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Kids and knives

Tom Giles | 09:10 UK time, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

There have been few more emotive issues recently than that of teenagers carrying and killing with knives. At its height last year, British coverage of the subject attracted attention around the world - often for its perceived sensationalism.

Panorama logoAnti-knife campaigns - whether by newspapers, the relatives of victims, government
or the police - have become a recurring event, as has the sparring between political parties over the rights and wrongs of knife crime statistics. Here's a few recent cases.

Unravelling these statistics is difficult. The time-lag doesn't help. The latest annual figures for cautions, prosecutions and convictions cover 2007. Categories often overlap and, historically, knife-crimes haven't always been counted separately. Scotland also records their figures in a different way from England and Wales. So interviewing those whose actions are at the heart of all this controversy - the teenagers convicted of murder and manslaughter with knives - couldn't be undertaken lightly. Some would say that it shouldn't be at all. So it's worth explaining how this week's Panorama - Jailed for a Knife - happened.

The reporter Raphael Rowe first approached the Ministry of Justice for permission to do so after talking to a mother whose daughter had been stabbed to death by another teenaged girl. Many months after a harrowing trial, she told him that she was now willing to meet the killer in prison to ask her why she had carried a knife, what had prompted her aggression and anger.

Young offender from Panorama's Jailed for a Knife looking out of a windowFilming or arranging this meeting wasn't possible but, after a long wait, the authorities instead saw merit in allowing Raphael into two selected Young Offenders' Institutions to speak to convicted knife offenders who had expressed remorse for their crimes.

Eight were selected by the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service. Our interviews with five of them reflect a range of crimes - some inner-city and gang-related, some the result of teenage fights in smaller towns. We could never assume that the families of their victims, or the victims themselves, would be comfortable with these interviews. They might find them traumatic and unacceptable. So, wherever possible, we wrote to those affected - via the Ministry's Victim Liaison team - to make it clear what we planned to do.

We said we aimed to challenge the offenders about their behaviour, to throw light onto what had led to their crimes and to show other youngsters, who might be tempted to carry a knife, the consequences of doing so. In subsequent letters, e-mails or phone-calls, some families expressed very strong views about the punishment (or lack of it) they felt these offenders had received - feelings which were put to our interviewees.

It should be pointed out that expressions of remorse and changed behaviour can affect how long offenders continue in prison after their minimum recommended sentence - 12 or 13 years in some cases - has passed. But those we spoke to did appear remorseful, understanding that "sorry" would never be enough. They didn't expect sympathy for the circumstances of their crimes, arguing that sentences could be stronger. Viewers will have to make up their own minds.

It was a sobering four days for the team, including producer Katy Stead and assistant producer, Alison Priestley, seeing young men grasping to understand their crimes, the lives they had destroyed and the grim future many resented them even having. By the end though, they hoped there was some value in trying to warn other young people away from what they had done.

Much later, Panorama commissioned a poll about views on knife crime. It seems to suggest a large majority (especially among 16-24s) could see clear benefit in young people hearing what offenders like our five had to say. We're hopeful there is.

Tom Giles is deputy editor of Panorama.


  • Comment number 1.

    As well as UK kids you should make comparisons with other countries and also mention that poor people and alcohol also cause similar knife incidents especially in third world countries.

  • Comment number 2.

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

  • Comment number 3.

    I think you are wise to be a little cautious about the expression of 'remorse' by offenders serving indeterminate sentences.

    Personally I would like to see more use of the victim/victim-relative meetings, particularly with younger offenders who will still have a substantial criminal career left ahead of them if they are released without change.

    Great programme.

  • Comment number 4.

    I am surprised that victim/victim-relative meetings are not a requirement of the parole system. If we can be sure that the sentencing is appropriate (if it can be challenged by either side) then release on license should be equally subject to "prosecution" comment, particularly on the subject of remorse.

    However I am not sure that all this takes place at the correct "end" of the process. There is an argument that suggests that justice dispensed quickly and effectively is much more likely to discourage would be offenders than any other measure. As it is our CJS appears to take far too long in reaching the trial stage. This means that for most of us (but not the victim/victim relative) have largely forgotten the horrific nature of knife crime and many other crimes have already been added to saturate and desensitize feeling on all sides.

