slowly: crime statistics come from two sources. One is the Police: all reported crimes. These aren't very good and in fact tend to show crime up in the last few years - but this is because of changes in definition: a crime is now committed when the victim thinks one is rather than the police; and a rampaging maniac who stabs 5 people now counts as 5 crimes rather than 1 as it did in the past. The other source is the British Crime Survey which is an independent survey asking about 16,000 British adults about their experiences of crime in the last year whether or not they have reported it. This independent series is the one that shows the fall in crime, including violent crime, but most dramatically property crime. Overall crime is down abouut 1/3 since 1993 mostly driven by much lower burglary and car robbery. These stats aren't perfect - they don't cover sex-crimes (but these make up a very small proportion), but more importantly not crime where the victim was under 16. But this wouldn't be enough to overturn the entire 1/3 fall.

  • Comment number 8.

    I know you have to report crime, but what you should also add is the penalty for conviction. What really blows my mind is how light the sentences are for those who commit murder.

  • Comment number 9.

    Why do news organisations give such prominence to reporting crime when violent crime figures are falling? To me it appears obvious, the truth of the matter lies with the massage of statistics. Why otherwise would we see the springing up of metal detectors in high streets as a direct result of repeated stabbings and shootings? I find it very hard to believe that violent crime levels are falling; it is not from some morbid curiosity that I wish to see the lurid details splattered across the front page of a newspaper but it is a plain and simple fact this is what is happening in today’s society. The concern will be is when it is no longer reported upon, at present it is rare enough to make headline news. If it became so commonplace, that it was demoted to a tiny insignificant entry that is when we need to really worry.

    However, I do agree balanced reporting would be a delight to read. Projects that other teenagers are involved in, community incentives and overcoming adversity. A study of the newspaper reveals very little in the way of cheer!

  • Comment number 10.

    I'd like to see more political analysis and commentary with the current government churning out ever more legislation (much of which seems to be unneeded or overly broad) Id like to see more discusion of things the politicians are trying to do and what the likely effects it will have if they succeed.
    Like the news site currently has information on the proposed counter-terror bill and the 42 day detention row, Id like more in depth analysis, in this case are there any other things in that bill that the public should know about, like the provision in it to allow inquests to be held without a jury, If that gets enacted you can bet it will get abused to cover up troublesome inquests like that of Jean Charles de Menezes.
    Whilst I appreciate the BBC has to be unbiased that doesnt mean you cant question what parliment do.
    One last question I really want to see answered who was the MP claiming for expenses on a house that didnt exist (the court transcript for the case for releasing expenses information hinted that the was an MP on the fiddle)

  • Comment number 11.

    There are obvious current concerns about a perceived increase in violent attacks by teenagers on teenagers. I do think it reflects a change in society; it might be useful to have a breakdown of year-on-year annual figures for those killed in violent incidents together with the age of their attacker(s), either convicted or alleged.

    There is an obvious elephant in the room which is the prevalence of drug culture and the associated gangsterdon that goes with it. All drugs are illegal remember, but unless drugs are directly involved they are not mentioned in crime reports. The collection of drug debts is enforced by violence – how else? Addicts, and there are many, have habits to feed. For many with low education drug dealing is seen as an easy way of gaining wealth. This more than anything is behind the rise of gangs, turf wars, the use of guns and knives.

    I do not think crime figures show the true extent of crime; most burglaries are reported by those with insurance simply to get a report number from the police for the insurance claim; not from any hope the police will be able to catch the culprit and return the property. (The hands of the police are tied by being only able to convict if a culprit is caught red handed, and few are.) In poorer areas many are uninsured and there is little point seen in reporting theft or burglaries. The same I am sure is true of many small scale street thefts etc. Gangs and drug dealers rely on violence and intimidation to ensure they are not informed on or have evidence given against them. A situation compounded by them usually being released on bail pending court proceedings which gives them ample time to persuade witnesses to withdraw statements. There is no adequate witness protection scheme, and it is unlikely society would fund it on the scale it would be required to be effective to combat day-by-day drug dealing etc. Most of the victims of crime live in the same areas as the criminals that prey on them (a fact ignored by those that prefer to stereotype particular sections of society as criminals).

