Dialogue with BBC's Mark Easton
(on crime reporting)
We sent the following email to the BBC
reporter, Mark Easton, after watching his BBC1 news report
on crime (27/3/07) in which huge numbers of offenders/crimes
In your BBC1 report (Ten O'Clock News, 27/3/07) on
the 100,000 people who commit 50% of all crimes, you focused
on some big numbers "60 million" crimes per
year, "3.6 million" people committing crimes, etc.
With the low level of context you provided, these figures
seem meaningless. If you include people who drive over the
speed limit or who download pirated material, etc, no doubt
you'd get even bigger figures. It doesn't tell us much.
You could have made it meaningful by showing trends. For
example, the British Crime Survey shows a massive fall
of 8 million crimes between 1995 and 2006 (ie total 11.1 million
crimes in 2006 compared to 19.1 million in 1995).
I've received the strong impression (from watching BBC crime
coverage over several years), that the BBC is interested in
focusing only on perceived rises and big, shocking numbers.
It seems unnecessarily alarmist. When was the last time you
ran a major piece (on BBC1) on the dramatic falls in crime
since the mid-1990s?
Thank you for your mail. We have covered the trends identified
in the British Crime Survey many times and I have personally
made the point that both recorded crime and adults' experience
of crime from the BCS suggests a significant fall in crime
since its height in the mid-90s. I can send you numerous examples
of stories I have done which reflect on the fact that our
chances of being a victim of crime are, apparently, at the
lowest level for 25 years.
However, the BCS is not a particularly
good guide to true crime levels. It doesn't reflect the experience
of anyone under 16 even though 10-15 year-olds are among the
most likely to be victims of crime. It doesn't cover child
abuse and paedophilia. It doesn't get to many other sex crimes
and violent crime including a huge amount of domestic violence.
It doesn't reflect crimes which don't have an identifible
victim - for instance VAT fraud, tax evasion, drug dealing
and possession, huge amounts of theft.
VAT fraud costs the economy about
£5 billion a year. Shop-lifting cost the economy about
£2 billion a year. We convict 80,000 shop-lifters a
year. We convict about 60 VAT fraudsters.
We convict about 100,000 people
for TV licence evasion a year. We convict about 50 people
for tax evasion a year.
You are right about context -
I could have done with a lot more time - but the real context
is around the nature of crime and criminality in Britain not
the massaged and highly partial figures trotted out by government
You may be interested to know
that there are a number of criminologists who argue privately
that the fall in victims identified by the BCS has more to
do with a change in methodology regarding the weighting of
the data than it does to any real drop in crime.
Many thanks for addressing my points at length.
> We have covered the trends identified in the British
> many times and I have personally made the point that
> crime and adults' experience of crime from the BCS suggests
> significant fall in crime since its height in the mid-90s.
I appreciate that the BBC (in its entirety) covers a wide
range on crime. But I'm interested in *headline news* coverage
- since it reaches large audiences (particularly BBC1). I've
not seen a single BBC1 news report which *headlined* or *focused*
on the large falls in official crime figures (if you know
of any I'd be grateful if you could provide details). Yet
many/most headline or focus on cherry-picked "rises".
This is difficult to prove without going through hours of
footage with you, but it's reflected in BBC News Online *headlines*
on crime, which can be analysed. Here are all the headlines
on quarterly releases of official crime figures, July 2004
- January 2007:
"Violent crime figures rise by 12%" (22/7/04)
"Gun crime figures show fresh rise" (21/10/04)
"'Violent crime increases by 6%'" (25/1/05)
"Violent crime 'rise' sparks row" (21/4/05)
"Violent offences top million mark" (21/7/05)
"Violent crime shows 6% increase" (20/10/05)
"Violent crime and robbery on rise" (26/1/06)
"Robberies up 6% but crime stable" (27/4/06)
"Phones and MP3s fuel robbery rise" (20/7/06)
"Robbery continues on upward trend" (19/10/06)
"Risk of suffering crime 'rises'" (25/1/07)
Note that *all* of these headlines report "rises"
in crime. In our analysis - http://www.mediahell.org/crimeheadlines.htm
- we compare these headlines with the main summary points
in the official crime reports. The evidence could hardly be
clearer that there is systematic "cherry-picking"
of crime rises in BBC headlines.
