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Monday, August 28, 2006 

Scum-watch: Criminalising an entire generation.

Put it down to the silly season, or there just being a general drought of news over the weekend until the bombs in Turkey late last night, but some of today's papers, especially the Sun, seem to be obsessed with crime.

The Daily Mail wails about how John Reid has supposedly ordered magistrates to free suspects on electronic tags rather send them to jail, presumably because of the overcrowding crisis. That it's been the screaming leader columns of the likes of the Mail than have considerably contributed to the prisons being overcrowded is naturally not worthy of a mention. Over in the Mirror, Tony Parsehole, sorry, Parsons, calls for the return of the death penalty for the killer(s) of Peter Woodhams. This isn't so that there's a possible deterrent even worse than at least a 15-year stretch in a stinking prison, but seemingly because a death seems to deserve another death in return. The revenge mechanism may be strong, but what difference would it make? Is taking another life justifiable in any circumstances? Parsons doesn't bother to explain, but then that might be taxing for the male Glenda Slagg.

The Times leads with the comments of the head of the crown prosecution service, Ken McDonald, who's spoken out to say that "elitist attitudes had helped to break the bond of trust between the public and the criminal justice system." No Ken, it's been the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail screaming that the victims of crime are being failed, along with the appeasement of this point of view by the Labour government, which hasn't helped matters by being thoroughly incompetent, i.e. over the foreign prisoners scandal. When there was an outcry over the length of the sentence given to the paedophile Craig Sweeney, the judges got the blame, when the fault was entirely with the government.

It's no surprise that there has been something of a breakdown in trust in the criminal justice system. The reason for this has not been the justice system itself, which has been shown to be getting progressively more punitive and harsh when sentencing offenders, but with the governments and the "popular" press. This very Labour government has directly said that it intends to rebalance the "criminal justice system in favour of the victim". That they have said this repeatedly might be why a recent opinion poll, quoted by the Times, suggests that only 36% are confident that it satisfies the needs of victims. If the government suggests it's going to do something about it because this is what's happening, a certain amount are going to believe it, whether there's a crisis in confidence over trust with this government or not. This has been coupled with the increase in "campaigns" in the tabloid press, likely linked to decreasing circulation and the descent into hysteria which seems to have become inexorable.

The article goes on:

Mr Macdonald said that the old-fashioned idea that thecriminal justice system sits above the public and consists of principles and practices beyond popular influence or argument was “elitist and obscurantist”.

Who believes that? It's not old-fashioned, it's entirely untrue. How can the criminal justice system sit above the public when the public are directly involved in it, i.e. in jury trials. The fact of the matter is that the criminal justice system is now being undermined not by the judges and lawyers, but by the government which increasingly interferes, such as the sentencing guidelines in the case of Craig Sweeney.

He added: “If people, including victims, feel they cannot secure justice through the courts, we are entering dangerous territory”.

Which brings us on today's Sun. While later editions splashed on the explosions in Turkey, earlier editions screamed "BANG UP THE GANGS".

TODAY The Sun declares WAR on gangs of young savages terrorising Britain’s streets.

We are demanding a crackdown on behalf of decent, law-abiding families — after a boy of 16 became the latest victim killed.

Glen Corner was knifed to death on his birthday less than a week after brave dad Peter Woodhams, 22, was shot dead.

Outraged locals in South Shields, Tyneside, said cops IGNORED warnings that thugs had made their neighbourhood a no-go zone.

Like all deaths, Glen Corner's is undoubtedly a tragedy. However, there has no been direct link between his death and that of gangs operating in the area. According to the Daily Mirror, the attack came after an argument over a stolen mobile phone. It's only been casually linked in with the fact that the area has had alleged problems with anti-social behaviour.

The case of Peter Woodhams seems entirely different. Woodhams was murdered seemingly by the same gang that had attacked him 6 months previously, an act of violence that was according to his family not properly investigated by the police. The plod and IPCC are now both reviewing the matter. The only link between the two separate incidents is that gangs of youths may have been however tenuously involved. The Sun's use of Glen Corner's image for their campaign is similar to the way they jumped on the death of Mary-Ann Leneghan to further their own political agenda.

What does the Sun want then? Their demands are succinct yet vague:

Tony Blair says there are 6,000 more cops now than when he came to power — but where are they? As hoodlum gangs rampage unchecked across the country, The Sun is demanding:

MORE cops on the beat to make our streets safe.

TOUGHER sentences for violent yobs — with gangs locked up.

PRESSURE to be put on parents by the Government to raise decent kids.

We start then with hoary old chestnut about how police out on the beat make the streets safer. That there's a body of evidence that suggests that people actually start to believe that there's more crime than there actually is when there's police on the streets doesn't enter in to the Sun's equation; neither does the fact that police walking the beat means that there are less to actually attend to emergency situations: a bloke in a helmet walking around can only run so fast. The only plus which more police wandering around bring is that they do have a certain deterrent effect, but even that is disputed.