    The problems of reporting crime are: The tabloids look for crimes that either fit an agenda or provide the most salacious details.
    Generally crime reporting is done hastily by ordinary journalists looking to file a report. In the past few days it is interesting to see how many media reports are based on the earliest media reports (mistakes, corrections and all) and what people on TV news said. Hardly in depth.
    Most crime reporters do not have the background (street sense) to pick up what the real background to a story might be. Its where some citizens journalism might be usefully encouraged (with full anonymity of course, criminals would see it as informing on them) to try and paint the wider picture. But I guess libel laws might prevent that too.
    PS: Former voluntary drug worker.

  • Comment number 12.

    I agree that this can be over hyped. But one of the factors I think some of the media miss is that the phenomenon is not evenly distributed.

    It is quite true that for the great majority of us the chances of being mutilated by a gang of rampant hoodies is near zero.

    But in some localities the risk is real. Some people genuinely can not walk down certain streets for fear of intimidation (or violence if they answer back). Some places genuinely can not get a plumber to call at their house because he can not leave his van outside while he works. In some areas you have seen that the police can not gather enough evidence to convict someone for murder, even though they know who did it. What chance do you think they would have of sorting out your windows being broken or your car set on fire if you stood up to the local gang?

    In terms of reporting...Don't give a false impression that we are all at risk from every teenager - but equally please don't forget the people in certain areas who are very much at risk.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    You know the answer you're going to get to this. You and your colleagues always get the same answer every time you blog about the extent to which you report crimes.

    We, the people who take the trouble to respond to editors blogs, think you go way over the top and spend far too much time reporting stories that only affect a few people, and wish you'd concentrate on reporting serious news instead.

    However, I realise that we are not your target audience. Today's dumbed-down BBC is all about reaching the tabloid-reading masses, so if endless reports of knife attacks is good enough for the tabloids, then I suspect it's going to be good enough for the BBC.

  • Comment number 15.

    I do not agree. I listen to the news on Radio 4 quite a bit and knife crime is reported just as readily there. Believe me Radio 4 does not pander to tabloid reading masses.
    Also people being killed on the streets in England is serious news, unless of course you think murder is not serious?

  • Comment number 16.

    A reply to starbuck #13.

    In the 1970s and 1980s most terrorism on the mainland UK was caused by the IRA, in N. Ireland it was divided between sectarian paramilitaries. But it was wrong then to say that all Irish people were terrorists; that was far from the truth. Quite a few I met then came to the UK to get away from the violence in N. Ireland.
    The same applies today. Terrorism and fundamentalism by nature attracts extremists, and extremists by definition do not represent the mainstream. I live in a mainly Asian district and what I see is very different. The Muslims I meet do not want extremism in their community; many came to the UK seeking a freer life, many of the young women do not were traditional clothing (many today in fact are wearing jeans and tee shirts (its sunny) and often go bareheaded. Their parents value education and jobs for their daughters, something seen as dangerously liberal in parts of Pakistan. There are Iranians (they prefer the term Persian) living near me, refugees from the Ayatollahs Islamic revolution of 1979, most casualties of the terrorism in Iraq are Muslims and so on.

    I posted about drugs above. I am increasingly convinced that this is the real issue that needs to be addressed. To put it bluntly; our troops are in Afghanistan yet we cannot stop heroin supply at source. If we cannot keep drugs out of prisons, how can we keep them out of our country? Given the scale of the drugs trade the UK market is very large, where there is demand there will always be supply. Lets stop pretending this war on drugs can be won.

    There are different sectors of a large drugs market. Young clubbers prefer dance drugs, young business types prefer cocaine, many smoke, or have smoked, cannabis while the most common street drugs are heroin and crack (poor mans cocaine). Many other drugs; prescription drugs, poppers, LSD (even Viagra nowadays) and so on join the mix. By no means are all drug dealers black. There are many white dealers; in N. Ireland the drugs market is run by white former paramilitaries. But the drugs market is all illegal and lucrative. So as in every other country, a criminal infrastructure has grown up around its supply, protecting itself and getting money from customers (the drugs markets often work on credit running down through the supply chain). And that breeds violence on many levels. As Jamaica is on the cocaine supply chain Jamaican gangsters in particular have found it relatively easy to establish themselves in the UK and control much of the street market for crack and cocaine; but equally many other Jamaicans came here for a better life (ever seen a Kingstown slum?) and do as much as they can do keep away from such people and activities. Many black parents are valiantly doing their best to bring up responsible, educated young black men untouched by violence, crime or drugs. I know many that are succeeding. But we both also know that many white families are not being successful at doing this, a lot of white males are involved in drugs and violent street crime too.

