The fear of crime: is Britain entering a lawless era?

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By Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, Professor of Economics
Department of Economics, University of Birmingham

giving the impression that we live in a dangerous country, filled with criminals who are fearlessly terrorising people with the police helpless to control them.

In most Western countries, including the UK, crime rates have fallen over the recent years. Surprisingly, crime rates continued to fall during the recession. Yet, even during the years of steady decline, media portrayals often suggest that crime has been on the rise.

It’s therefore no surprise that when crime figures actually increased this year, the media sensationalised it.  A recent dramatic headline – ‘Lawless Britain: More than half of Britons fear Police have lost control, poll says’ – is reflective of the wider problem that we are facing, giving the impression that we live in a dangerous country, filled with criminals who are fearlessly terrorising people with the police helpless to control them.

This sensationalising of a so-called ‘crime surge’ in Britain has also been seen in the media’s coverage of the increase of knife crime in London, with comparisons that London is facing an epidemic to rival New York. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the reality is far more complex and part of the ‘surge’ may be no more than a year-to-year fluctuation. Similarly, there is no reason to believe that we have suddenly entered an era of lawlessness.

This is not to say that crime isn’t rising. In fact, we know that the landscape of crime is changing, with law enforcements struggling to grasp the concept of cybercrime. Furthermore, in its admirable attempt to tackle exploitation and prevent terrorism, the police forces may well be stretched for resource. With little resource, we can expect the police force to have less time to tackle the pettier, but more visible, crimes the way the public would like it to.

Finally, it is clear that the findings of the survey, on which the media have based their headlines, are contradictory. It is true that when asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “police officers have lost control of our streets and criminals no longer have any fear of being caught and brought to justice”, 57% agreed or agreed strongly. Yet, the same survey shows a reasonable degree of satisfaction with the police force, with only 14% rating it poor or very poor. As well as this, 92% of people feel safe in the streets during the day and 56% do at night.

Though there is a genuine fear of crime among some sections of the population, one of the reasons behind the apparent worry shown in the results may be due to the way that the survey questions were framed. Even among victims of crime, over two thirds are satisfied with the police. This apparent contradiction may well reflect the way that people respond to leading statements and suggests methodological failings in the way that the survey was carried out.

Crime and its impact on society is enormous. There are costs incurred not only in the criminal justice system, but also on healthcare. The impact on victims and their families is also enormous, with implications for their physical and psychological wellbeing. The media has an important role to play in informing citizens and highlighting failures in policing, but news should be based on facts. By sensationalising crime figures, the media is not playing its role as an unbiased watchdog.

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