Knife crime: analysis of the media response

06 Mar 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Knife crime: analysis of the media response

Ray Snoddy looks at the reaction and responsibilities of the press in covering the wave of murder and tragedy sweeping the UK

Often it is a cartoonist who best encapsulates a crisis, a dilemma, a piece of arrant political hypocrisy or incompetence.

Equally often it is The Times cartoonist Peter Brookes who hits the target by using the technique of juxtaposing two unrelated things to jolt and surprise.

In this case his two crossing ideas are related whether “directly” so or not, and in another trademark signal Brookes splattered his work with blood-red paint – in this case horrifyingly relevant.

His take on knife crime is to portray Prime Minister Theresa May, who when Home Secretary was responsible for cutting police numbers in England and Wales by 20,000, carving with a bloodied knife the downward graph of police numbers.

It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of knife murders, or the horror every parent or grandparent feels to learn of a girl scout socialising with her friends in a local park stabbed to death by an apparent stranger, or a scholarship boy who wanted to become a heart surgeon murdered on his way home to tea.

They were unrelated events but few can avoid a shudder and the thought that if it happened to them, it could happen to anyone - anybody’s children.

Quite rightly it is a major story across all forms of media and the calls for greater and instant action from politicians and police are immediate and strident.

It is an obvious strength and indeed responsibility of the media, and newspapers in particular, to concentrate on and highlight a social ill, particularly one so tragic and devastating as this.

There is the inevitable wringing of hands and attempts to explain the inexplicable, whether its drug gangs, middle-class users who feed drug gangs, school exclusions or pubic service cuts.

There must be reasons and it’s even better to find someone to blame such as Theresa May. The Prime Minister didn’t do herself any favours by falling back on weasel words to argue that there was no “direct” correlation between falling police numbers and the rise in knife crime.

She got her inevitable put down on LBC from the Metropolitan Commissioner Cressida Dick who politely pointed out there was just such a question when correlated with most people’s view of common sense.

The headlines have been pretty dramatic and have been getting more so.

The death of Jodie Chesney, the girl scout who visited 10 Downing Street and had met Boris Johnson, was marked by the Daily Mail with the headline: “A knife to the Heart of Britain.”

It was followed by the 17- year-old public schoolboy “knifed to death in village” and “knife crime crisis” with the pictures of 27 teenagers all stabbed to death in a single year.

Of course that does indeed add up to a crisis and one that should be shouted from the rooftops.

But by today The Sun was in effect calling for troops to be involved with its splash headline: “Call In the Army.”

A more careful read shows that the strident headline was based on a remark by Commissioner Dick, presumably in answer to a question, that she would not rule out asking for troops to help battle the menace on London’s streets.

Equally presumably in response, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the MoD “would always be ready to respond.”

So that’s a no to police on the streets then, except perhaps in a backup role to support police overstretched by the Government-imposed fall in police numbers.

Then along comes Boris Johnson who can usually be relied on to make a bad situation worse with his attack on “PC squeamishness over stop and search.”

Yes, but when only one section of society is routinely subjected to stop and search you can easily provoke a new crisis and increased social disorder.

Without a new knife murder to highlight, the narrative quickly turns to the need for more and longer prison sentences and soft-hearted magistrates who inexplicably hand out suspended prison sentences to “swaggering”, knife-yielding, drug-dealing 18–year-olds.

The 18-year-old admitted having a lock knife and a quantity of cocaine but the chairman of the Birmingham bench said they believed he had the character to change and they wanted to give him that opportunity.

All involved must have been startled to find themselves on the front-page splash in the Daily Mail.

And therein lies a potential problem. When a story starts running journalists are despatched all over the place to find more examples of the offending behaviour: surprise, surprise, they usually find it.

The danger is that in the midst of a media hew and cry over “carnage” and “blood-soaked streets,” the more enthusiastic will overshoot and disconnect themselves from any sense of context and balance.

Often, as we have seen in the past, knee-jerk reactions can lead to knee-jerk legislation and bad laws which can take years to clean up.

The worse the crimes - and these are as bad as they get - the greater the need for calm analysis and cool reflection.

There is also one very difficult question that needs to be posed. All lives lost matter equally and all tragic families suffer the same never-ending pain.

Yet in the endless cycle of stabbings and death has this media response stood out as a peak of the genre for a rather uncomfortable reason?

Has it been so intense because the two unrelated deaths of Jodie Chesney and Yousef Makkie, which happened within days of each other, were of completely respectable middle class teenagers rather than gang members stabbing each other?

It’s just a thought and a question and no-one doubts equal tragedy leads to equal pain whatever the degree of innocence.

Even in the midst of the mayhem there is a need for the media, away from the “blood-soaked streets”, to set matter in context as Mark Easton, the excellent home affairs editor of the BBC usually does.

Crime figures are notoriously difficult things to interpret and can depend on police activity and what is the latest criminal flavour of the month, something that can be influenced by media outrage.

The number of crimes recorded by the police differs from crime reported in an annual survey of 38,000 members of the public.

The latest public survey shows no change in the overall number of violent crimes in the year to September 2018. The police record a 7% rise in violence that caused injury or death a possible indication that the police are picking up the more serious cases.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales indicates that overall levels of violence have actually fallen by about a quarter since 2013 and although knife crime is on the rise it is still relatively unusual for a violent incident to involve a knife.

No comfort at all for the bereaved but maybe worth thinking about before mobilising the army.

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