I claim tendentiously, and in the spirit of advertising, to be 'The UK's premier new media criminologist'. Professor David Wilson of Birmingham City University has better claim to 'old' media and much besides. Here, in a guest blog, he takes issue with a recently published article in the BJC.
Elizabeth Turner’s article in the new edition of The British Journal of Criminology – Beyond Facts and Values: Rethinking Some Recent Debates about the Public Role of Criminology – neatly summarises the three, and often competing perspectives, on Criminology’s public role. Turner identifies these three perspectives as: “fighting for truth”; “news-making criminology”; and “democratic under labouring”. The second perspective can be readily associated with Barak and Groombridge, and the third with Loader and Sparks.
Turner – while offering a new take on democratic under labouring, via her use of the work of Bruno Latour – appears aligned with the third perspective, and thanks Richard Sparks in her acknowledgements.
No problem with that, except that in doing so, she rather airily dismisses “news-making criminology” as “appearing[ing] to empty criminology of any meaningful content so that all that matters is getting one’s favoured discourse heard”, (page 157). No evidence is presented to support this editorial and, crucially, Turner fails to cite Mike Rowe’s recent work Just like a TV show: Public criminology and the Media Coverage of ‘hunt for Britain’s most wanted man’ or my own Looking for Laura: Public Criminology and Hot News both of which predate her article. Had she done so, she might have been able to modify this conclusion or, at the very least, acknowledge that good “news-making criminology” is indeed filled with criminological insight.
More broadly, some of this tension between the three perspectives that are identified is not simply about the plural – and contested - nature of criminology as a discipline, which Turner ably describes, but also about a clear preference for most criminologists to remain rooted in the academy. Tucked away behind the university’s walls, I sense a reluctance on the part of many criminologists – for different reasons – to engage with any public, never mind “news-making” debate. For some, the media is a scary monster to be avoided at all costs, or a machine that will grind their beautiful and complex arguments into simplistic soundbites and, in doing so, render them meaningless. Turner’s conclusion comes perilously close to this latter position, which essentially sees “news-making criminology” as superficial and unworthy.
I appreciate that I am probably fighting a losing battle on this, and have also had perhaps unfair advantages in that I was trained to present TV programmes by the BBC and now have considerable experience of doing so, but it does seem short-sighted that so few of my academic peers want to engage with the print and broadcast media. They are far more comfortable – dare I say “proud” – of being democratic under labourers or diplomats, than public criminologists, or dare I say it, “public intellectuals”?
However, at the end of the day, most – if not all - of the growth in the numbers of students who want to study criminology has come from the media’s interest in the subject and their corresponding need to have experts to comment. None of our students have had any exposure to Criminology save the ‘popular criminology’ of true crime books and documentaries, or what they see in the newspapers, hear on the radio, watch on TV or glean from the internet. It simply doesn’t make sense to me that we should ignore where their interests have come from, or fail to contribute to the outlets more generally that are prepared to popularly debate those things which are at the heart of criminology.
Turner presents her three perspectives as if they each have equal weight and support. Nothing can be further from the truth. Sadly, democratic under labourers and diplomats proliferate, either because of temperament, inclination or downright academic snobbery.