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September 18, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Don’t Believe The Hype

The morning paper is teeming with seamy tales of sordid and violent crime each morning. The opposition constantly tries to point out the Government’s failings in making the ordinary citizen safe. But does a packedout newspaper and an angry opposition have any actual implication for New Zealanders? SALIENT Feature Writer Brannavan Gnanalingam reports.

Crime diagramIf you believe the hype, New Zealand is in danger of disappearing into a massive crime wave. Statistic upon statistic is shoved at us to tell us how much trouble we’re in. People call for Tasers and longer prison sentences to curb this seemingly overwhelming destruction. And if we don’t do anything, all our children will be beaten, raped and then murdered… Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it would be a fair claim to say there is a considerable amount of pessimism surrounding the prevalence of crime. However it would also be fair to say that there is an equal amount of misinformation and distortion about crime feeding this pessimism.

There is no doubt crime has an impact on society. Simon Power, the National Party spokesperson on law and order says, “crime in 2002/2003 had a cost to the economy of nine billion dollars. It’s a serious problem because it not only creates economic implications, but more importantly, it creates major social dislocations.” Crime will obviously have an effect on victims, and it would be callous to trivialise this effect. And for every criminologist with an opinion, there will also be countless more people traumatised from some horrible event they had no control over.

It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of crime, and easy to believe a lot of things that are said about it. It’s also easy to take a lot of things at face value, for example, to believe that crime is only committed by a certain class of people. Criminology tutors in their first tutorial have been known to write a long list of crimes up on the board and then casually mention that these are all the crimes they have committed. Most people will probably be able to say something similar, whether it is drugs, traffic offences, minor assaults (technically most sports would count), minor frauds, or theft (burning CDs or downloading music illegally would be a common example of this). Some theorists go further. Classic French sociologist Emil Durkheim went as far as to suggest that crime and deviance are inevitable and above all, normal in every single society. It’s a natural way of establishing boundaries, social norms and patterns of behaviour – for example we establish a rule that we shouldn’t kill our children because we like our children. If someone breaks this rule, our outrage and disgust to this behaviour strengthens the rule, helps unite society and helps define exactly what is normal behaviour (that is, not killing children). Yet when I ask Simon Power, should New Zealanders be concerned about crime, his emphatic response is “yes”. Why?

“There’s a famous quote about the media setting the agenda about crime and it says ‘that the media can’t tell us what to think, but it can tell us what to think about.”
Fiona Hutton

Unless you work in the justice system, most people don’t deal with crime in its day-to-day occurrence. Furthermore, most people aren’t victims on a day-to-day occurrence either. Therefore a lot of information comes from what you read, hear, or see on the media or from politicians. Fiona Hutton, a lecturer in the criminology department says: “there’s a famous quote about the media setting the agenda about crime and it says ‘that the media can’t tell us what to think, but it can tell us what to think about.’ There’s a certain amount of agenda setting but it doesn’t actually form our opinions for us. And I think audience research in the last last ten, fifteen years [has shown that] audiences are bit more savvy than researchers give them credit for. People interpret media messages in a lot of different ways. People are a bit more savvy in interpreting these messages, one of the things the media does still influence is people’s fear of crime.”

You’d expect the reporting of crime to be proportionate to actual incidence of crime, but that isn’t actually the case. Hutton says that, “the vast majority of crime is petty offending, property, minor fraud things like that, but you hardly ever read about those kind of things in the paper. They concentrate on sensationalised violent crime and sexual violence, and then we’ve obviously got boy racers, we’ve got drugs. What is the majority of crime? Reported crimes are a distorted reality if you believe the official statistics”. The official police statistics state that 60% of reported crimes are dishonesty offences. Violent offences are 10%, while sexual offences make up less than one percent. Homicide (which includes murder and manslaughter) is 0.2 of a percent of all violent crime. No doubt, a homicide is more serious than a petty theft, yet that doesn’t mean a distortion is not occurring. Looking at four random front News sections of the Dominion Post over the last month, out of the 140 articles printed, 41 of them were about crime (which is a pretty high proportion if you consider the newspaper is ostensibly reporting on anything that is going on in New Zealand). Of that 41, eight were about murder, four were on home invasions, one about manslaughter, nine were on assault and four were about sexual assault. So over half the crime reported in the Dominion was violent, and one tenth were sexual offences. Likewise, only one article was on fraud and one was on theft. It isn’t hard to see how statistics are being turned on their heads, and perceptions skewed.

Furthermore, these crimes also become more of an event due to media saturation. Hutton says “the fact that we can communicate so effectively, and we’re surrounded by media all the time helps to blow the thing out of proportion.” The killing of the Kahui twins dominated the headlines of most media outlets for so long that it’d be understandable for people to think babies are being killed left, right and centre. Our ability to break down global barriers hasn’t helped either. JonBenet Ramsey, Michael Jackson, OJ Simpson, James Bolger (the little British kid killed by two other little kids) or Natascha Kampusch (the Austrian girl kidnapped) also ingrain foreign criminal events onto our consciousness.