As a further example, if you look at BBC News Online on the
latest quarterly figures - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6297715.stm
- you see the following:
"FROM THE ARCHIVE
2006: Phones fuel robbery
2005: Violent offences up 7%
2004: Violent crime rises 12%
2003: Crime fight 'being lost'
2002: Street robberies soar
2001: Violent crime on the rise
2000: Big rise in violent crime"
So whilst it may be true that the large falls in crime are
covered *somewhere* in BBC reporting, it's apparent that headline
coverage avoids it in favour of cherry-picked "rises"
(some them are not even real rises, but only artificial -
due to changed police recording procedures). It's equally
apparent from the official crime reports that the large falls
*should* be appearing in BBC headline coverage - assuming
that the aim of such coverage is to report the official figures.
The large and consistent falls in many crimes which matter
to the public (burglaries, vehicle crime, etc) - and dramatic
falls in overall crime over the last decade - hardly seem
like minor points that you'd want to exclude from headline
Of course, there's an important distinction to be made between
*reporting* the official crime figures and *challenging* the
validity of those figures. To the extent that BBC coverage
attempts to *report*, it shouldn't cherry-pick crime "rises"
in headline coverage. And to the extent that it seeks to challenge,
it shouldn't challenge only the British Crime Survey (BCS)
findings of falls in crime. It should also challenge the police-recorded
figures which have artificially inflated, for example, the
headline violent crimes figures.
> You may be interested to know that there are a number
> who argue privately that the fall in victims identified
by the BCS has
> more to do with a change in methodology regarding the
weighting of the
> data than it does to any real drop in crime.
I'd be grateful if you could supply more details. Also, why
would this be a "private" matter for these criminologists?
Most people I've spoken to believe that the BCS provides a
far more reliable guide to crime trends than police recorded
figures, since the latter are affected (sometimes dramatically)
by changes in levels of reporting to the police, and in police
I also remember a time (prior to the BCS showing falls in
crime) when many politicians and reporters preferred the BCS
to police figures, as the BCS includes crimes that aren't
reported to the police, and therefore presents higher figures
for the crimes it covers. When the BCS started showing downward
*trends* in crime, it rapidly lost favour with these politicians/reporters.
Coming back to the above BBC headlines, it seems that the
BCS figures are used for headlines *only* when they show rises
in crime (and are excluded when they show falls). For example,
the latest official crime figures (25 January 2007) show that
crime is up by 1% according to BCS, but down 3% according
to police figures. After the BBC headline-writers cherry-picked
police figures for 10 of the 11 above headlines, they suddenly
decide to go with the BCS figure for the latest headline.
The social context of this "cherry-picking" issue
includes a public fear of crime which is out of proportion
to the real risk of crime for most people (eg 1 in 3 elderly
women fear going outside, but only 1 in 4,000 will be attacked
- according to police).
The political context is of a government determined to implement
freedom-eroding legislation on the basis that the threats
we face (including those of crime) are "spiralling".
Yet the cold evidence shows no such "spiralling".
Of course, the evidence matters little if people are subjected
instead to the above type of scaremongering headlines on a
[...] Journalists tend to regard their
job as highlighting problems rather than reporting solutions.
There is a concern that focusing on positive trends is "soft",
that we must always be holding the executive to account on
where systems don't work.
I have some sympathy with this view,
but I agree that the BBC also has a public duty to present
a fair and accurate picture, not an unduly alarmist one.
My aim is to try and change the way
we report crime statistics - so that we don't pretend we can
actually know whether it is going up OR down. We might be
able to see trends with specific offences, - thanks to better
security systems the risk of having your car stolen has clearly
fallen, for example - but the claim that we can use the data
available to conclude that there have been "dramatic
falls in overall crime" is unsustainable I think. Neither
the BCS nor the recorded crime statistics get anywhere near
a measure of overall crime and it might be the people's reluctance
to believe the official figures is a reflection of this.
My intention on Tuesday night was not
to alarm people with big numbers but to point out that the
claim of a small criminal under-class doesn't withstand scrutiny.
There are no simple "lock 'em all up" solutions.
