Journojism: Asbos and the global economy
6 August 2004
It's well known that newspaper columnists use opinion and fact interchangeably. Kilroy has his fear of an Arab planet, Littlejohn has his fear of a gay planet, and Judy Rumbold has her fear of... actually we're not sure what Judy Rumbold lives in fear of because we've never made it to the end of her dreary column in the Guardian. She could be calling for a return to feudalism for all we know.
What's surprising is when good columnists use the 'my two cents' approach. This week the thoughtful Observer journalist Nick Cohen took issue with the government's controversial Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). He wrote:
'The criminalisation [using ASBOs] of everyday incivility is the government's response to what has been a dreadful miscarriage of justice. Crime rates have fallen off a cliff in the past decade. As unemployment has collapsed so has criminality.'
Crime is a complicated enough issue already, but in the space of three sentences we're already plunged into questionable assumptions. There's a slight problem with Cohen's confident assertion that 'crime rates have fallen off a cliff'. This depends on which crime figures you believe. Earlier this year the British Crime Survey (BCS) suggested that crime in general had fallen by five per cent over the last 12 months. But at the same time the police reported a 12 per cent increase in violent crime and a one per cent rise in crime overall.
Cohen's other point that crime is linked to poverty and unemployment isn't really disputed, but the actual causal connection is harder to ascertain. It also depends very much on what you define as crime. People who are very poor are certainly more likely to commit 'crimes' like low-level benefit fraud, but this hardly compares with, say, mugging.
(You might recall that in the gruesome crime classic Scarface, Tony Montana was an international cocaine dealer, not a jobseeker who doesn't declare income. 'First we sign on. Then we work three nights a week in a pub for £39. Then we get the women. Or not. We might have to stay in to save money.')
But to return to ASBOs: do they tackle a genuine problem, or are they an over-reaction to a perceived fear of crime rather than the actual risk of crime? In fact, ASBOs have come about because of 'thick' voters, according to Cohen, who starts off making a fair point but quickly descends into the sort of pseudo-intellectual speculation that gives liberals a bad name:
'On closer inspection, what people are frightened of isn't always real crimes but the young hanging out on street corners, tattooed boozers pouring beers into their bare bellies outside pubs, children kicking a ball against a wall long after bedtime and vaguely menacing beggars demanding money. The noise and the boorishness inspire the feeling that the world is going to pot in your averagely stupid swing voter in a key marginal...
Maybe the insecurities of the global economy are too complicated to understand and people compensate by concentrating their anxieties on the local problems. Maybe consumerism has bored so deeply into the national consciousness that the intolerant and selfish demand the law be used to punish anyone who annoys them as they enjoy their inalienable right to get and to spend.'
Er, what? That's a lot of 'maybes'.
Cohen is right to make a distinction between vague public fears (of 'gangs' of Young People or shouty drinkers) and actual criminality, but what have the global economy or consumerism got to do with it? The problem with anti-social behaviour is that it's anti-social, not that it stops you doing your shopping.
Anti-social behaviour is a question of degree. To use Cohen's example, kids kicking a football about is perfectly normal. But it becomes a problem when it strays into genuine nuisance behaviour: if it's accompanied by shouting continuing late into the night, if the ball is hitting parked cars, and if kids are scrambling through people's gardens to retrieve the ball.
A bigger problem - and one that's probably crossed the mind of most of us - is that if you attempt to stop anti-social behaviour there's a worrying uncertainty about what's going to happen next. If you tell a bunch of kids to stop kicking a ball about, chances are they'll go somewhere else. But there's also a chance you'll just be told to fuck off - or worse.
Of course, it's questionable whether ASBOs are right way to go about things. There's certainly something dubious about being able to punish someone with an ASBO when they haven't been convicted of a specific crime in the first place. There are also plenty of accounts of ASBOs being doled out for trivial things: Cohen gives the example of a pensioner who received an ASBO for being rude to a neighbour. In another recent case, a young teenager could face two years in custody if he trespasses on a neighbour's property, which seems excessive by any standards.
The fundamental problem is that it's nigh on impossible to get an accurate account of crime levels in the UK, especially when you factor in the fuzzy area which is anti-social behaviour. (Although however fuzzy it is, it's still a greater concern for most of us than, say, murder.) But with the right-wing press already on a mission to prove we're up to our armpits in rat-boys and drunken thugs, do we really need liberal journalists to trivialise 'noise and boorishness' by making the bizarre claim that it interferes with 'our right to get and spend'?
Maybe. As Cohen would say.