Public Criminology and Raoul Moat
Professor David Wilson
Centre for Applied Criminology, Birmingham City University
In his best-selling book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, Owen Jones quotes a criminologist called “Professor David Wilkinson” arguing that Raoul Moat had:
tap[ped] into that dispossessed, white-working-class, masculine identity, whereby they can’t make their way in the world legitimately so behaving the way that Moat has behaved, as this kind of anti-hero, has, I think, touched a nerve, (Jones, 2011: 6).
Jones was unimpressed by such analyses, suggesting that it revealed “class hatred” and argued that, the “white working-class had, at a stroke, been reduced to knuckle-dragging thugs lacking legitimate aspirations,” (Jones, 2011: 6). Jones went on to illustrate his point by quoting readers’ comments that had been posted on the Daily Mail’s website. You might gain the impression that Wilkinson – in reality me - had been writing about Moat in the Daily Mail. That quote was thereafter directly and correctly linked by Mike Wayne (2012)
to an article which I had actually written in the Daily Mail. That article was headlined “A Howl of Rage from a Bitter and Deluded Underclass” (Daily Mail, 16 July 2010). It is not one I would have chosen but even high profile columnists find their work given ‘unexpected’ headlines or pull quotes. I am sure Jones must have his own experience of this and I’m sure his editor is to blame for confusing my name with Richard Wilkinson
who he later quotes approvingly.
Wayne is more forgiving than Jones and noted that I had, at the very least, correctly identified that mass de-industrialisation in the northeast of England had created a “crisis in masculine identity,” (Wayne, 2012: 128). On the other hand, Aida Edemariam, writing in the Guardian, wanted it both ways, and therefore suggested that my analysis was both “glib and patronising” but that it had, nonetheless, “a kernel of truth in it,” (Guardian, 12 July 2010).
Thankfully Edemariam had correctly identified that the quote, used in different ways by Jones and Wayne, did not in fact come from the Daily Mail
but instead had been used by me in a live, studio interview on Sky News on 11th July 2010. Selected extracts from that interview thereafter appeared in print on the Sky News website and, as a consequence, some of the context for the quote got lost unless the reader clicked onto the actual footage. Indeed, the immediate context for the comment, and now a quote in several books, was an attempt to explain why 3,000 people had wanted to sign up to a Facebook page in Moat’s memory on which he was described as “a legend”. So, comments made by me live on air about people – especially working-class men - in communities which had been de-industrialised, feeling harassed unfairly by the police, and essentially powerless and trapped, with few legitimate outlets for their talents, were lost.
The point here is not so much to dwell on how fair, or otherwise, these various uses of a quote made by me on live TV might have been, or to chart that quote’s subsequent misidentification with a newspaper article where it never appeared, and attributed to a non-existent criminologist. Some might see an irony in a media savvy criminologist so hoist by such petards. But despite such reverses my aim is to consider whether or not public Criminology in the print or broadcast media did help to explain the actions of someone like Moat, by placing his behaviour in a broader context which recognised both his personal responsibility for his actions, and how that responsibility might also be shaped and determined by broader, social, cultural and economic forces.
This seems like a timely moment to consider all of this with the publication of Anthony Ellis, Jennifer Sloan and Maggie Wykes’s (2013) “’Moatifs’ of Masculinity: The Stories Told about ‘Men’ in British Newspaper Coverage of the Raoul Moat Case,” and Michael Rowe’s (2013) “Just Like a TV Show: Public Criminology and the Media Coverage of the ‘Hunt for Britain’s Most Wanted Man”, both published in the current edition of Crime, Media, Culture. I feel in a particularly good position to comment, not only because I did indeed write several articles and make various comments in the print media about Moat,(see, for example, BBC online 10 July 2010 and Guardian 7 July 2010) , but also because – like Rowe – I was used by Sky News, as a “presenter’s friend” in Rothbury on 7th and 8th July 2010, and also made other comments on such outlets as BBC Radio 4’s The World and One and PM. I subsequently described these experiences in Looking for Laura: Public Criminology and Hot News (2011: 136-148).
Rowe does not reference this work in his article, nor a previous co-written article about the competing demands and tensions placed on public criminologists whilst working with the broadcast media (Wilson and Groombridge, 2009). However, Ellis et al do quote from one article that I wrote for the Daily Mail – again by-lined by a sub-editor “Violent Narcissist Who Thought he was Rambo” (Daily Mail 12 July 2010) - noting that there was a “façade of novelty” in my explanations but, echoing the Guardian’s Edemariam, that these explanations still drew on “established discourses of individual psychopathology,” (Ellis, et al 2013: 4). They do not therefore acknowledge that I also claim in this same article that Moat’s actions were those of a “domestic violence abuser”, which in turn were underpinned by “misogyny” and that, more generally, some “working-class males no longer have a role in our society”. These are neither, I would suggest, tropes from “individual psychopathology”, nor the usual suspects and demons favoured by the Daily Mail – an issue I discuss below. However, at least they didn’t accuse me of class hatred.
