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Congratulations, but no Celebrations

A few weeks ago, Sir Cliff Richard won his high court case against the BBC over the coverage of a police raid on his home, the raid relating to an investigation into historical sex abuse.  I remember watching the coverage on the BBC and thinking at the time that somehow it wasn’t right.  It wasn’t necessarily that his house had been raided that pricked my conscience but the fact that the raid was being filmed for a live audience and sensationalised as the cameras in the overhead helicopter zoomed into various rooms.  A few days later in the sauna at my gym I overheard a conversation that went along the lines of ‘I’m not surprised, I always thought he was odd; paedo just like Rolf Harris’.  And so, the damage is done, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good gossip and I dare say a narrative that was repeated up and down the country.  But Sir Cliff was never charged nor even arrested, he is innocent.

The case reminded me of something similar in 2003 where another celebrity Matthew Kelly was accused of child sex abuse. He was arrested but never charged, his career effectively took a nose dive and never recovered.  He too is innocent and yet is listed amongst many others on a website called the Creep Sheet.  The name synonymous with being guilty of something unsavoury and sinister, despite a lack of evidence.  The way some of the papers reported that no charges were to be brought, suggested he had ‘got away with it’.

The BBC unsuccessfully sought leave to appeal in the case of Sir Cliff Richard and is considering whether to take the matter to the appeal court.  Their concern is the freedom of the press and the rights of the public, citing public interest.  Commentary regarding the case suggested that the court judgement impacted victims coming forward in historical abuse cases.  Allegations therefore need to be publicised to encourage victims to come forward.  This of course helps the prosecution case as evidence of similar fact can be used or in the view of some, abused (Webster R 2002).  But what of the accused, are they to be thrown to the wolves?

Balancing individual freedoms and the rights of others including the press is an almost impossible task.  The focus within the criminal justice system has shifted and some would say not far enough in favour of victims.  What has been forgotten though, is the accused is innocent until proven guilty and despite whatever despicable crimes they are accused of, this is a maxim that criminal justice has stood by for centuries. Whilst the maxim appears to be generally true in court processes, it does not appear to be so outside of court. Instead there has been a dramatic shift from the general acceptance of the maxim ‘innocent until proven guilty’ to a dangerous precedent, which suggests through the press, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’.  It is easy to make allegations, not easy to prove them and even more difficult to disprove them.  And so, a new maxim, ‘guilty by accusation’.  The press cannot complain about their freedoms being curtailed, when they stomp all over everyone else’s.

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Thoughts from the British Society of Criminology Conference at Birmingham City University

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I attended the BSC conference last week, presenting a paper from my PhD research, doing the usual rounds of seeing familiar faces, meeting some new faces and hoping nobody uttered the words ‘well its more of an observation than a question’. There was one session which particularly inspired me and so is the focus of this blog. The key theme was that as criminologists and educators, we need to review the quality of methods of teaching to keep students engaged, but crucially, not to lose sight of the importance of the content. We must continue to introduce students to more challenging ideas and shift their thinking from accepted wisdom of how to ‘do justice’ and ‘why people commit crime’.

The session attended was on ‘Public Criminology’, which included papers on the experiences of LGBTQ communities in Turkey, with regards to police response to victimisation, another on the use of social media and other forms of broadcast used by academics on criminology programmes, the impact of the 2011 riots on social capital in the UK and the need to re-introduce political issues in teaching criminology. As with many sessions at large conferences, you never quite know what will emerge from the range of papers, and you hope there are some common themes for the panel and delegate to engage with in discussions. This certainly happened here, in what seems to be a diverse range of topics, we generated interesting discussions about how we understand crime and justice, how the public understand this, what responsibilities we have in teaching the next generation and how important it is to retain our critical focus. The paper that really resonated with me was delivered by Marc Jacobs from the University of Portsmouth on ‘The Myopia of Public Criminology and the need for a (re) Politicised Criminology Education’.  Marc was an engaging speaker and made a clear point about the need to continue our focus on the work of activist criminologists, who emerged during the 1970s, asking important questions about class, race and gender issues. He cited scholars such as Jock Young, Stuart Hall, Frances Heidensohn as pioneers in shining a light on the need to understand crime and justice from these diverse perspectives.

This is certainly what I remember from studying criminology as a post-graduate, and they have informed my teaching, especially criminological theories – I have always had a closer personal affinity with sociological perspectives, compared to biological and psychological explanations of crime. It also reminded me of a running theme of complaint from some students – political issues are not as interesting as say, examining the motivations of serial killers, neither are those lectures which link class, race and gender to crime, and which highlight how discrimination in society is reflected in who commits crime, why they do it, and why we respond the way we do. There is no doubt presenting students with the broader social, political and cultural contexts means they need to see the problem of crime as a reflection of these contexts, that is does not happen as a rare event which we can always predict and solve. It happens every day, is not always reported, let alone detected and solved, meaning that many people can experience crime, but may not experience justice.