Tougher sentences for violent yobs? Fine, why the hell not? I thought we had them already, and that the prison overcrowding situation rather proved that, but obviously not. As for gangs to be locked up, how exactly do you go about doing that? Does the Sun want the police to just arrest any group of young people that happens to be standing on street corners? Does the thought not enter the heads of those in Wapping that locking up young people in young offender institutions isn't the greatest idea in the world?

Pressure to be put on parents suffers from a similar problem. Just how exactly does the government force parents to bring their children up "right"? Isn't the Sun one of the newspapers that complains about the "nanny state"? Why yes, of course it is, but in this way the Sun gets to bash the government for not doing enough to tackle problem. It's damned if it does and it's damned if it doesn't. Then again, the Sun editor isn't the greatest role model for children anyway, unless battering your husband teaches them vital lessons of how women can be stronger than men.

It goes on:

We also pledge to act if YOUR neighbourhood is plagued by the gangs. If the police won’t do anything we want to know.

Tell us the names of the ringleaders, where they live or simply where they hang out. We will put pressure on the police and Government to keep their vow to be tough on crime.

You can also shop the mums and dads of tearaways. We will name and shame the worst.

If in doubt, turn to the name and shame. It worked so well over paedophiles! It was also so successful in this year's earlier campaign against "soft judges" that it was abandoned after about a month. Again, the Sun ignores yet more evidence that naming and shaming does more harm than good, emphasised by the fact that in some areas ASBOs are becoming badges of honour. The paper also doesn't explain how it's going to know for a fact that the people it names and shames are actually guilty of any crime, but then vigilante action has never been about justice, more about making a point, which is exactly what the Sun is doing. That entirely innocent people may have their lives ruined by the very lowest form of journalism doesn't matter, as long as some thoroughly nasty people get their just desserts.

Our campaign follows a shocking eight per cent rise in street crime — with the use of knives rocketing by a terrifying 73 per cent.

The 73% figure involves muggings in which a knife was used. Other statistics from the same survey showed that murders involving knives has actually held steady over the last ten years. Violence with knives had also peaked in 1995, and the study stresses that the long-term trend is downward. This is no comfort to those attacked by thugs with knives, but it's worth seeing the bigger picture.

The whole Sun campaign though reflects something much more sinister: the criminalisation of young people as a whole. In another Sun article, a police officer gives the game away:

Alan Gordon, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, said officers had to choose which incidents to investigate.

He said: “It is frustrating for the public when you have gangs of youths who congregate and are intimidating.

“Unfortunately, until they commit an offence there’s little the police can do.

Yes, that's the problem isn't it? Why won't they break the law so we can arrest the bastards? That the vast majority of young people who do congregate on street corners or in bus shelters aren't doing anyone any harm doesn't seem to matter, but it's through the constant repetition of the horror stories about gangs and anti-social behaviour that lead to people of all ages fearing groups of youths. A lot may be intimidating, but they're probably not intending to be. The continuous tabloid campaigns against "yobs" have in effect meant that they are seen as criminals or even enemies within. This might not happen if there was something for kids to actually do in their neighbourhoods other than just meet together, but for many they'd rather that young people just didn't exist than do something about it, and the Sun's increasingly hysterical campaigns do nothing but encourage yet more people to be fearful rather than constructive. This was to an extent what David Cameron was getting at when he made his "hug-a-hoodie" speech, that young people quite rightly feel marginalised, that they seek solace through groups and what some might see as menacing or concealing clothing.

There is one voice of sanity, but only one, in the whole of the Sun's coverage today:

Chief Constable of Leicestershire Matt Baggott said all young people should not be tarred with the same brush.

He added: “Youngsters are not just the perpetrators of crime but often the victims.”

Indeed, the rise in street crime reflects the fact that older youths are robbing younger ones of their expensive mobile phones and ipods, rather than a general explosion of violence against just anyone. The sad fact is that Matt Baggott is commenting on exactly what the Sun is doing and has been doing: tarring every youth as a potential yob.

Just like when the News of the World launched its name and shaming campaign against paedophiles, there's also no dissenting mainstream political voices on the issue (the government eventually persuaded Wade to tone down her coverage, but not before Paul Boateng had praised the Screws for its "important contribution to the debate"):
Shadow home secretary David Davis said: “I congratulate The Sun on taking up this immensely important issue.”

Quite. Why bother criticising the fact that the Sun has a terrible record on these matters, that young people are being unfairly demonised for the crimes of a few and that naming and shaming only makes things worse?

The underlying message of the Sun's campaign can be summed up then thus:
Young people, we know that you want to have fun and enjoy your childhood, but wouldn't it be better for you to stay indoors and be seen and not heard? After all, you're scaring the old folks, and you don't want that, do you? You might want to check out this website, called Myspace.com (Proprietor: R. Murdoch), it's like going outside and meeting people except inside, but with more bad music and stupid haircuts!

But what do I know? I'm just an obscurantist and an elitist.

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You will enjoy the front page of your near-namesake www.scepticisle.com which takes this tripe to its logical conclusion....

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