One of the things I've learned about newspapers - especially the tabloids - in the couple of years that I've been writing this blog is that their purpose is not actually to report the news. When I started, I understood that they spun the news a certain way, but I don't think I realised the lengths to which newspapers go to crowbar events into pre-prepared narratives. I used to play a game with the Daily Mail - 'Spot the Asylum Seeker Scare Story' - try to guess the number of pages before the first scare story about asylum seekers. I normally didn't have to count very far.
What I didn't appreciate at the time was how far stories like those were invented. Sure, I realised that the paper would have taken something that happened and exaggerated it out of all recognition, but I hadn't realised how many of them were based on thin air, or were actually based on lies. I've blogged before about how the figures the Mail (and other tabloids) use in a story - especially an immigration scare story - don't actually matter. They're just window dressing for pushing whatever the paper wants to push at any given time - like how Immigration Is A Bad, Bad Thing. To push this idea, the paper is not beyond exaggerating figures it knows to be misleading before being exaggerated, repeating figures from months ago and pretending they're new, or just pretending reports have said things they actually haven't.
Last summer, the tabloids were in the throes of a frenzy about a missing girl.
The Daily Express included mentions of the missing girl on around 100 consecutive front pages. That's a third of a year devoted to one missing child, although approximately 100,000 children go missing in the UK every year. There are a few reasons for the overwhelming coverage of the story, but the main one is that the abduction took place abroad, so the tabloids were free to print all sorts of speculation that would have been illegal had the child gone missing in the UK.
The interesting thing is that within all the reporting of what is a specific event, the tabloids managed to fit the story into regularly reported narratives, some of which had little to do with the story. One of the main threads of the coverage was the apparent incompetence of foreigners, this time in the form of the Portuguese police. Another was scaremongering about child safety. Perhaps most surprising was the ability of these papers to crowbar the kidnapping story into the general anti-Muslim narrative that the papers like to run.
From memory - and I have to work from memory since the Express has removed all the stories from its website - there were at least three stories in the Express about the girl being kidnapped by Muslims, which I made a brief post about at the time. The Mail had ''Stop the car, there's Madeleine': Witness sees her dragged by Muslim woman', 'Witness: Seeing 'Madeleine' in Morocco sent shivers down my spine', 'Bosnian police slow to react to new Madeleine 'sighting'', 'Madeleine hunt turns to Balkans after girl is heard crying for 'Daddy'', 'Third 'Madeleine in Morocco' sighting: 'I'm still convinced it was her,' says woman' and 'Madeleine: Eight possible sightings of her in just two days' which says, "[one witness] said the girl was accompanied by three women dressed in Muslim attire who were pushing three pushchairs" in one of the eight sightings, and in a sighting in the South of France, a "tall, swarthy man" was described with the child.
After the main frenzy died down, the Daily Star published the front page headline 'Muslim Sicko's Maddie Kidnap Shock'. The story didn't actually include details about Muslims kidnapping Madeleine McCann, as the headline promised, but details of how some Muslims on the internet had suggested that the McCanns might be responsible for the kidnapping of their daughter. The Daily Star, along with other Express Newspapers had to pay £500,000 and print an unprecedented front page apology to the McCanns just weeks before for the exact same thing.
Along with that apology and fine, several papers have now had to pay compensation to Robert Murat, another innocent person the papers smeared. The Tapas 7, friends of the McCanns, have also reportedly attempted to sue the tabloids for being smeared.
These legal wranglings are the result of the paper disregarding the actual truth because the reality didn't seem to fit into a proper internal narrative structure (separate from overarching narratives like 'foreigners are stupid' or 'Muslims are nasty'). Stories like this need a villain. They need an Ian Huntley, or a John Venables and Robert Thompson, and if they don't have one, the papers will invent them. Ask Colin Stagg, Robert Murat or maybe even Barry George. The truth is subordinate to the creation of a coherent narrative.
So, it should be no surprise that this summer's frenzy seems to have little basis in reality. As Septicisle covered, the newly released BCS figures show that the percentage of violent crimes involving a knife actually dropped marginally since last year, and the Metropolitan Police figures show a drop of 16% in recorded incidents. There may be areas where there are rises in knife crime, and there may be a rise in the number of young people involved, although that remains to be properly measured - but it is clear that the overall figures don't warrant the relentless press coverage of the last few months.
