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Science in society – politics, development and social justice.

Crime and statistics – Is Britain obsessed with violence?

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Statistics are a considerable part of my dealings with science; they are obviously a fundament of hypothesis driven research, enabling quantifiable results to be analysed and detailed conclusions be drawn. You may have guessed by this cod description that they are not my strongest suit and therefore a source of morbid, masochistic fascination. They are also a considerable source of contention and discourse within scientific communities.

Hearing Lord Blair of Boughton, formerly Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, discuss crime statistics on Radio 3’s Nightwaves programme gave me considerable pause for thought. Here was a realm where statistics are apparently without equivocation.

Of course this is not true, by definition statistics are equivocal.

However, muse on this will you. There were 648 murders in England and Wales for 2008-09, about 200 incidents more than the city of New York. Lord Blair argued, compellingly, that the UK is not a violent country rather it is a country obsessed by violence. While town and city centres across the country, he said, are considered no-go areas for many people for fear of alcohol fuelled violence the actual levels of violent crime in such places on such evenings are low. Watch any Cops-style programme about British bobbies and you will see crowd control and verbal abuse but not physical violence.

We seem to subsist on a diet of Broken Britain and murder in our beds. Yet according to Lord Blair this is a stunning misrepresentation. He declares crime peaked in 1995, something viewed as the consensus rather than a minority belief.

It strikes me that in his short lecture Lord Blair struck deep at a sad aspect of British journalism and one which is costing it dearly. We are too parochial an industry – our copy too narrow in focus – and this myopia is failing our readers, viewers and listeners.

We hear of violence in the UK wherever and whenever it be perpetrated. We hear of violence abroad only when it spills into extremes: genocide and war-crimes, drug cartels and people trafficking. However, these outrages cannot summon nearly as many column inches or minutes of air-time, on average, as a violent video game, granny-bashing youth or ill-advised DVD purchase.

The danger of telling a single story, excellently described by author Chimamanda Adichie, is that it reinforces barriers and borders; it hinders knowledge and understanding. Telling a single story and telling it first before anyone else can get their version out precludes any other story from being heard – the truth will not always out. Be it someone’s appreciation of the merits of continuing to fund CERN or their conception of Kenyan politics, there is misinformation and poor information.

I do not believe the world is full of ignorant people but I do think a great number of people are ill-informed. There has to be a greater degree of nuance and moderation in reporting because the internet has ensured a lie can run around the world before the truth has rubbed the sleep out of its eyes, let alone got its boots on.

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Written by nascenthack

November 26, 2010 at 6:48 pm

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