The UK government is falsely lumping together
crime, antisocial behaviour, immigration and terrorism to
create the illusion of one big rising threat. TV and
newspaper reports relay the government line with scarcely
any sceptical analysis.
SCARY CRIME HEADLINES
The media has, for years, reported "spiralling"
crime. But the British Crime Survey (regarded as authoritative
by most criminologists) says the risk of becoming a victim
of crime is at "an historic low". Domestic burglary
and vehicle crime, for example, have more than halved over
the past decade.
Some sections of the media have focused on "rises"
in violent crime. The BBC, for instance, has provided the
"Violent crime figures rise by 12%"
"Gun crime figures show fresh rise" (21/10/04)
"Violent crime increases by 6%" (25/1/05)
"Violent offences top million mark" (21/7/05)
"Violent crime and robbery on rise" (26/1/06)
In fact, violent crime has fallen since 1995 the official
figures are clear on this (an in-depth investigation by BBC's
Panorama acknowledged the drop in violence). The above
headlines are misleading as they don't take into account changes
in recording practices (in 1998 and 2002) which have artificially
inflated violent crime figures. For example:
Certain "antisocial" behaviours (eg minor
scuffles) have been reclassified as crime, with the effect
of doubling recorded violent crime.
A violent crime with several victims is no longer
recorded as a single crime. An incident with three victims,
for instance, is now recorded as three crimes.
The artificial nature of the "increase" in violence
is confirmed by the Home Office's statisticians, who say that
"recorded violent crime has been inflated over the last
few years by changes in recording practices [
reporting by the public and increased police activity."
(Home Office Bulletin, July 2006 ).
BBC ADMITS ERROR
On the Ten O'Clock News (BBC1,
20/10/05), Fiona Bruce announced that violent crime had "significantly"
increased. We complained to the BBC that this was incorrect
(the official figures showed that the "increase"
of 6% was not "significant", but was
an artificial inflation). The BBC's Editorial Complaints
Unit eventually wrote back, after an investigation, and
agreed that BBC1 news had breached editorial guidelines on
"truth and accuracy", and that there was "no
basis" for claiming a significant rise in violent crime.
Moral: don't assume the BBC bothers to research its own news.
More details of our complaint to
the BBC >
THE MYTHICAL GOLDEN AGE
Decades of headlines on "soaring"
violence give the impression that society is forever becoming
more dangerous. This reinforces the conservative belief that
we're undergoing a moral decline from some earlier Platonic
Historic researchers present a totally different picture.
Ted Robert Gurr, in Historical Trends in Violent Crimes,
writes that, in Britain, "the incidence of homicide has
fallen by a factor of at least ten to one since the thirteenth
century". He adds that the "long-term declining
trend" in such violence is a "manifestation of cultural
change in Western society". In other words, we're becoming
more civilised over time.
Manuel Eisner, in Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent
Crime, claims that "serious interpersonal violence
decreased remarkably in Europe between the mid-sixteenth and
the early twentieth centuries". The urban historian Eric
Monkkonen concurs: "Personal violence homicide
has declined in Western Europe from the high levels
of the Middle Ages. Homicide rates fell in the early modern
era and dropped even further in the nineteenth and twentieth
Another alleged symptom of moral decline
is "yobbish" behaviour. The government portrays
this as a new and growing menace. Whitehall press officers
were no doubt pleased with a recent ICM poll, for the BBC,
which found that "lack of respect" topped the list
of reasons why people felt Britain was "worse than 20
years ago". Crime and terrorism came second and third.
Perhaps if we lived longer we'd have a sense of déjà
vu over this. For example, in 1898, newspapers in England
warned of the menace of "hooligans" and of a "dramatic
increase in disorderly behaviour". The Times reported
"organised terrorism in the streets". In every decade
of the 20th century there were similar media panics.
One can go back even further in time and witness the same
sense of alarm at a perceived moral breakdown:
"What is happening to our
young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their
parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed
with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become
(Plato, 4th Century BC)
"When I was young, we were
taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present
youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint".
(Hesiod, 8th century BC)
"We live in a decaying age.
Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude
and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no
(Inscription, 6,000 year-old Egyptian tomb)
In April 1738, the press covered
a report from a British Government committee which had been
set up to "examine the causes of the present notorious
immorality and profaneness".
