The term ‘crime’ may appear, at least at first glance, a rather simplistic concept in which particular images and ideas spring to mind. We often ask students to provide an example of what exactly constitutes a ‘crime’ and on almost all occasions responses include such criminal acts as serial murder, mass shootings, contract killings and domestic and confrontational homicide.
When it comes to the concept of ‘crime’, almost without exception, serial killers are at the front and centre of student’s awareness and, for some, one of the reasons why they enrolled on a Criminology degree. Also prominent are notions of policing, popular understandings of prisons, and a great many tabloid inspired ‘usual suspects’ that come to over-saturate popular discussions around crime.
Of course, the term crime and the spheres of crime, criminal justice are much broader, and yet, all too frequently we have found that a tendency to see crime in a rather narrow way is the hallmark of the contemporary moment.
Two of the most eminent of UK Criminologists, Richard Sparks and Ian Loader (2010) have suggested that the term ‘public criminology’ is one that has been corrupted. There is an appetite for academics who work in the field of criminology to make their work accessible for public audiences, and an almost unending fascination and appetite for an array of consumerist true crime product. It is uncommon for criminologists to appear on the small screen and give perspectives on the realities of crime. You will be hard pressed, whilst taking a cursory glance through television news channels, to find a qualified academic talking about the lived reality of crime, for example on burglaries, fraud and other crimes most of the society most commonly have some level of experience with. You will likely not struggle, however, to find a show in which an academic is giving their perception on a case study of serial murder or another extreme form of homicide. This fundamentally negates the fact that in reality such crimes are extremely uncommon.
It is within this academic/public interaction that our book 50 Facts Everyone Should Know About Crime and Punishment in the UK attempts to re-orientate and re-engage in a more nuanced and meaningful way. We argue that, alongside the sciences including astronomy, physics and biology, Criminology is of the utmost importance with regard to informing the public of the complexities, nuances and challenges we all face in an effort to create a more peaceful and fair society.
In the face of growing disparity between the rich and poor, unimaginable environmental devastation, increasing far-right sentiments and, with the advent of social media, the notion a ‘social bulimia’ (Young, 2007) in which more and more people feel alienated, now is the time to move beyond sensationalism and well-worn tropes and towards a more meaningful form of academic/public dialogue.
This only further compounded when we consider that we witnessing the rise of ‘fake news’. As a result, crime has become a commodity which is packaged and sold to an audience who have become primed to alter their views and perceptions to fit whatever the next ‘horrific’ and ‘shocking’ ‘newsworthy’ story they are presented with. The potency of this statement is only strengthened when we consider a tweet of Billionaire reality television personality and 45th President of the United States Donal J. Trump:
“It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.” (@realDonaldTrump, 28th May, 2017).
Certain hot topics can be effortlessly instrumentalised: the fear of alienation, the abuse of power, and questions of war and peace are all at risk.
Here in the UK the authenticity and reliability of the academic has also come under fire. For example, in the lead up to the now historic Brexit referendum, Conservative politician Michael Gove was recorded as stating that “people in this country have had enough of experts” (Menon & Portes, 2016). Gove’s remarks demonstrate that the role of experts is far from uncontested, especially in highly publicised and politicised topics.
This is especially true when we consider that only recently Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, a staunch ‘Brexiter’, had asked every university for a list of professors teaching European affairs with particular reference to Brexit. Naturally numerous universities and academics attacked this request and quickly referred to it as a form of ‘McCarthyite’ behaviour. The vice-chancellor of Worcester University even went as far as stating that:
“Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris’s website.” (Fazackerley, 2017).
With the above in mind, our book is an attempt to provide a user-friendly, one-stop guide in which academics, students, and members of the public can engage with. Real change, the sort of change we academics often dream of, begins at the grass-roots. In order for us to truly begin to make a change, and challenge the mainstream and often sensational media, we need to write for everyone – not the select few within academia.
We must also not fall into the trap of sensationalism ourselves, something that is all too easy within Criminology. Only with these points addressed can we finally start to have meaningful and relatable conversations with the public, and perhaps begin to the sow the seeds for change.
50 Facts Everyone Should Know about Crime and Punishment in Britain, edited by James Treadwell and Adam Lynes is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £10.39.
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