I wish I was able to offer you more
on those criminologists who question the BCS methodology.
My source (independent minded) is considering holding an academic
seminar to tease some of this out at which point I may be
able to say more.
Thanks for your reply. Earlier, you said you'd run numerous
stories which reflect that "our chances of being a victim
of crime are, apparently, at the lowest level for 25 years".
I then challenged you to provide *headline news* examples.
In the absence of such examples, would you not agree that
headline BBC1 news has focused primarily on crime "rises"
when reporting the official figures?
The BBC would need a very good reason to ignore trends of
falls in crime in headline news coverage. Is the scepticism
expressed by one or two anonymous criminologists over the
official reports of falls really sufficient? (Particularly
given that scepticism, publicly expressed by criminologists
and others, over "rises" in violent crime hasn't
stopped the BBC consistently focusing on these "rises"
in headline coverage).
> [...] the claim that we can use the data available
> that there have been "dramatic falls in overall
> unsustainable I think.
Is it meaningful to compare some hypothetical, absolute measure
of *all* crime (which is practically meaningless) with the
view of "overall" trends as presented by the official
crime figures? The BBC reports the official figures because
they combine the two most comprehensive datasets available
- police recorded figures and the British Crime Survey (BCS).
A close reading of the official figures shows that police
figures and BCS findings tend to complement and reinforce
each other (eg when one takes into account changed police
recording practices, etc) - including categories in which
crime has fallen. Indeed, BBC1's Panorama (17/4/05) reported
that the Association of Chief Police Officers acknowledged
that violent crime had remained stable (or had fallen) since
the late 1990s.
For the BBC to be justified in "cherry-picking"
crime rises from the official crime figures (in headline news
coverage), there would have to be some comprehensive crime
dataset in opposition to the official data (in ways which
support the BBC's focus on "rises"). To my knowledge
there is no such dataset.
> Neither the BCS nor the recorded crime statistics
> near a measure of overall crime and it might be the people's
> reluctance to believe the official figures is a reflection
> of this.
Most people are acquainted with the official crime figures
only to the extent that they're reported by the media - which,
as I've indicated, tends to cherry-pick crime rises. So it's
unsurprising that people don't believe crime is falling in
most areas covered by the official figures. After all, they've
been hearing (in the media) that crime is "rising"
on a continual basis for years/decades.
The perceived risk of crime, for most people, is taken from
the media rather than from personal experience. Two-thirds
of the people polled by 'Frontline' (a Channel 4 documentary
on crime, 4/10/95) said they received most of their information
on crime from TV. The reporter, Julie Flint, commented that
on questioning people about their crime fears, the majority
had no personal experience of crime, but theyd seen
how bad things "really were" on TV. This is common
sense - we're bombarded on a *daily* basis by media coverage
of crime. Most people are affected directly by crime much
less frequently. For example, the average house will be burgled
only once every 50+ years.
> There is a concern that focusing on positive trends
> that we must always be holding the executive to account
> where systems don't work.
I suspect this fear of appearing "soft" is closer
to the real reason for the BBC's cherry-picking than legitimate
concerns with the comprehensiveness of the official figures.
We're paying a huge price for this in terms of a public fear
of crime which is out of all proportion to the risk of crime
for most people. And we're paying a huge price in terms of
the political scaremongering (in all the main political parties)
which exploits media obsession with "escalating"
Notes: Police figures vs British Crime Survey (BCS)
Since 2001/2002, the official crime reports have combined
police recorded crime figures with the results of the
British Crime Survey (one of the world's largest and
most respected crime surveys).
The first of the combined reports, Crime
in England and Wales 2001/02, presents these two
series of figures as being complementary and of together providing
"a better picture of crime than could be obtained from
either series alone". It goes on to describe the differences
between police and BCS figures:
"Police statistics provide a good
measure of trends in well-reported crimes, are an important
indicator of police workload, and can be used for local crime
pattern analysis. For the crime types it covers, the BCS [British
Crime Survey] can provide a better reflection of the true
extent of crime because it includes crimes that are not reported
to the police. The BCS count also gives a better indication
of trends in crime over time because it is unaffected by changes
in levels of reporting to the police, and in police recording
practices." [From the preface]
Click here for more details
on the official crime figures >