Yet this doesn’t mean we can trust statistics either. Hutton says: “official statistics about crime are notoriously unreliable and one of the problems with them is the way that they’re produced. Obviously when we talk about official statistics we’re talking about police statistics, the ones police collate themselves about crime. There are all kinds of issues and processes involved in policing”. Official statistics only capture crime reported to the police, which means that there will be a lot of crime not being reported, and therefore not counted as part of the official stats. Hutton suggests the crime reported is “only the tip of the iceberg. There’s all kind of reasons why crimes are never reported to the police as well”. Issues like distrust, the fact police might focus on particular crimes or classes of people (white-collar crime is an unknown figure, and estimated to be massive), people don’t know they’re actually a victim, there’s discomfort in divulging the fact they are a victim, fear of reprisal (eg domestic violence and sexual offences), or the triviality of the offence are all reasons why people may not go to the police. Furthermore, how many people go to the police and admit every single time they took drugs, drank alcohol underage or sped in a car if they were never caught? There’s also a grey area where statistics are “either misrecorded or not recorded by the police for whatever reason”.

There are also other elements that aren’t captured by statistics. Population increases, proportions of younger people and economic factors like depression and prosperity also all play a role in determining the amount of crime that’s reported. Another thing that has a big effect on official statistics are police numbers. If calls for increased numbers of policemen to deal with an “increase” in crime are listened to, this paradoxically leads to further “increase”. This is because more policemen are able to investigate and report on more crime (thus making a little dent into the iceberg), which will therefore impact on what official” crime stats say. Hutton also notes that, “the police have been accused in the past of manipulating statistics to get more funding. It looks like there’s more types of crime and then going how are we going to cope with this if we haven’t got the funding for it?’” All this ultimately leads to people like Hutton suggesting official statistics are “notoriously unreliable”.

Yet what would someone like Simon Power say about the statistics? “I think they’re pretty reliable. The important thing is the trend.” Power suggests that “most politicians or people who deal in the area of statistics will do their best, I think, to give both sides of the equation, and I think on the whole you have to be pretty reliable with the way you use statistics or you’ll be accused of using them in a partisan way.” But if people don’t have a habit of knowing what goes on, how will they know if they’re being used in a partisan way?

On the other hand, and this may importantly question the idea that New Zealand is getting more and more violent. Murder, is an excellent indicator of society’s violence. This is because it’s generally clear if someone’s dead, it’s free from most possible biases and there are very, very few unreported murders. Per capita over the last few years murder is at the lowest it’s ever been in New Zealand history.

For example, Power, during the interview (and in speeches), frequently mentions how violent crime is increasing in New Zealand and says: “the public consider the level of violent crime to be unacceptable”. And it’s true, on face value the levels of reported violence are increasing, in official statistics at least. On the other hand, and this may importantly question the idea that New Zealand is getting more and more violent. Murder, is an excellent indicator of society’s violence. This is because it’s generally clear if someone’s dead, it’s free from most possible biases and there are very, very few unreported murders. Per capita over the last few years murder is at the lowest it’s ever been in New Zealand history. Hutton also says “I think we need to be extremely cautious in interpreting alleged increases in violent crime. All kinds of issues, biases, and recording techniques skew official statistics. There are arguments that in contemporary society we’re more sensitive to violence, and we’re more likely to report it and not be tolerant of it, so that’s arguably going some way to explaining increases. Also population rises, demographics – there’s more people, then you’re going to have a higher rate of offending.” For example, domestic violence was only criminalised just over twenty years ago. Could we becoming perhaps, less willing to let things like domestic violence and child abuse go unpunished? What do you think about this possibility, Simon Power? “In my mind the law and order debate is necessary only because of failed social policy actually. I’ve found it extraordinary that the Government announced its new sentencing policy a month ago called ‘early interventions’, but there were no early interventions mentioned.” Power was skirting this particular question, but it also suggests people are willing to take statistics at face value and not as Hutton suggests they should, and “look behind” the statistics. Power’s comments also suggest how easily politicized an issue like crime can be, and how much traction you can get from saying what the public wants to hear. Power also suggests that, “it’s always one of the big three or four issues in every election. Politicians have got a responsibility to deal with the issue responsibly”. However, if you notice any political debate on crime, it invariably descends into the blame-game being played by both sides. The public don’t necessarily know what’s going on either, but that doesn’t stop them having a say.