Clearly there is an inevitable desire to expand, modify, disagree and praise what Rowe, Ellis, Sloan and Wykes have written but rather, I want to use these two articles, and another by Elizabeth Turner, as a lens through which to discuss not just Raoul Moat specifically, but public Criminology more generally in relation to “news-making Criminology”.
The Current State of Public Criminology
Elizabeth Turner’s (2013) article in 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 (1988; 2007) and Groombridge (2007), and the third with Loader and Sparks (2010).
Turner – while offering a new take on the idea of ‘democratic under labouring’ – is clearly aligned with the third perspective.
However, 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 and, crucially, Turner fails to cite Rowe’s work, that of Jon Silverman, the former BBC Home Affairs correspondent, or my own, all of which predate her article. And, lest we forget, the biggest news story of last year, about the paedophile Jimmy Savile, and which is continuing to make headlines this year, was exposed by Mark Williams-Thomas, who publicly identifies himself as a Criminologist and is currently studying for his PhD . Had Turner been able to take this growing corpus of work into consideration she might have been able to modify her conclusion or, at the very least, acknowledge that good “news-making criminology” is indeed filled with Criminological insight and can even, REF-like, have “impact”.
It is here that I want to use Rowe’s work to argue that “news-making” Criminology has now actually moved beyond these essentially preliminary theoretical positions that Turner employs, and which Rowe implicitly endorses, and has reached a very different stage of development. Far from the latter’s fear that criminologists might “retreat from engagement” with the media (Rowe, 2013: 35), a small number of us have increasingly welcomed that engagement – albeit this in itself has now created different tensions (see Wilson, 2013) - and, in doing so, have, I would argue, developed the “robust public criminology” that Rowe is advocating for in his article. However, sadly, his downplaying of such engagement that has already taken place means that his desire for the academy to better understand how the media frames crime events, lags behind those of us who are already aware of that framing, written about it and are trying to use that awareness to promote a better public understanding of crimes and punishments. Indeed, that awareness is the primary reason why much of my public writing now appears in the Daily Mail.
Hated by the Daily Mail
I have previously written about how I have made a conscious decision to stop writing so often for the Guardian and to start writing for the Daily Mail and Tribune. As I pointed out at the time:
The two papers are not natural bed-fellows, but the move to the Daily Mail was made because I felt that my views and opinions were naturally accepted by most readers of the Guardian and if I wanted to see real change then getting the readers of the Daily Mail onside seemed to me to be more important. I’m still debating with myself if that part of the strategy has worked, although I have thoroughly enjoyed learning to write about issues that are important to me in a different style and aimed at a different audience. The move to Tribune was meant to reinforce the fact that in deciding to write for the Daily Mail I hadn’t lost my left-leaning principles, (Wilson, 2011: xvii).
I am still debating as to whether this move has been successful. However, I did see it as part of a broader strategy to use Criminology to cool the ‘red hot debate’ about crime and punishment and, in doing so, reposition some tabloid staples into a broader context that recognises the complexity of issues related to serial killers, sex offenders, naming and shaming, child killers, “holiday camp prisons”, ASBOs, yobs and slobs and the underclass. Has that move been successful? How would I measure success?
Perhaps we could use the Moat case which, as both these articles seem to reveal to me, provides a perfect example of the various tensions, opportunities and dangers that exist for the public, news-making Criminologist who is in danger of being damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. After all, does the Daily Mail taking an article by me about Moat – albeit framed within language that suits the readers of that paper – describing the dispossession of white, working-class men not at least encourage a broader acceptance of the negative consequences of global, neo-liberal economics? I’m uncertain, but I did describe how these men have been “neglected by social forces sweeping modern Britain [and] the manual occupations that gave their forefathers pride, like shipbuilding and coalmining, have gone”. In their wake, welfare dependency had merely rendered these men – like Moat - “useless”. This conclusion seems to me to be perfectly framed for the Daily Mail, while at the same time making an argument which would not normally be heard in that paper.