    I feel we must have agreement on much longer minimum sentences for any crime involving an offensive weapon, used or not.

  • Comment number 5.

    We have always had people not just children as they become when they are in the media have always carried some weapon look at the rich who get to own and shoot guns even the Royals for their safety same as for most people. This idea that you can rely on the police which we all pay for is laughable.

    guns, knives are carried so that the person can feel safe when they are used to rob others or kill others then this is when the media screams about it. But as people feel vulnerable then it grows, the police are well tooled up now and can us any amount of force even if wrong look at Stockwell? and we see them get off so what is the difference between the police and the young both are humans no matter what some people think

  • Comment number 6.

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

  • Comment number 7.

    My son has just been on Ebay, there seems little point in knife amnesty's when you can buy 15" stainless steen Crocodile Dundee knives for under £20. You can't buy a gun through them, they should also stop selling knives.

  • Comment number 8.

    I watched the start of Panorama and saw that all the youths shown were coloured. Where there any white youths being interviewed? The impression I got was that this was a coloured youth problem. Is it?

  • Comment number 9.

    I disagree with your comment " perceived sensationalism". The huge increase in knife crime is not perceived it is brought home to us all EVERY day.

    The overwhelming bias towards the offenders under the criminal justice act seem to have encouraged more crime, add on to this the criminally low sentences handed out by out of touch judges, is it any wonder that violent crime figures are "Perceived" to be on the up?.

  • Comment number 10.

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

  • Comment number 11.

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

  • Comment number 12.

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  • Comment number 13.

    A mate of mine who by the way is not a teenager but is black and to all of you 'oh I must not offend the blacks, they are such lovely people' always carries a knife. I asked him why and he said ' because all blacks do' I'm sure they don't but even my mate would admit that more blacks do than whites, but I don't expect the BBC to report that fact because they like to manipulate the news and in a weird obscene way, control us. I respect my mate because he is honest but I don't respect the BBC because they are not.

    A friend of mine is a Jew, he thinks what is being done to the people of Gaza is a crime but like the above I don't expect the BBC to report that.

  • Comment number 14.

    There does seem to have been a definite air of sensationalism and exaggeration in the recent media focus on knife crime.

    Take a look at world statistics and on pretty much all you'll see that proportional to population, Britain is one of the safest countries in the world when it comes to knife crime, along with crime in general (beaten only by the Scandinavian countries and a few other smallish countries). The frequency of unarmed fist-fights (largely drink induced) is the only specific problem we really fall down on.

    Read a typical Sunday newspaper though and it almost seems like the streets of Zimbabwe are safe than London. The sad reality though is that a few dozen murders amongst a city of over 7 million is a historically low figure and is almost unparalleled amongst other cities of London’s size around the world.

    Rather than report reality, which shows London as one of the safest of the “mega-cities” of the world, elements of the media turn public perception right around and instead create the perception that it’s one of the most dangerous. One has to wonder what is the purpose of this public fear elements of the media seem deliberately keen to induce?

  • Comment number 15.

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

  • Comment number 16.

    Although my previous post was removed for suggesting that the audited knife crimes statistics would show an increase, I take no delight in being proved correct.

    Perhaps now is the time for the BBC to start reporting the real state of the UK, and less spinning the Labour lie.

  • Comment number 17.

    You can be as 'hopeful' about warning youngsters to stay away from carrying weapons all you like, but perhaps it's worth looking at some misguided grandparents such as David Britton, from Beckenham, Kent who wrote in the Daily Mail Letters column on Sept., 15th, 2008, under 'See sense on knives', and you'll see why you'll be wasting your time. It read;
    'My 13-year old grandson lives in the country and has embraced rural pursuits. He keeps chickens, ducks and sheep, has built a chicken house, taught himself to kill, skin and clean rabbits and loves sleeping under canvas and making dens.
    All these activities require him to carry a knife. I'm very worried he may be apprehendid by police and find himself with a criminal record - although you couldn't find anyone more removed from the knife crime which blights our cities.
    One would hope the police and judiciary could see that he poses no threat to anyone, but does the law allow for common sense to prevail?
    In many cases we read of (Lettters), it appears not'.
    So far as I know, it was written with a straight face!


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