But the figures don't matter. What does matter is the narrative - this time a combination of the common one that the country is going to hell in a handcart, and another one that our youth is feral, criminal and out of control. There's another, new thread - but more on that later.
You know all caution about reporting the truth has been thrown out of the window when you see headlines like 'Britain on alert for deadly new knife with exploding tip that freezes victims' organs'. Yes. I'm sure Britain's on the alert for that. It's probably one position above the sharks with lasers.*
Another story in the Mail, linked to on the website with the headline 'Shock figures reveal no part of Britain is safe as knife violence spreads EVERYWHERE' is 'Thugs committing 350 knife assaults EVERY DAY, as blade menace spreads to rural areas'. This story displays willful ignorance of actual figures, since it ignores every part of the evidence in the BCS of knife crime falling, although it does mention an overall drop in crime and that, 'Firearms offences recorded by police rose 2 per cent last year to reach a total of 9,803, while homicides were up three per cent to 784.' Instead of reporting the drop in knife crime, it reports the actual break down of knife crime figures, which were released for the first time this year and therefore impossible to compare with what has happened in previous years.
In fact, that might be a reason for the absolutely bonkers coverage of knife crime so far this year. Last year, the first government stats for the number of Romanians and Bulgarians who came to the UK since the two countries joined the EU were released. In the run up to the figures' release, the Mail reported that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians coming to the UK was 60,000 in one story, and 150,000 in another. The real figures showed that 8,000 came in the first three months, but by then 8,000 looked way too low since the paper had already poisoned the well for its readers. Late last year, the Mail unleashed another deluge of anti-immigration stories (even more so than usual) in the lead up to the government publishing its first ever report about the effects of immigration, ensuring that by its release anything positive in it would look absurd. It could be that the deluge of 'Blade Britain' stories has come as the result of a perceived threat to a staple tabloid narrative.
Even if it's not deliberate, the Moral Panic has had the effect of poisoning the well of official figures, at least with some commentators. See Neil Clark for one, or Keith Waterhouse for another in 'The British Crime Survey? It's all lies, damned lies and crime figures', whose ignorance of how polling systems work can only be wilful. Unless, of course, he's incredibly, incredibly stupid. I wouldn't know since I don't often read Mail columnists. I get enough opinion in its news coverage. [Hat tip to The Popular Front for the Liberation of Discordia for that one].
There's one thing missing from the feelgood hit of this summer, and that's a villain. Who's responsible for the stab party on ALL our streets?
It's a mixture. Mainly, young people are demonised - partly because the BCS doesn't record under 16s, so the papers (and Keith Waterhouse) can cling to the idea that we're all doomed in the face of actual figures, and partly because they fit in with a pre-existing narrative. Last month, the Mail crowbarred the knife crime hoo-hah into an attack on immigrants in 'Mass immigration to blame for series of crime 'spikes', chief constable warns', which was a suitably dishonest twisting of something Chief Constable Julie Spence said about recent immigrants not knowing it's illegal to carry knives. Oh, and it was someone else that mentioned the crime 'spikes', not the Chief Constable.**
This weekend though, developments are beginning to look more worrying than the scapegoating of migrants. Because now, apparently, the villain of the piece is black people.
'Over half of young knife suspects are black, Scotland Yard figures reveal' is a headline from Sunday. In itself, there's nothing wrong with reporting the stat, providing it's accurate. Of course, the paper focuses on the age group in the stats that shows the greatest proportion of black people accused in standard tabloid scaremongering style, but there's something a bit more distasteful than usual about that standard focus when we're talking about black people and violent crime.
The most irresponsible reporting comes in the paper's coverage of the ethnicity of the victims.
The article includes a handy table, subheaded 'THE EVIDENCE'. The table juxtaposes the number of under 18s accused of knife crime with the victims, as if to say that these perpetrators are responsible for crimes affecting these victims - and the text of the piece handily informs us that:
A highly-sensitive report reveals that 124 of the 225 under-18s legally 'proceeded against' for knife offences in the past three months are from the black community.
Yet in the overwhelming majority of reported cases of knife crime involving young people, the victims are white.
Notice how the last sentence doesn't tell us the actual number of victims. That could be because the number of victims is much higher than the number of people accused - partly because some may be victims of people over 18, and partly because there will be more crimes where nobody is accused than crimes where someone is. In not mentioning this discrepancy, it makes it look like the accused are responsible for all the crimes with a victim - and make it look as though young white people are overwhelmingly the victims of young black people in knife crime involving under 18s.