In 1999, a referendum run by Norm Withers (whose elderly mother was beaten in a brutal assault) got 92% of New Zealanders calling for tougher jail sentences. However the first part of the question asked whether the justice system should be reformed to place “greater emphasis on the needs of victims”. Well obviously most people would yes. The question next asked if victims should receive “restitution and compensation” – again something most people would agree with. Finally, the third part of the question asks if we should impose minimum sentences and hard labour on serious criminals. Giving what went before, and how loaded the question is (there is no relation between the first two elements and the third part), it’s of no surprise the answer for many was in the affirmative. Yet this was something the incoming Labour government took seriously, and in 2002 imposed new Sentencing and Parole Acts, which have had the effect of considerably increasing prison populations. National also take it seriously too – Power says “92% of NZ said they wanted tougher and longer sentences, and the reason for that is, I think, the public have a fundamental expectation that the government will keep them safe.” Of course it makes sense Labour and National take the referendum seriously. Heaven help a party that goes against what 92% of a misinformed public want.

“It’s easier to sell punitive policies. If you were to really try and tackle crime, I mean it would probably be impossible anyway. It would be so complex and it would probably include such a radical rethinking of how society is made up. It’s just too hard. So what can we do?” Fiona Hutton

This suggests that the public will be happy with punishment policies being more punitive. It will make us feel safer locking all the baddies up for longer. However Hutton suggests it’s not as simple as we might think. While for a small number of serious offenders, removing them from society will invariably be a good thing, on the whole, prison is “a system that brutalises the people and doesn’t address their offending behaviour. And definitely, it’s been shown in the UK, the only predictor of offending is coming into contact with the criminal justice system and being in prison. So it’s not helping, basically.” If prison doesn’t work, why do governments continue to pursue it as a policy and parties like National use it as an election strategy? Hutton says it’s “easier to sell punitive policies. If you were to really try and tackle crime, I mean it would probably be impossible anyway. It would be so complex and it would probably include such a radical rethinking of how society is made up. It’s just too hard. So what can we do? ‘I know! We’ll lock everyone up for years, we’ll put young people in boot camps, we’ll have blah blah blah’. Despite the fact these things are proven to not have an effect on crime rates. But we’ll do that because it’s simple, it’s easy, it makes people feel better and it makes it looks like we’re actually doing something about crime.” It is easy to see why people like Power would argue the government is not being punitive enough. For example he says that: “unfortunately the management relating to parole had the opposite effect. All of a sudden the Government realised that people were being told they were going to spend nine years inside, but they’d be eligible to apply for parole after three. Well that’s not what the public expectation was when they thought they were getting tougher sentences after the Norm Withers petition.” Attacks like this score points against governments and are a pretty fail safe policy. This is because if you realize that crime is so multifaceted and complex, there’s not much an incumbent government can ever really do to solve crime.

“… people were being told they were going to spend nine years inside, but they’d be eligible to apply for parole after three. Well that’s not what the public expectation was when they thought they were getting tougher sentences after the Norm Withers petition.” Simon Power

This also means alternative programs won’t carry much weight and measures like restorative justice are dismissed as wishy-washy PC-nonsense. Hutton however suggests restorative justice is effective for victims and offenders as “an empowering process for both sets of people when it’s done properly”. Hutton does admit as an academic, “we carp on and we’re critical but then we don’t have solutions either. [But] I say moving away from punitive policies and harsh policies is the best thing to do.” Even Power is advocating rehabilitation programmes and intervention at a young age, which is certainly a refreshing and far more productive policy change. However the cynical (and this is compounded by the fact that Power emphatically says these measures are not National’s policy yet – “we are a long way from finalising our policy”) could easily believe that come election time, the populist punitive policies will come back to the fore. More effective long-term rehabilitative policies just aren’t sexy in comparison to the ‘lock ‘em up and leave ‘em’ type.

It takes a certain amount of arrogance to call the public stupid. However it’s easy to see why people can at least be accused of being ignorant about a lot of issues revolving around crime. Hutton, more diplomatically, says, “I think the public should be genuinely concerned with the fact that they don’t get the full picture. They get half the picture and then policies are built on half the picture of what’s going on.” It’s all very well to call for tougher sentences, to lock people up in jail for longer and wash our hands of the scum of society. However, the complete failure of the punitive policies we ask for to actually rehabilitate, people will get out sooner or later) and its ability to even compound criminality suggest that the public should indeed be aware of the complexities of the issues. Unless we get a greater understanding of it, it’d be of no surprise to see that generations of politicians and the media to come will continue to exploit the public’s very real fear of crime.

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About the Author ()

Brannavan Gnanalingam has come a long way from being born in the teeming metropolis of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He may be known as feature writer for Salient, but is also the only man in history to have simultaneously donated both his kidneys. He is also an amateur rapper going under the moniker Brantank and hopes to win a Grammy.

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