As tempting as it might be to focus teaching and engage students through examining the motivation for serious crimes to reinforce students’ expectations of criminology being about offender profiling and CSI techniques which solve cases and allow us all to sleep safely, I’m afraid this means neglecting something which will affect their lives when they do look up from the fascinating case files. I am not advocating the exclusion of any knowledge, far from it, but we need to ensure that we continue to inform students about the foundations of our discipline, and that it is the every day events and the lack of access to justice which they also need to know about. They reflect the broader inequalities which feed into the incidences of crime, the discriminatory policies and practice in the CJS, and the acceptance of this by the public. Rawls (1971) presented justice as a ‘stabilising force’, a premise picked up by New Labour in their active citizenship and neighbourhood renewal agenda. There was an attempt to shift justice away from punitive and retributive responses, to make use of approaches which were more effective, more humane and less discriminatory. The probation services and courts were an important focus, using restorative and problem-solving approaches to genuinely implement Tony Blair’s manifesto promise to be tough on the causes of crime. However, he also continued the rhetoric of being tough on crime, and so there was sense of using community sentencing and community justice in a tokenistic way, and not tackling the broader inequalities and problems sufficiently to allow the CJS to have a more transformative and socially meaningful effect on crime (Donoghue, 2014; Ward, 2014). Since then, the punitive responses to crime have returned, accepted by the public, press and politicians, as anything else is simply too difficult a problem to solve, and requires meaningful and sustained investment. This has been a feature of community justice, half hearted attempts to innovate and adopt different approaches, all too easily overtaken by the need for a day in court and a custodial sentence. It shows what happens when the public accept this as justice and the function of the CJS, even though they are not effective, put the public at risk, and mean entrenched biases continue to occur.

This all emphasises the need to remember the foundations of our discipline as a critical examination of criminal justice and of society. In my own department, we have the debates about where we place theory as part of these foundations. These discussions occur in the context of how to engage students and maintain our focus on this, and it remains an important part of higher education to review practice, content and adapt to broader changes. Moving to a new campus means we have to re-think these issues in the context of the delivery of teaching, and I am all for innovations in teaching to engage students, making use of new technologies, but I firmly believe we need to retain our focus on the content which will challenge students. This is the point of higher education, to advance knowledge, to raise students’ expectations of their own potential and ask them to rethink what they know. The focus on ‘public criminology’ has justified using different forms of broadcast, from TV, tabloid press and social networking to disseminate knowledge and, hopefully, better inform the public, as a counter measure to biased reporting.  I don’t think it is desirable to TV producers to replace ‘I am a Killer’ on the Crime and Investigation network with ‘Adventures of a Problem-Solving Court’ or ‘Restorative Justice: The Facts’. Writing for the tabloid press seems to me an act of futility, as they have editorial control, they can easily misrepresent findings, and are not really interested in anything which shifts the notion of justice as needing to have a deterrent effect and to be a retributive act. Perhaps social networking can overcome this bias, but in an age of claims of fake news and echo chambers, this surely also has a limited affect. So, our focus must remain on our students, to those who will work within the CJS, social policy departments as practitioners, researchers and future academics. They need to continue to raise the debates about crime and justice which affect the marginalised, which highlight prejudice, discrimination and which ensure we continue to ask questions about these thorny, difficult and controversial issues. That, I think, is the responsibility we need to grasp, and it should form a core function of learning about criminology and criminal justice at University.

 

Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

This entry was re-blogged by the British Society of Criminology blog on 17 July 2018

References

DONOGHUE, J. (2014) Transforming Criminal Justice? Problem-solving and court specialisation. London: Routledge.

RAWLS, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

WARD, J. (2014) Are problem-solving courts the way forward for justice? London: Howard League for Penal Reform.

 

Public attitudes towards male victimisation

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I graduated from the University of Northampton as a Criminology student in July 2016 and not a day goes by where I don’t miss studying. I miss everything about the University experience, from the lectures and seminars, to the countless hours spent working in the library. One of the positive things about being a graduate however, is that any time spent scrolling through social media or binge-watching a Netflix series is guilt-free. There is no dissertation to write or any exams to revise for any more, meaning you can enjoy your leisure time without the dreaded guilt that you’re not spending your time productively. I have, admittedly, taken this privilege too far, and spend far too much time on my phone. Bizarrely, I spend a lot of my time scrolling through comments on social media posts, even when I know there are bound to be comments which will annoy me.

For instance, last month, a video clip from ITV’s ‘This Morning’ emerged on Twitter and Instagram, in which Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby interviewed a young male who had suffered as a victim of domestic violence at the hands of his female partner. He revealed how he had been starved, physically and mentally abused by his girlfriend and that his injuries were so severe, they were almost fatal. What was really encouraging to see, were the hundreds of supportive comments left by people online. The majority of people were praising the man for his bravery and recognised that there needs to be much greater awareness for male victimisation. Sadly, the comments that caught my attention were “what a wimp” and “…he shoulda manned up sooner!”. These comments really riled me, as for my own dissertation, I interviewed an organisation specialising in support for male victims of domestic violence. It was shocking to discover the challenges the organisation face in terms of securing public funding, professional support, and most importantly, encouraging male victims to come forward and seek help. One of the over-arching themes which emerged was that men are still very reluctant to seek help, largely due to embarrassment and fears of being ridiculed. There is still a societal perception that men should be able to deal with problems by themselves, and that if they are unable to, they must be “weak”. It is for this reason that these particular comments left by strangers online infuriated me so much. Quite simply, domestic violence is a human issue, not just a gender one. Not only this, but these few words have the potential to be extremely damaging and may deter men who are suffering in silence from getting the help they need.

Over two years have passed since I carried out my research on this topic area and I am still very passionate about it. I have nothing but admiration for the young male on ‘This Morning’ and am hopeful that his bravery will encourage other male victims to seek help. I also hope that the positive comments online will always overshadow the thoughtless, negative ones. Help is out there and no victim, regardless of their gender, should be discouraged from seeking it.

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