Dialogue with BBC's Newsnight & News 24

(on crime reporting, August/September, 2007)

On this page:
Our letter to Newsnight >
Newsnight editor's response >
Letter to BBC reporter Keith Breene >
Keith Breene's response >

There was a media backlash against Conservative leader David Cameron's use of the phrase "anarchy in the UK" to describe crime levels. The Independent (21/8/07) ridiculed Cameron in a leading article titled "Anarchy in the UK? Hardly...". Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, criticised Cameron and pointed out that "Violent crime is at the lowest it has been since the mid-90s" (Press Association, 31/7/07). But BBC2's Newsnight decided to use the "anarchy" phrase as a headline to their coverage of the Rhys Jones murder a few days later.

We wrote to Peter Barron, editor of BBC2's Newsnight (24/8/07). His reply follows our letter:

Dear Peter,

We noticed several problems with Newsnight coverage (23/8/07) on the Rhys Jones murder:-

1. The headline, "Anarchy in the UK?", was misguided. One appalling crime doesn't constitute "anarchy". You confuse instances with trends.

2. Your brief coverage of statistics (1995-2005/06) was misleading. In the context of gun murder, you could have presented the following figures:

Total homicides by shooting (1995): 70
Total homicides by shooting (2005/06): 50

(Source: Home Office Statistical Bulletin 02/07 - Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Table 2.01, page 41)

Instead, you presented figures for "violent crime using firearms", showing a big rise from 1995 to 2005/06. You failed to mention that this includes "threats" (with no injury) and incidents involving imitation weapons. You also omitted to point out that recent figures for violent crime are artificially inflated due to changes in police recording practices.

3. Presenter Emily Maitlis said: "As the death of this 11 yr-old boy marked a new low in Britain's youth violence...". This is another confusion of instances with trends. In what way is the latest violent death of a child worse than any which have occurred in previous years or decades?

In future reports on child/youth/gang homicides, you might want to present the following figures (representing England and Wales) to counter the hysteria surrounding this issue:

Total homicides, age 1-5 (1995): 19
Total homicides, age 1-5 (2005/06): 11

Total homicides, age 5-16 (1995): 44
Total homicides age 5-16 (2005/06): 20

Total homicides "gang warfare, feud or faction fighting" (1995): 12
Total homicides "gang warfare, feud or faction fighting" (2005/06): 7

(Source: Home Office Statistical Bulletin 02/07 - Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Table 1.07, page 22; Table 1.06, page 21) http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs07/hosb0207.pdf


Brian Dean
Media Sceptic Group

We received this reply from Peter Barron on 30/8/07:

Dear Brian,

Thanks for your email about Newsnight's crime special last Thursday. I'll answer your points in turn.

1. The phrase "anarchy in the UK" was not ours, but was used by David Cameron last week, before the fatal shooting of Rhys Jones. We set out to analyse whether the description was accurate - hence the use of the question mark. And we made it clear in Emily Maitlis's introduction to the programme that it was David Cameron's phrase, not ours.

2. The statistics we used in the opening introduction were chosen to show what a mixed picture there is. We did use the figures on gun crime that you quote, as did other outlets in the course of the day. But immediately after that we used British Crime Survey figures which indicate that overall crime has dropped since 1995. And we also showed that fear of crime has risen in recent years, to illustrate that the public's perception of crime levels can be very different to the reality.

You may have noticed that on last night's interview with David Cameron we used a different set of gun crime statistics to make exactly the point you do, and he countered by quoting recorded crime figures which in his view indicated entirely the reverse.

Had we used the statistics you quote for homicide victims under 16, we might equally have been open to criticism. I've had a look at the more detailed breakdown of those stats, and it seems that the drop between 1995 and 2005/6 almost entirely due to a fall in the number of homicides carried out by parents on sons/daughters. There has not been an appreciable drop in the number of homicides carried out by acquaintances or strangers or where the perpetrator is not known - and these homicides are more likely to be gang/knife/gun-related than those carried out by parents.

3. I don't think it is controversial to state that the shooting dead of an 11 year old boy undoubtedly marks "a new low" in Britain's youth violence. Seven under 18 year olds have died this year in shootings, Rhys Jones was the youngest. By anyone's standards, his murder was surely shocking.

Best wishes

Peter Barron

Editor, Newsnight

The BBC maintained the shock-horror momentum with "news" that children under age 10 committed nearly 3,000 crimes last year. This was the BBC's main headline story on 2/9/07. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6974587.stm

We sent the following letter (2/9/07) to the BBC's reporter on this story, Keith Breene:

Dear Keith,

In your report on crimes committed by children (BBC News 24, 2/9/07), you say: "...at a time when several high profile cases have involved children as both victim and perpetrator, the fact that so many are coming to the attention of the police is causing concern."

"So many"? Compared to what? It's notable that the BBC report mentions no figures from the past, so we're given no idea of trends. The figure mentioned by the BBC (3,000 crimes) included "criminal damage". Children have committed "criminal damage" (eg breaking windows, graffiti, etc) for centuries. As for the more shocking crimes, they remain extremely rare.

Given a historic context, I see no real "news" here, let alone a headline story. The figures are of academic interest, but they don't seem to warrant the BBC's headline "shock-horror" treatment. In 1898, newspapers in England warned of the menace of "hooligans" and of a "dramatic increase in disorderly behaviour". The Times reported "organised terrorism in the streets". In every decade of the 20th century there were similar media panics. In the 1800s, hordes of teens and pre-teens ran wild in American city streets, dodging authorities, "gnawing away at the foundations of society", as a commentator put it.

Brian Dean
Media Sceptic Group

We received this reply from Keith Breene on 4/9/07:

Dear Mr Dean

Thank you for your email regarding my report on child crime. I appreciate your concern and would like to address the points you raise.

I feel I avoided what you call the "shock horror" approach with my report. I was very clear that compared to the overall number of crimes recorded in the same period the number in which the suspect was under 10 represented a tiny fraction.

I was also careful to avoid any sense that the problem was getting worse. This was a snapshot of the situation and as such there was no claim that the number of crimes involving young children was going up or down.

I also think it is fair to say there is currently concern regarding young people as both perpetrators and victims of crime. Again I made no comparisons to the past and was simply stating the situation now.

I hope this addresses your concerns.

Yours sincerely

Keith Breene