That aside - the biggest problem with that quote is that it isn't true. The table shows that in the victim's ethnicity isn't known in the overwhelming majority of knife crime reported to the police.
Although the paper offers this explanation for the number of people not specifying their ethnicity:
One possible explanation is that in many cases, the victims are black gang members who did not wish to co-operate with police, meaning the figures do not necessarily give a complete picture.
it doesn't bother to go as far as suggesting that victims might be black people (gang members or otherwise) who didn't report anything to police at all, for fear of reprisal. In any case - look at how even the victims of knife crime are villains who don't want to co-operate with the police if they're black. But only if they're black.
Also, since the paper admits that these figures are incomplete and it finds the time to mention this:
Since January 1, 16 teenagers have been stabbed to death in London, forcing Scotland Yard to launch a high-profile campaign targeting youngsters and hot-spots of knife crime.
you'd think that paper would find the room to report that of the teenagers stabbed to death in London this year (20, according to the London Paper, which in a perfect example of tabloid scaremongering about knife crime includes one person stabbed with broken glass, two people who were shot and two people who were beaten to death in its 'London knife crime teenage fatalities 2008' gallery), only three were white. You'd think that would be relevant in an article that pretends to examine the ethnicity of knife crime victims in London. You'd think an article that looked at figures that showed that the largest number of knife crime victims' ethnicity is unknown would mention the number of black victims of the most serious knife crime possible, but this one doesn't. Do you think the paper would ignore this figure if it showed that only 3 out of 16 teenage victims of knife murder in London were black, and around 10 were white?
In not including that figure, which is arguably the most relevant of all, the paper is doing the BNP's work for it. Yes, we say this all the time about the right wing tabloids - but in this case the Mail really is. Richard Barnbrook is making quite a lot of figures he claims to have that show that black people are responsible for 42% of knife crime in London. This stat is almost certainly something he's got confused with the number of black people accused of crimes involving an offensive weapon - but he's asked about this twice in Mayor's Question Time. Where he's going with this is anyone's guess - but mine would be that he wants extra sanctions against black people. Probably stop and search - but who knows? Now, he has an article in a supposedly respectable newspaper to back him up - and so does the wider BNP, which goes on about unreported white victims of violent crime perpetrated by black people (or Muslims, depending on who the shovel headed goons want to demonise on which particular day). Whatever Barnbrook wants to lead up to, this article slots perfectly into BNP propaganda, and it does so by ignoring very relevant details.
So, in a year we've gone from tabloids using a definite news event to fill space and perpetuate certain tabloid narratives, to tabloids pretty much inventing a moral panic, and using that to fit certain tabloid narratives. Last year, that included painting foreigners as incompetent and possible child kidnappers. It ended up with the tabloids demonising Muslims.
This year, it includes painting young people and foreigners as being responsible for knife crime. It's ended up with demonising black people for being responsible for knife crime perpetrated mainly against white people, even though only 3 out of 16 victims of stabbing murder in London have been white (one of whom was stabbed with glass and not a knife).
That's a nasty development. And a nasty regression to 1981. How far the tabloids go with this remains to be seen, but it feels like a mark has been overstepped.
Another question that will never be answered is this: if this summer's tabloid bonanza were about specific individuals rather than vaguely defined groups, how much money would the papers have had to pay in compensation for misrepresenting the truth?
*Yes, I know the wasp knife exists - it's just stupid to think it's going to be a major problem when it's just as easy to do damage to a person with a normal knife at a fraction of a fraction of the cost.
**Brilliantly, this article was written by James Slack, who on 17 April this year wrote 'Analysis: Spinning and a gullible liberal media led to 'migrant crime wave myth' headlines', which asked - in all seriousness - 'Even if accurate, the coverage would have begged several questions, not least who had claimed there was a migrant crimewave in the first place?'
This is despite the fact that he writes for the paper that published 'Chief constables called to crisis summit with Jacqui Smith on immigrant crimewave' on 7 February. The author? James Slack. Priceless.
**UPDATE**As if by magic, the table from the Mail appears in Richard Barnbrook's blog, with even the scant context given the figures by the paper removed. Hurrah for the Blackshirts!