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Who skews crime reporting?

Before fantasising about institutional racism in the media, police chief Sir Ian Blair should read some newspapers - and the Met's own press releases.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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Twelve months on as Chief of the Metropolitan Police service, Sir Ian Blair is as ubiquitous as the celebrities he seeks to interview. During the past couple of weeks alone he has clocked up enough column inches to make a Celebrity Big Brother contestant feel envious. Aside from the ongoing farrago over ‘cocaine Kate’, last week he aired ‘controversial’ comments regarding the media’s reporting (and non-reporting) of certain criminal cases. At this rate, Sir Ian Blair should devise a new format of What the Papers Say, Met-style.

It’s bad enough that Britain’s ‘top cop’ adopts the tactical strategies of, say, Max Clifford. It’s even worse when the reports he is complaining about are a consequence of recent police practice. A case in point is the police handling of the murder enquiry of Soham schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells. Sir Ian Blair berates the media for over-reporting that terrible case. But who exactly set up and sustained a murder enquiry as a ghoulish spectacle?

As Jennie Bristow pointed out on spiked after the Soham murders, the media’s self-regarding agenda did make the coverage queasily unprecedented (see The Soham story, by Jennie Bristow). Yet at no point did the police draw a veil around details that would have best been left to the jury. From the first national public appeal, to detective superintendent David Beck’s bizarre act of ‘personally’ texting the girls’ abductor (via Jessica’s switched-off mobile phone), Cambridgeshire Police actively relished their newfound media status. Important investigative work often took second place to a snowballing PR campaign. If Sir Ian Blair wants to learn lessons from Soham, he’d be wiser to look closer to home.

Despite such criticisms of the coverage, Blair still uses the Soham murders to construct a bogus morality tale of his own. In this case he believes the media’s extensive coverage rested largely on Jessica and Holly being white. If Blair is right (and he isn’t), why has the murder case surrounding the black schoolboy Damilola Taylor been a news fixture for the past four years? Clearly, society’s current preoccupation with paedophiles and children-at-risk panics hasn’t registered with Sir Ian Blair. He’s too busy acting as the self-appointed race monitor.

Blair points that the media gave extensive column inches to the murder of white lawyer Tom Rhys Price by hooded black youths, but under-played the death of Balbir Mathara, who died after being dragged under his car, which was being stolen by thieves. But the reportage of the Rhys Price knifing was devoid of the racialised accounts that would have once populated the tabloid press – and many reports stressed how an Asian man was also robbed and attacked just prior to Rhys Price.

The reason why the press singled this murder out was the nature of the killing, not the aggressor or victim’s skin colour. That Rhys Price was a commuter, killed by muggers on the way home from the pub, pushes all the familiar ‘it could have been me’ buttons among Londoners. Furthermore, in recent years the Metropolitan police force has exaggerated the scale and extent of fatalities involving knives: indeed its slogan, ‘Working for a Safer London’, implies that violent attacks are the norm not the exception. The Met’s own press office highlighted Rhys Price’s murder. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the media give greater attention to crimes that fit the Met’s script. This is also why Sir Ian Blair’s insistence that the media is ‘institutionally racist’ against non-whites isn’t true.

As discussed previously on spiked, the media coverage of Anthony Walker’s murder reveals how far racial politics have changed in recent years. (See One murder doesn’t make a racist society, by Mick Hume) Violent attacks on black people are more likely to be reported because they appear to demonstrate the problem with the white working-class. This sea-change was an outcome of the Stephen Lawrence case and the subsequent Macpherson report into the black teenager’s murder, which served to purge the police of its former role as harbingers of racial oppression, while emphasising the racist threat from the white masses.

It’s remarkable that nobody baulked at Sir Ian Blair’s clumsy insertion of the term ‘institutional racism’. After all, the phrase was first used in the Macpherson report against the Metropolitan police force. The apparent ease with which Blair can claim this phrase as his own shows how remarkable the police’s transformation has been. Far from being appearing as a force with an unsavoury reputation for assaulting black people, they are now considered an authority – in every sense of the word – on issues to do with race.

Nevertheless, today’s nodding support for the police can’t fully compensate for lacking the same clear role it once played. In the past, whenever a chief constable made controversial comments about sections of society, it stoked outrage and loathing. Yet rather than this leading to blushing apologies and PR make-overs, it only hardened the police’s outlook. The ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ mentality the police adopted made sense because their job description was public order.

Today, of course, it’s very different. Dealing with a few late night-drunks and even fewer terrorists isn’t quite as demanding or as self-defining as dealing with mass social movements. That sense of purpose is now confined to press conferences, press releases, and interviews in The Guardian. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the ‘force’ are motivated more by PR than policing, as was lamentably revealed by the Soham murders. For Sir Ian Blair to blame the media, and score some racially correct points in the process, is spectacularly rich. Maybe he needs some advice from Max Clifford after all.

Read on:

Why are coppers stalking celebrities?, by Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

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