    Several posts have said that there are areas of high crime and there are, mostly the poorest areas. Most of those stabbed to death in London this year (as an example) have been black or Asian; black people are more likely to be victims too. Quite a few gangs have white and black members. The issue is still a drugs/crime issue, not about `all blacks being violent criminals and drug dealers`. A point you probably fail to see.
    And if you follow more deeply than the news headlines there are many reports of white criminals using knives in attacks. The knife crime statistics for Glasgow have historically always been truly frightening (it might be worth looking at why?). I hope the rest of the UK never reaches their levels.

    I do think societal attitudes have changed so that younger people, white and black, more readily use violence than before. As always with violence and fear there’s escalation; unfortunately it is also a natural instinct to want to carry something with which to defend yourself with if you feel vulnerable on the street. Hands up if you have ever done so or felt tempted to?

    We need to learn from America. America has been going through the growth of gang and drug related crime for longer than we have and lots of different approaches have been tried to deal with the violence and crime in underclass areas. Some have been demonstrably more successful than others. But they haven’t tackled the key question of how to tackle the economics of the drugs market, make it much less profitable, get control of it away from the criminals? This is not a call for outright legalisation of drugs, I think there needs to be a more sophisticated response, including tougher sentencing, biometrics to stop those deported returning on false passports and so on as well as attempts to reduce inequality. But at least lets try and get the politicians to talk about it. Perhaps the media could look at the bigger picture rather than just ambulance chase. We deserve better than: BONG. Shock headline, grieving parents, lots of flowers laid by friends, press conference then forget it and move on to the next one. We’re where America was back in the 1960s, if we don’t discuss frankly and act now we could end up with a few areas (black and white) resembling South Central Los Angeles in a few decades.
    Starbuck, your views are at best naive, its more complex than being just about race. Look at N. Ireland or Glasgow.

    And to those that say this is sinking to tabloid journalism, no this is a serious issue, but look at the bigger picture.

  • Comment number 17.

    Debates have raged for ages now about the conflict of providing useful and informative writing with providing a story and style which interests the masses. Pandering fear to the public will get you more readers, but a news agency is only as respectable as its audience. Such pandering will eventually loose you the educated and information seeking who will only be interested and connected the first two or three times such articles are published. After, they are more likely to be disgusted with the editors than the crime itself.

    Unfortunately, personal and drawing subjects such as these are just as important as useful and informative journalism, for what is a journalist without readers. Consider though, that a story about knifings could and should lead into the more informative and meaningful cause and effect of such things. Use these drawing subjects to inform your readers about the global decline of education, and the technological triggering of the breakdown of our base social structures.

    Anyone can write an emotional story about a teenager getting stabbed on the city streets. Only a writer can bring that subject and its readers out of that tabloidesq mire into a subject worthy of broadcast.

  • Comment number 18.

    Does anyone agree with me that the fact younger kids are inreasingly involved in violent crime might just be linked to the fact that they are carrying a lot more valuable things around with them than we ever did?
    As a teenager in the late seventies, I had little or no cash on me and certainly had nothing like a mobile phone / iPod / other expensive gadgets. In short, it would not have been worth attacking me, I had nothing to steal.
    In a brilliant book, 'Chagrin d'Ecole', French writer and teacher Daniel Pennac calculated how much 'on average' each of his pupils had on them. Counting the clothes and expensive shoes too, it made an impressive total.
    More things to steal + more things our consumer society makes youngsters feel they must have = more crime.

  • Comment number 19.

    Starbuck (#15): You're quite right that there's plenty of stuff about knife crime on Radio 4. That suggests to me that Radio 4 does indeed pander to the tabloid-reading masses.

    In what way do you think people being killed on the streets is serious news? Sure, it's serious for those directly involved, but that's a very small minority of people. It would be serious news if there were some huge underlying change in the murder rate, but there isn't. Our society has always had a small number of murders and always will. That's not news.

