The Myth Factory

I'm not alone in noticing that the Economist are doing a good job of contrasting Conservative rhetoric with the data. The most significant bits of the article for me:

Chief among people's worries is their security. Under Labour, fear of crime climbed until by 2007 it had become the issue that pollsters identified as the main complaint among voters. The heightened fears are a puzzle to criminologists, who point out that over the past 15 years Britain has experienced a steady, deep fall in crime. The statistics are notoriously hard to interpret, but according to the British Crime Survey, the Home Office's most reliable measure though still far from perfect, crime overall has dropped by 45% since its peak in 1995. [...] Violent crime has fallen too. It is now almost half what it was in 1995, and no higher than in 1981.

Broken Britain?

This is particularly interesting given the way in which this, deliberately fabricated, tabloid impression of soaring violent crime has become one of the main rhetorical weapons in neo-racist polemic. There are more black young men in England (which is true) therefore, clearly, there is more violent crime (which isn't). Not unusual logic, but if you read print media it is a narrative largely unchallenged. Westminster really haven't helped, which I'll return to in a moment.

Gun crime has in fact been pretty flat nationwide. Data on knife crime are poor, but some doctors say that they are dealing with more stabbings, and the number of murders involving "sharp instruments" (bottles as well as knives) has risen slightly. Murders using guns increased alarmingly during the first few years of Labour's time in office, but have since dropped back down. Indeed, the day before Mr Cameron made his "broken society" pitch it was announced that the total number of homicides recorded by the police was at its lowest in 19 years.

In other words, gun control and public education programs have largely worked. News at 10.

[...] Parents have probably never been more worried about their offspring, but the truth is that children seem to be less at risk now than in the past. The number of killings of under-15s has "collapsed" since the 1970s, according to Colin Pritchard of Bournemouth University. Professor Pritchard calculates that in 1974 Britain was the third-biggest killer of children in the rich world. By his reckoning it is now 17th, following a 70% drop in child homicides. He credits closer co-operation between police and social services, which kicked off in a big way in 1979. Children also seem to be committing fewer serious offences themselves.

Which is interesting on so many levels. Firstly, it indicates that the vast, multi-million pound paranoia exercises of the Daily Fail and the Sun have been growing in precisely inverse proportion to the actual threat. They began the huge social campaigns, and were rewarded with government-endorsed witch-hunts like the Sex Offenders Register, because actual instances of child abuse and murder were no longer as common as they were during the Baby Boomer's own "good old days".

It's pretty difficult to argue that this represents anything other than an entirely cynical move by opinion formers to generate fictional, and thereby targettable, public outrage which could fuel reactionary agendas; and incidentally sell more newspapers.

Secondly, in spite of perennial underfunding of social services high-profile media trials like Victoria Climbie and Baby P, the multi-lateral approach to child safety adopted since 1979 works. I suspect that I should say "worked"; the new-legislation-any-legislation approach adopted by New Labour may well have ended that progress, bringing in (as it has) a statutory assumption of guilt in place of the traditional assumption of innocence. And the thing about these numbers is that they make it abundantly clear that the whole exercise is functionally unnecessary.

The last sentence draws an inescapable correlation between the Establishment's attitude to People of Colour and the Establishment's attitude to people under 30. The myth that young people, and particularly adolescents, are demonic devourers of our noble future, indulging in a great tsunami of thoughtless and expensive-to-shareholders crime, has been the main plank in UKGov's Killjoy Initiative for as long as I've been in England. Not just New Labour, this one; I remember the way the Tories spun the Stephen Lawrence murder. The problem, clearly, wasn't fascists running amok in South London, it was youth violence. No ideology, just those dreadful, mindless vandals we call our children.

Whys and Wherefores

This all leads me to a contemplation of sorts. I cannot help but associate the radical divergence between the public discourse of crime and security in Britain, and the actual facts thereof, to the Septicisation [1] of British public life.

