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Monday, August 20, 2007 

Anarchy in the UK?

How then was your weekend? Did you go anywhere, or just stay in and reminisce on how your life's slowly slipping away while watching box sets of the X-Files like I did? If you went out, was anything unusual, out of place or just seem different? Was there more vomit than usual in the gutter, had the police been strung up from the nearest lamppost, were gangs of marauding youngsters engaged in bloody battles for survival and who had control of the conch? Or was everything pretty much as well, normal?

For satire and parody to work best, there has to be an incredibly fine line between the truth and the embellishment of it. Sometimes, even the best of us slip into self-parody, often without realising it. Does this occur because we're dubious of our own pretensions and doubtful about what it is we're talking about? Or is it completely subconscious, happening for reasons beyond our own control that we might not recognise for a time to come?

I ask all of this because of today's Sun front page, which claims that Britain is now a country under siege, anarchy finally emerging in the UK, as yobs rule the streets and knife crime soars. The Mirror also joins in, with its own survey which finds that 42% don't feel safe in the streets of their neighbourhood at night. Is it true? Has the inevitable really happened?

Rather, Britain seems to have had a pretty typical weekend. The Sun bases its anarchy claim on the fact that a police station was besieged by a mob, that a man and a teenage boy were murdered in separate incidents, and that paramedics were attacked while providing aid to a man and a boy. Actually, the Sun didn't put it anywhere near as calmly as that. Here, dear reader, is a trip in to the world of Sun journalism, which even by its standards seems to have descended into the realms of unreasonable hysteria or even self-parody:

BRITAIN is on the brink of ANARCHY after a weekend of yob violence, campaigners said last night.

As figures revealed knife crime had DOUBLED in two years, a string of incidents left law-abiding citizens living in terror.

A mob BESIEGED a police station.

A man and a teenage boy were MURDERED in separate incidents and paramedics were ATTACKED as they tended a father and son.

In one county, 999 callers were told there were only THREE police on duty in a town of 22,000 people.

If we first consider the murders from a statistical basis, 2 in a weekend is actually lower than the average. The official police figures recorded 755 homicides last year. Do the math: that's 14 a week and 2 every day, which when you consider there's a population of around 60 million is low, and is by the standards of most other countries.

The knife crime statistics, produced by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies do on the face of it look rather shocking. The figures both Sun and Guardian articles refer to aren't available online yet, so I can't see how they were reached (I've emailed them asking for a copy), but is it really possible there are 175 robberies every day involving a knife, meaning that the number of muggings involving a blade have doubled from 25,500 to 64,000 within 2 years? According to the British Crime Survey
(PDF), the risk of being a victim of violent crime is 3.6%, although this rises to 13.8% if you're male and between the age of 16 and 24. The police recorded robbery statistics increased by three percent over the last year, but this was still 16% down on the last real peak in robbery which was in 2001/02. The Mirror article also dabbles in suggesting its YouGuv poll says something it doesn't: the opening paragraph says 42% are too scared to leave their homes at night, but the poll only suggests 42% don't feel safe in their neighbourhood at night, not that they don't leave their house because of it. How many people honestly do feel safe walking around anywhere on their own at night? I sure I'm not alone in suggesting it makes me apprehensive at the very least.

Naturally, spouting statistics does nothing to bring back those who have died or others who have had their mobile phones or mp3 players unceremoniously stolen, and it's certainly no match to such articles which attempt to set out what some do indeed see as the reality on the streets. The question has to be though on just how much influence such constant scaremongering, both in the press and on the TV has on the public mood and perception of how safe they feel and how safe their town or local area is.

Perhaps it just happens to be a coincidence that this latest crisis of lawlessness has apparently happened during the silly season, where over the weekend news was increasingly difficult to come by, what with the Heathrow protesters deciding not to storm the runways after all, after the press informing everyone they were going to be leaving hoax suspect packages everywhere. As the old maxim goes, no news is a great excuse to make it up. This isn't to deny that these are indeed genuine fears felt by a large number of people, especially in the inner cities, but is this really anywhere near anarchy?

Even if we accept the scale of the problem is near what the tabloids are suggesting, what's the solution? Ever since the murder of James Bulger the rhetoric has gotten tougher, the punishments harsher and according to both the police and the BCS the chance of being a victim of crime is at its lowest in a generation, but still we have the same never relenting demands for even more draconian action. Peter Fahy, after making some daft comments about taking children into care for being drunk at the weekend, was more thoughtful in comments recorded by the Grauniad: suggesting a rebalancing of the criminal justice system, not in favour of the victim as Blair and co preached, but in favour of rehabilitation and then sanctions rather than punishment. The most obvious problem with this though is manifest: despite the early release scheme, which the Sun and the Tories predicted would result in 25,000 prisoners getting out early, the prison population is actually back at the 80,000 level, meaning police cells are having to be used yet again. Rehabilitation in overcrowded jails is made much more difficult, if not nigh on impossible. The Sun's simplistic solution, to put ever more police officers on the streets, even though we have the highest number of police ever, can also have the opposite effect: it increases the fear that crime is more rampant than it actually is, and the actual deterrent effect it's meant to have has never actually been demonstrated.

Whether this latest panic dies down again once some other news comes along or not, the resulting underlying mood doesn't go away. Some are scared, and the news they read and see only increases their worries. Perhaps the best way to illustrate how some of this journalism influences the public is in one of the comments on the Sun's website itself:

this is how dirty,disgusting Britain is nowadays, i absolutely hate the country with all its yobs,paedophiles,rapists,murderers,criminals, WAGS, cheap girls,shallow girls. there is absolutely NOTHING good about this country...even the food chain is contaminated on every level.my advice is to get out of this disgusting low level country with its politicians with mental issues and the so called "Lords" who makes the most outrageous laws in the world.

Either that, or even online newspapers continue to attract those who used to write in green ink.

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'Youth is out of control' and 'crime is out of control' are two of the main overarching myths pushed by the tabloids. 'Immigration is a Bad Bad Thing that's ruining the country' and 'Political Correctness Gone Mad is a Bad Bad Thing that's ruining the country' is another. Studies and figures and all sorts of evidence get distorted, played about with or just plain lied about until they fit.

People talk about how Littlejohn is a master at repeating himself without his regular readers getting bored, but really the tabloids do it all the time. It seems that some people want to be told over and over again that the country has turned into one of those 80s movies with 'Bronx' in the title.

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