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Anxiety Culture: Media scaremongering on crime

The media continues to exaggerate crime. BBC news, For example, claimed UK violent crime is "spiralling" (BBC1, 14/3/05). But when you allow for the following changes in police recording practices, violent crime turns out to be falling:

• Certain "yobbish" behaviours (eg minor scuffles) have been reclassified as crime, with the effect of doubling recorded violent crime.

• A violent crime with many victims is no longer recorded as a single crime. An incident with 5 victims is now recorded as 5 crimes.

• A higher proportion of violent crime is recorded. The proportion of common assaults (without injury) recorded rose from around 50% to 68% between 2002 and 2003.

The two main sources of crime figures – the police and the British Crime Survey (BCS) – both indicate that, allowing for these recording changes, violent crime has fallen since 1998.

(Sources: Guardian, 22/4/05, Panorama BBC1, 17/4/05, Home Office, Association of Chief Police Officers, British Crime Survey).

Scaremongering tricks of politicians/media

It's unsurprising that many people are confused/frightened. Tabloid newspapers misreport statistical exceptions, such as the recent increase in imitation weapon use, as evidence that overall violent crime is "spiralling". (They don't mention that, according to the police and the BCS, crime involving real weapons is falling).

The BCS reports violent crime falling by 10% in 2004, and overall crime falling by 11%. Of course, this is unacceptable to those who believe crime is rising. As a result, the BCS is labelled as "unreliable" by the professional scaremongers.

Statistics Abuse

In contrast with the scaremongers, criminologists regard the BCS as one of the most reliable crime surveys in the world (due partly to its large sample of 40,000 people). The BCS shows higher crime levels than recorded police figures, since it takes into account unreported/unrecorded crime. For this reason, the BCS was once favoured by scaremongering politicians/media.

Since 1995, however, the BCS has shown consistent falls in crime, including violent crime. The politicians/media who once favoured the BCS now favour the police figures instead (since, given a superficial reading, they show more crime increases).

But even the police figures reinforce/confirm BCS findings when investigated in more detail (eg allowances made for recording changes). The two sets of figures are published together by the Home Office (http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/crimeew0304.html). Neither support the media claims that violent crime or overall crime is "spiralling".

Surprising Crime Figures

• Around half of all violent crimes result in no injury whatsoever (according to both police figures and BCS).

• 71% of mugging (robbery and snatch theft) incidents result in no injury.

• The number of violent incidents has fallen by 36% since 1995.

• Property crime (burglary, theft, etc) has fallen 46% since 1995.

• The average household is burgled only once every 50 years.

Gun Crime

• Number of deaths caused by firearms in 2004: 70
• Number of deaths caused by firearms in 2003: 77
• Number of serious injuries caused by firearms in 2004: 390
• Number of serious injuries caused by firearms in 2003: 442

According to the BCS, "there was an increase of less than one per cent in firearm offences, and a fall of around two per cent in homicides" in the period 2003/2004.

Note that in a recent BBC news report (BBC1, 14/3/05), violent gun crime was reported as "spiralling".

Long-term trends

The BCS showed a steady rise in crime from 1981 to 1995, then a fall in every year since. Police recorded crime figures rose in the 1980s, peaked in 1992, then fell until 1998-1999, when police recording practices began to be changed (see above), creating artificial increases upto the present.

(Note: crime figures quoted are for England and Wales).

More information on police recorded crime figures and the British Crime Survey:
http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs04/hosb1004.pdf (Latest BCS report – 1MB)


This document is a print version of www.anxietyculture.com/crimescare.htm.