    If you think people being killed on the streets is serious news per se, then do you think it's OK the way the balance is struck between reporting knife crime and traffic offences? You might want to look up the stats for the number of people killed in knife attacks vs the number of people killed in road traffic crashes.

    Trouble is, road traffic safety doesn't make the news because the tabloid reading masses don't like to be told that their love of breaking the traffic laws (just see how many people seem to think they have a god-given right to do so whenever there is a Have Your Say on the subject) might not be such a good thing.

  • Comment number 20.

    Reporting on the circumstances leading to a horrific crime is interesting to many people, even some who claim they are not interested. However, reporting crime in a way that makes it seem ubiquitous in society is a problem.

    The critical thing here is the links the reporter makes. Casual observation makes me think reporters tend to link like to like. By linking similar crimes together, the overall crime presence grows in the public mind.

    However, if the reporter were to link crime to successful rehibilitation, or successful crime campaigns, or the successful efforts of someone looking to solve this crime (all emphasising the good in society), it creates a different picture. If done right, it could become a story to motivate people to find their own little hero or master problem-solver within.

    Stories like this will always be interesting to many people. The medias responsibility (if I had my way) would be to make sure the connections it makes to the interesting story are constructive ones, not destructive ones.

    The result is we get news on what is really happening, and possible ways to deal with serious problems all in one neat package.

    What's not to like?

  • Comment number 21.

    So far as I'm concerned, report on it or don't report on it - but if you do, report accurately and fairly. I have a letter from a BBC manager that states quite baldly that the BBC has no obligation to report opposition to govt policy even when the opposition is based on evidence and the govt policy isn't. I am waiting to see what the BBC Trust thinks of this approach to even-handedness, but frankly I'm not hopeful.

  • Comment number 22.

    A stabbing is news, especially when it is results in serious injury or death. However, surely you are trying to create your own news in this scenario. On your vox pop day out did you go up to people saying “we’re trying to put knife crime into context….Oh, by the way, have you seen any knife wielding youngsters?”

    This is the sort of thing the BBC should NOT be doing. I mean, what’s the point of it (no pun intended)?

    We have a big problem in society. Whereas in most countries kids work as soon as they are economically active, here we have a weird system of treating them like open prisoners being forced to attend school to learn things they will never ever put into practice in later life.

    Abolish secondary school, I say. Replace with a mixture of work and vocational college courses. Let kids try out different occupations. Let them make some mistakes. They are not valued at present. They are treated as economically irrelevant when they have so much to give – and they could be earning some money for themselves and their families.

    I know I am in a minority of 1 and I know I am off subject (not much here to do with the BBC), but it is no coincidence that every time the school leaving age is raised, problems with teenagers increase. Secondary school is a waste of time.

  • Comment number 23.

    Until we tell the truth about the gulf between the number of real events the public experience, and the officially recorded crime stats, which are at best only 1/4 of real events, the public will continue to be afraid, (including knife carrying hoodies), and the Government will continue to affect to believe that it is mostly a public perception management problem against a falling trend.

    In fact in the last 60 years or so crime in every category has gone up by a factor of ten times or more. Slight dips in somethings in the last decade or so, as long as base years are chosen carefully, are simply deeply misleading. So is the reiterated fact that there are more police than ever before, so what. The work load per officer has never been higher and the chance of a perpetrator being detected, caught, charged, and incarcerated, have never been lower in the last half century. Simple answer crime pays and punishment is very very rare, and even prison, the worst we have, exceptionally soft.

  • Comment number 24.

    Note to Mods.

    After pressing 'post comment' there is no message saying, 'done' or 'accepted' or 'thank you'.

    How do I know it was sent?

    Do I just presume so if a blank screen finally appears.

    Easy to add a little loop that says, 'Thank You', or just 'Done' if you didn't really want to hear the punter's rants!

  • Comment number 25.

    Laptops from MI6 going missing ....Top secret files found on trains ..... Child benefit data discs lost .....SHOULD WE REALLY BE EVEN CONSIDERING THE IDEA OF COMPUTER ID CARDS IN THE UK ?
    oneparentfamily group


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