(started this morning – I see David has put in a post, but as this story was still the main lead on Five Live news this evening …)
Of all the lobbyists, “campaigners” and special interest groups in the UK, two get a particularly ready and uncritical hearing from the BBC.
One is the anti-prison lobby – the Howard League and NACRO can always get a Today interview and news coverage – the other the “children’s charities”, today mostly run by unreconstructed 60s and 70s liberals (and also the recipients of massive taxpayer funding – £119 million last year for Barnardo’s – more than half their income. Tax-funded Barnardo campaigns are amplified by the tax-funded BBC. Do we see a pattern here ?).
Barnardo’s, an organisation that in today’s incarnation would make the good doctor turn in his grave, have a new political campaign about to kick off. Hey, man – the kids are cool. Stop dissing them !
And it’s been all over the BBC all day, alomg with no less than four news online items, at least one of which is a work of fiction straight from Barnardo’s campaign. But it’s this one, by social affairs editor Kim Catcheside (following in the footsteps of her predecessors Polly Toynbee and Rita Chakrabarti) which strikes me :
“The manners of children are deteriorating… the child of today is coarser more vulgar… than his parents were.”
A leader from the Daily Mail in 2008?
No, that was CG Heathcote, the stipendiary magistrate for Brighton in 1898, giving evidence to an inquiry on juvenile delinquency.
CG Heathcote is quoted by the criminologist Geoffrey Pearson, the author of the influential book, Hooligan.
Hmm. Daily Mail, eh ? No “twitching net curtains“, Kim ?
By an unbelieveable coincidence, that same quote is used in today’s Guardian by … the criminologist Geoffrey Pearson.
Catcheside’s piece is a textbook example of what I call the liberal “Myth of the Myth of the Golden Age“. But she’s right that the Pearson book is influential, although it was restating the themes of an earlier and equally influental work, Stanley Cohen’s 1973 “Folk Devils and Moral Panics”.
There’s a wonderful and inadvertant parallel with Pearson’s book in Catcheside’s piece.
Campaigners for the rights of children blame the media for whipping up hostility to children. According to the chief executive of Barnardo’s, Martin Narey, the British public overestimates the amount of crime committed by young people. “The real crime is that this sort of talk and attitude does nothing to help those young people who are difficult, unruly or badly behaved,” he says.
But the statistics show that while negative attitudes to children may be exaggerated, they are based on fact. In England and Wales, children aged 10 to 17 are far more likely to be arrested than adults. The most recent figures show that they account for a quarter of all arrests. Children and young people under 21 account for two thirds of arrests.
So the message is that “the British public overestimates the amount of crime committed by young people“. And the actuality is that two-thirds of arrests are of people under 21 ! While there might not be a 1-1 correlation between being arrested and being a criminal, this isn’t good supporting evidence for Mr Narey’s claims.
Just so with the Pearson book, which has been pretty comprehensively demolished by the sociologist Norman Dennis in his book “Cultures and Crimes” (Chapter 4, pdf)
Pearson argues in his 1983 book that the Edwardian and interwar periods were as violent as or more violent than the late twentieth century. Yet the statistics show that there were only 122 felonious woundings and other acts endangering life in 1927. (Between 1900 and 1927 the national figure for felonious woundings and other acts endangering life had more than halved.) Between 1969 and 1978, the period immediately preceding Pearson’s research for his book, the figure rose by 1,800, i.e. by seven times the total for 1900, and by 15 times the total for 1927.
Or (there’s lots more) :
The case of street robbery is particularly important for his thesis, he says, ‘because this is commonly the most sensitive area for registering public concern about crime and violence’. There is ‘ample evidence’, he writes, of ‘sharp increases in crimes of this nature’ in the interwar period. The ‘ample evidence’ he adduces is an increase of 90 per cent in the number of ‘bag snatches’ in London between 1925 and 1929. The fact that there was ‘an insubstantial public reaction’ to these figures at the time shows that substantial public reactions at the end of the twentieth century to much the same thing reflected merely a higher propensity in the later period for respectable people to panic about their personal safety and the security of their property.The rise was 90 per cent. Pearson does not say what the actual numbers were in the source to which he explicitly refers. The numbers were an increase from 66 bag snatches in the whole of London in 1925 to 127 in 1929. No numbers could show more decisively that London in the 1920s was a low-crime city compared with London today. In the whole of the ‘high’ year of 1929 there were 127 snatches. In the first half of 2003 the average number of snatches each month was 1,678.
Pearson’s most famous work is a mixure of omission, anecdote, selection and exaggeration hung on one observable fact – that throughout history people have tended to idealise the past. Yet it was, and is, influential – because people wanted to believe it. Kim Catcheside’s one of them. And by the way, Kim, if Barnardo’s are “campaigners for the rights of children“, whose rights are NACRO and the Howard League campaigning for ? It would be nice to hear you say it straight out.