Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fear of the fear of crime

I don't often use this blog to promote my current day-time interest HoldtheFrontPage but this story which we ran today courtesy of the Oxford Mail really touched a nerve with me, as well as raising a wider political question.

I too was one of that generation of local newspaper reporters who would spend literally hours each week talking to local police sergeants and inspectors on the phone or sometimes even in person as they reeled off scores of local misdemeanours for use in the paper.

Since the "professionalisation" of police press offices began in the mid-90s, that source of information has dried up, with the Mail's investigation revealing that just 22 out of more than 6,000 reported crimes during July were being passed on to reporters.

At first, I assumed this was sheer laziness on the part of police PROs who thought they had bigger fish to fry. In fact it seems it's part of a deliberate police spin operation to reduce the fear of crime by not telling the public it is happening.

This of course has wider political implications. If all the crime that takes place in any local area was reported in the local paper, as it used to be, would not the government be coming under greater pressure to do something about it than is currently the case?

It's probably beyond the scope of the Oxford Mail's investigation, but it does beg the question whether in this case the police were acting on their own initiative, or whether they were themselves under pressure to reduce the fear of crime for political reasons.

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5 comments:

MorrisOx said...

What a shocking and disgraceful story.

All too, symptomatic, I'm afriad, of a public sector managocracy which believes it is accountable to Government first, public second.

It isn't a very big leap from here to a conclusion that a Government which bases its crime analyses on perceptions rather than statistics has told Chief Constables in fairly fundamental terms that 'managing perceptions' is an important part of a successful police chief's job.

Paul Linford said...

Indeed, MorrisOx, and it would be entirely consistemt with a government which regards policy and presentation as indistinguishable.

Oli said...

In the early-2000's there was a team of 5 people in the Home Office whose stated job was to "Manage down the fear of crime in the population". They spent most of their time going 'round Mothers Union tea-parties telling people that crime was not a problem, really. Looks like the PRO's fell into their clutches ...

They were known simply as the 'Fear of Crime Team'; last I heard, they were expanding rapidly.


Oli.

Stonehead said...

While a large part of the problem is undoubtedly due to "news management" by the police, another part of the problem is under-staffing and under-training in the press.

When I started as a cadet reporter, I spent a vast amount of time at crime and accident scenes, interviewing everyone I could find: police, witnesses, family and friends of the victim, family and friends of the suspect etc. I had contacts in the emergency services who would give me a tip-off when something happened (I had a good expense account for drinks!) and, this being Australia, I also had a radio scanner on my desk.

By the time I joined the Oxford Mail as deputy editor to Jim McClure, reporters no longer had the time, training or inclination to go after stories in that way. Instead, they'd be given a press release from the newsdesk, call the police press office for a fresh quote and an update, and bang the story out. Next!

In that sort of environment, it's not surprising the police management can control the news agenda so effectively.

At the Mail, Jim used to get rather hot under the collar about journalists who failed to develop and maintain contacts, and instead relied on being fed press releases by PR stooges.

As to the answer, I don't know. I tried to get "my" trainees to develop genuine contacts and really work a story, but gave up on journalism as a joke in the end and took up pig farming instead.

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