This importance of this issue of framing that Rowe is keen to describe, is not something that would seem to have even been acknowledged by Ellis et al. Indeed, I did sometimes get the impression that within their general review of the papers that they analyse I was being criticised for my “façade of novelty” for not overtly acknowledging hegemonic masculinity. Frankly, I can’t imagine any article using this term ever appearing in the Daily Mail. In other words, the “retreat” from engagement with the media that Rowe fears, or at least, in the examples provided by Ellis et al from this particular outlet – is predicated on an inability, or an unwillingness, to re-frame an academic argument into one which can be accommodated by the audience which would consume that argument, and also in terms that they would understand.
This would seem to fit into a broader pattern of how British academics deal with the media more generally. For some, although I am not suggesting that this is necessarily the position of Ellis et al, the media is a scary monster to be avoided at all costs, or a machine that will simply grind their beautiful and complex arguments into simplistic sound-bites and, in doing so, render them meaningless. And, as my opening paragraphs show, academics and more serious commentators are quite capable of some grinding and sound-biting. In other words, as far as public Criminology is concerned, some of the tension that Turner well describes between her three perspectives is not simply about the plural, contested nature of Criminology but also about a clear preference for most criminologists to remain rooted in the academy. Tucked away behind the university’s walls, I continue to sense a reluctance, never mind a retreat, on the part of many criminologists, for different reasons, to engage with any public, let alone a “news-making” debate.
But let’s leave all of this to one side, for my greatest concern about what Turner presents is that she sees 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 in academic Criminology, either because of temperament, inclination or downright academic snobbery. The tragedy for me is that either through omission, in the case of Rowe, or commission with Ellis et al, they fail to acknowledge that engaging with the media, and framing a reasoned argument that will be heard in outlets outside of the academy, is not easy to do, has to be tailored to the relevant audience and therefore also needs to be done with care. I appreciate that I am probably fighting a losing battle on this, and I should also acknowledge that I have had perhaps had unfair advantages over my peers in that I was trained to present TV programmes by the BBC. I now have considerable experience of doing so, and many will perhaps simply see me as a “media tart” and this short article as special pleading. However, it nonetheless still seems short-sighted to me that so few of my academic peers want to engage with the print and broadcast media. Rather, they are far more comfortable – dare I say “proud” – of being democratic under labourers or diplomats, than public criminologists – or, if I may – “public intellectuals”. What’s more, the small number of us who do engage with the media will gradually become even smaller, if their work continues to be ignored, taken out of context, or simply misrepresented. In so doing they may cede the field to the rag-tag of police, politicians and moral entrepreneurs that Groombridge (2007) found sheltering under the rubric, ‘Criminologists Say’.
Barak, G (1988), “Newsmaking Criminology: Reflections on the Media, Intellectuals and Crime,” Justice Quarterly 5: 565-587
Barak, G (2007), “Doing Newsmaking Criminology from within the Academy,” Theoretical Criminology 11: 191-207
Ellis, A, Sloan, J and Wykes, M (2012) “’Moatifs’ of Masculinity: The Stories Told about ‘Men’ in British Newspaper Coverage of the Raoul Moat Case,” Crime, Media, Culture, 9 (1): 3-21
Groombridge, Nic (2007) ‘Criminologists Say … : An Analysis of UK National Press Coverage of Criminology and Criminologists and a Contribution to the Debate on ‘Public Criminology’ The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice Volume 46, Issue 5, pages 459–475, December 2007
Jones, O (2011), Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, (London: Verso Books)
Loader, I and Sparks, R (2010), Public Criminology? Criminological Politics in the Twenty-First Century, (London: Routledge)
Rowe, M (2012), “Just Like a TV Show: Public Criminology and the Media Coverage of the ‘Hunt for Britain’s Most Wanted Man”, Crime, Media, Culture, 9 (1): 23-38
Elizabeth Turner (2013), “Beyond Facts and Values: Rethinking Some Recent Debates about the Public Role of Criminology”, The British Journal of Criminology
Wayne, M (2012), “Hans Magnus Enzenberger and the Politics of the New Media Technology,” in D Berry (ed) Revisiting the Frankfurt School: Essays on Culture, Media and Theory, (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing).
Wilkinson Richard G. and Pickett Kate (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better Allen Lane
Wilson, D (2011), Looking for Laura: Public Criminology and Hot News, (Winchester: Waterside Press).
Wilson, D (2013), “The TV Academic: Balancing the Demands of a Double Career,” Guardian, 29 March 2013
Wilson, D and Groombridge, N (2009), “’I’m Making a TV Programme Here!: Reality TV’s Banged Up and Public Criminology,” The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 49 (1): 1-17