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Wednesday, December 07, 2011 

Where do we find these lunatics?

Even as someone with an, ahem, slight interest in the media and a loathing of the tabloids, I do on occasion get slightly tired of the knee-jerk bashing of the so-called popular press that gets featured in the "unpopular" Graun. Equally, on occasion, it's well worth reminding yourself of just how utterly vile the likes of the Sun can be: an editorial in today's paper comments, presumably in reference to the Graun's Reading the Riots research, that "[F]our months on, the Left has regrouped to concoct its perverse excuses for evil".

It's a sentence that sums up so much about the Sun's editorial mindset. That the "Left" would not have had to do any sort of "regrouping" had the government ordered a proper independent inquiry into the worst outbreak of disorder on our streets for a generation goes completely unmentioned. After all, why would they when both the Sun and the prime minister knew the causes the second the rioting began? It was what they've been spent the last umpteen years banging on about, not just the broken society, but a sick one, sick due to the collapse of responsibility, an underclass created through welfare dependency and worklessness, with the streets controlled by gangs. An inquiry might suggest that this wasn't a full or even partial picture, or worse still, have provided as the Sun so wonderfully puts it, "perverse excuses for evil".

This isn't to suggest that the Guardian and LSE's work has been a success, nor that its provisional findings can't be used to provide excuses. As others have pointed out, it's not wholly surprising that so many of those who took part hate the police, or are now pointing to their antipathy towards them as to why London and other parts of the country burned for four nights if they've been convicted previously. Far more interesting would have been a comparison between those convicted before they took part and those who hadn't as to their attitudes towards the police, as well as to how many times they'd been stopped and searched, if any. Indeed, even better would have been a quantitative rather than a qualitative study, or at least one running alongside the other: finding out why some from the same area and background rioted and others didn't would have added much to the debate. Instead, we're having to sift through those who not only enjoyed themselves but are now essentially boasting about what they did, such as the young man who supposedly came off a foreign holiday to take it part, and those who now deeply regret their getting caught up in the moment. Self-aggrandisment, rationalisation and honesty have all become mixed up.

To paint this though as "concocting perverse excuses for evil" is a wonderful reflection of the complete lack of curiosity on the part not of the Sun's readers, but on those who write for them, imagining they're speaking their language. At its heart it is not only obtuse and ignorant, it's also deeply anti-intellectual. You don't have to be even slightly sympathetic towards those who rioted to want to prevent it from happening again, and to even have a chance of that you have to at least attempt to understand why.

So much though when filtered through the tabloid impurity process becomes lost in translation. As they could have expected, the Homicide Review Advisory Group's call for a change to the law on murder has been ridiculed in the most disparaging terms when anyone can see that reform is long overdue. On a number of levels, the current mandatory sentence of at least 15 years and then a lifetime spent on licence is not working: not for those who commit a "mercy killing" who then take up the time of probation officers unnecessarily, nor for those who expect a "life" sentence to mean life, when in practice only a tiny number who receive them will never be released. In essence, what was originally passed as sop to those who opposed the abolition of capital punishment has become a monument to the lack of trust government has in judges. The very people who are best placed to rule on how dangerous someone is and how long they should serve before their case is reviewed are not fully trusted to do so.

In the Sun, all these nuances and reasoned arguments are reduced to liberal do-gooders wanting to downgrade murder. Whether or not either Linda Bowman or Richard Taylor were given a proper summary of what the report calls for or rather just told it argues for the abolition of mandatory life sentences, both ripped into any change, which was exactly what the paper wanted them to. Over in the same editorial as we began, the leader writer asks:

Where do we find these lunatics?

Where indeed.

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