In a recent edition of Celebrity Mastermind a celebrity was asked ‘In the field of criminology what does the term alibi mean?”. I was so struck by this sudden appearance of my discipline in the Christmas schedules that I didn’t even get to hear whether the correct definition of an alibi was given, or the common erroneous presumption that it meant excuse. I could not hear because some idiot was shouting at the screen, ‘In any field!’. It was me. Having calmed down - and looked online see even quite pukka sources claiming it has come to mean ‘excuse’ - I retreat to the complaint that the question mistakes the criminological for the legal, or vice versa.
So what is criminology? Well, rather than taking you through an early lecture in my modules, let’s examine who is a criminologist. This issue arises from time to time. Sometimes students waste words and risk my ire by claiming that some writer or other is a criminologist, when what I want is an assessment of whether their argument has merit or not. I take a fairly broad position in which any discussion of crime in any discipline (and none) might be considered criminological, from the blatherings of Peter Hitchens and many politicians to signed up members of the British Society of Criminology. I do though argue that criminologists have too readily ceded ground to others such as police, think tanks, NGOs and tabloid media and need to engage more (Criminologists Say).
One group that has a particular right to speak are victims. I believe everyone has something to say about crime as only the lucky will never have been a victim and only the saintly - yes Durkheim, I did say that - will never have offended. But I am concerned about some who seek to speak for the victim but immediately turn to what they propose to do to the offender.
In the great criminological choir some get chosen for solo parts: thus by the accident of victimisation Helen Newlove becomes a Baroness and Victims Commissioner after her husband is kicked to death. Sara Payne’s daughter, Sarah, dies at the hands of Roy Whiting and through the boost of the News Of The World’s campaigning zeal Sara becomes an honorary doctor of the Open University. As this story shows Roy Whiting has been seriously victimised but don’t expect his name to feature in any politically astute honours list.
But back to honours and Dr Sara Payne. She lends her name, and more controversially her title, to The Sun’s Justice Campaign. A number of academics are concerned about this and as an OU graduate I am uneasy but probably because I’m opposed to honours systems in all areas of life. Yes, I know my father, Brian, has an honorary degree from the Open University.
So far Sara Payne is not advertised or billed as a criminologist. However, Mark Williams-Thomas is, and some in the criminological community are unhappy about this. I welcome his voice and enthusiasm but am more concerned that his very policey/punitive approach is seen as representative of UK criminology. A better example of this ‘who can be described as a criminologist debate’ though is Roger Graef. I recall a colleague being very exercised that he was described as a criminologist. But, enjoy the irony here, I’m happy to honour him with that title. And similarly Richard Garside a very sage commentator on crime and criminal justice. And famously Against Criminology and now sadly dead I honour Stan Cohen.