In the 1800s, hordes of teens
and pre-teens ran wild in American city streets, dodging authorities,
"gnawing away at the foundations of society", as
one commentator put it. In 1850, New York City recorded more
than 200 gang wars fought largely by adolescent boys.
"Juvenile delinquency has
increased at an alarming rate and is eating at the heart of
America". (US juvenile court judge, 1946)
TONY BLAIR'S GRANDMOTHER
Tony Blair's PR crusade against antisocial
youth backfired recently. During a photo-opportunity, he hosed
down graffiti and commented that older generations of his
family would have abhorred such behaviour. The Daily Mirror
then reported that Blair's grandmother was a "commie"
Blair also talked of a Golden Age when "people behaved
more respectfully to one another", but a friend of his
late grandmother, Alex Morrison, 86, said: "he is speaking
absolute rubbish. Poverty and misery were widespread and it
was a violent place as well".
FEAR OF TERROR
The police have often acknowledged that
fear of crime is out of proportion to the risk of crime for
most people in this country. The same is no doubt true of
terrorism. According to the MIPT terrorism knowledge base,
the total number of US and UK (including Northern Ireland)
fatalities caused by terrorism in the five years after 9/11
was 74, compared to 68 in the five years before. The corresponding
totals for Iraq are 15,763 and 12, respectively. That should
put fear of terrorism into perspective for UK and US citizens.
Unfortunately, as Michael Bond reports in New Scientist,
people base their fears more on the vividness of events than
on the probability of them reoccurring. And since television
presents very vivid coverage of any attack (or foiled attack,
rumoured attack, etc) on UK or US soil, it is "destroying
our probabilistic mapping of the world", according to
Nicholas Taleb, professor in the sciences of uncertainty at
the University of Massachusetts.
There have been several terror scares in Britain since 2001.
The Centre for Policy Studies published a report (The Use
and Abuse of Terror The construction of a false narrative
on the domestic terror threat) which investigated a few
of these, and found that despite media panic, they turned
out to be nothing. The report's authors concluded (on Channel
4's Dispatches): "We have shown that you can't
believe a word that you read in the newspapers about the terrorist
threat. We have also shown that the politicians are only too
ready to use terror as a political tool."
SCRAPPING MAGNA CARTA
Winston Churchill said we must never stop
proclaiming "the great principles of freedom
Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury
All of these, in theory, place limits on state power.
Tony Blair, however, argues for a "complete change of
thinking" in our legal system he wants to remove
what he sees as outdated constraints in tackling new threats.
Echoing Blair, the head of MI5 says "the world has
changed and there needs to be a debate on whether some erosion
of [civil liberties] may be necessary to improve the chances
of our citizens not being blown apart".
These arguments imply that crazed outlaws now pose a greater
danger to society than our legal system has ever had to deal
with. But this is contradicted by historic and contemporary
evidence for each type of threat, so our alarmist leaders
conflate several dangers crime, antisocial behaviour, terrorism,
identity fraud, etc into one big apocalyptic nightmare.
Then, taking this phoney doom-scenario as a premise, they
conclude the world has changed as never before, requiring
that we sacrifice our freedoms for "security". It's
an exercise in circular reasoning that would have us pay billions
in tax to fund mechanisms removing fundamental liberties.
(Sources, respectively: Home Office Statistical
Bulletin [HOSB], containing British Crime Survey, July 2003
& July 2006; BBC Online coverage of quarterly crime figures,
2004-2006; HOSB, July 2006; Panorama BBC1, 17/4/05; Guardian,
22/4/05; HOSB, July 2006; HOSB, October 2005; Gurr, Historical
Trends in Violent Crimes, 1981; Eisner, Long-Term Historical
Trends in Violent Crime, 2003; Monkkonen, Homicide: Explaining
America's Exceptionalism, 2006; ICM poll, BBC Online, 4/9/06;
Battered Britain, Channel 4 booklet, 1995; Egyptian inscription
quoted in Buckminster Fuller's 'I Seem to be a Verb'; Fortean
Times no. 39; Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear, p75-76;
Daily Mirror, 16/1/06; MIPT figures, tkb.org; New Scientist,
19/8/06; Centre for Policy Studies/Dispatches, C4, 20/2/06;
Churchill speech, 5/3/1946; Blair speech, Labour Party conference,
2005; Eliza Manningham-Buller [MI5] speech, 1/9/05)