Ever hear the phrase "Soft on drugs, Soft on crime!"? The standard tactic of USian conservatives to any liberal disccourse on social evolution has been "ALERT! ALERT! THEY WANT YOUR CHILDREN SHOOTING HEROIN IN LESSONS! PANIC! PANIC" And along with the increasingly presidential style of our Prime Ministerial candidates, this approach to derailing progress toward social maturity has been imported with a vengeance. One could distill much Tory rhetoric since 1995 into "Soft on youth, Soft on the causes of youth!" [2] Or "Soft on immigrants, Soft on the causes of crime!" Or, "Soft on the disabled, Soft on the causes of crime!" ... Wait, what?

And because, at heart, Tony Blair is a fundamentalist, moralising plutocrat, he and his party have not only let them do this, they've actively helped. Observation of Clinton-era politics in the US scared the roses out of the New Labour regime. They concluded, erroneously, that in order to be in government while tarred with the "left wing" brush, you have to outflank the reactionaries on crime so that they can't beat you with that stick at the polls.

Labour proceeded to talk up, agree with and then implement nearly the whole reactionary agenda, from ASBOs and curfews and 42-day no-trial detentions right across to drug classification and the Iraq War. The Nutt-sack affair demonstrated that they were happier to cause a public scandal with taxpayer money than to breach the First and Second Commandments of the Prophet Blair: Though Shalt Not Be A Liberal (Where Anyone Can See), and Thou Shalt Not Be A Socialist (Unless Red Ken Embarrasses You Into It).

And all this without mentioning the fact that one, just one, terrorist incident in a whole decade has caused more media, public and legislative panic than 30 years of successful assassinations and bombings by the PIRA. Omagh alone killed almost as many as 7/7, let alone the mainland bombings and royal assassinations and so on and further.

Britons are more scared of crime, not because there is more crime but because both major parties and the print media all see a direct benefit to themselves in this being the case. The Establishment discourse of public safety, social policy and policing is now strictly fictional; it bears no relationship to the facts on the ground.

[1] As in, Septic Tank; Yank.
[2] By which they mean working class Northern women.



Re: The Myth Factory
Posted by Anonymous (81.100.xx.xx) on Mon 8 Mar 2010 at 20:14
Very interesting article; I like it! However, I'm not a big fan of conspiracy talk exactly because of cases like this; unless you have insider information on the conduct of the Chief Editor and the Head Honchos at the Daily Sun and other magazines, I wouldn't be so quick to jump the gun on whether they're writing these kind of stories with an agenda, it could be as simple as, "-What bothers you bob? -Well I don't know, I've got a kid and I've heard about these knife crimes amongst kids, I'm kind of concerned...-Why don't you write an article about it?". These things can then propogate by chronological osmosis as easy as 1-2-3.
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Re: The Myth Factory
Posted by Anonymous (81.100.xx.xx) on Mon 8 Mar 2010 at 20:17
Woops, Daily Mail and the Sun, not the Daily Sun :)

Re: The Myth Factory
Posted by johnqpublican (88.96.xx.xx) on Tue 9 Mar 2010 at 12:08 [ Send Message ]

I'm not sure where you got "conspiracy" from; it's not like it's a new idea that Murdoch and company manipulate public awareness to create scandals, because scandals sell newspapers.

What's significant here is that government are actively helping to present a narrative about current affairs which is, quite simply, factually wrong, because it serves their own interests.

You also seem to have missed one of the things about these figures which is most telling; the people shouting about the Yoof of Today were children and teenagers during a period which was much more violent, much more drunken, and 75% more likely to kill children under the age of 15.

Nostalgia overwrites their own, real childhoods as a golden age. As a result, they assume that what they see today must be worse than their own sunny childhoods. They don't seem to realise that they, themselves, perpetrated double the crime rate of today's teenagers. Or that they were, in the 1950s and early 1960s, much more likely to be sexually or physically abused, and three time s as likely to be murdered, as today's children.

They are projecting onto today's youth a memory of their own generation's violent and predatory adolescence.

Re: The Myth Factory
Posted by devi (95.149.xx.xx) on Tue 9 Mar 2010 at 09:02 [ Send Message ]
I appreciate this. Bookmarking for use in sociology classes.

I find it very telling that people have been saying society is disintegrating and The Youth are running wild, in almost the exact same words, since classical antiquity.
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