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The UK's premier new media criminologist - on Twitter @criminology4u, facebook and blogging on Criminology in Public and Sports Criminology.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Public criminology, Raoul Moat and ‘the perfect crime story’

There is clearly some argument about what public criminology is and some of this might turn on the precise definition of democratic underlabouring.  Here Elizabeth Turner of Liverpool Univeristiy responds to recent guest post by David Wilson.

Professor David Wilson’s April 18th guest post on this blog made a number of criticisms of three recent peer-reviewed articles published in the British Journal of Criminology (Turner, 2013) and in Crime, Media and Culture (Ellis, Sloan and Wykes, 2013; Rowe, 2013). Wilson’s frustration with these three articles appears to stem from the fact that they each in their own way criticise, conflict with or neglect his own work as the most frequently quoted ‘public criminologist’ in the UK (Wilson, 2011: xvi). In this post I want to respond to Wilson’s assessment of the contribution made by these three pieces of peer-reviewed academic work, by examining the concerns he expresses against the backdrop of the wider debate about ‘public criminology’.

Wilson defines a ‘public criminologist’ as ‘an academic criminologist who, while teaching, writing and researching at a university, also engages in popular debates in the print and broadcast media about crime and punishment’ (Wilson, 2013a). For me this definition is what I have described elsewhere as theoretically ‘empty’: it provides no normative justification as to why criminologists engaging with the media should necessarily be considered to be a desirable thing. The idea that ‘public criminology’ merely means criminologists gaining media exposure in order to say things about crime rests upon a number of assumptions which I think need to be interrogated. Indeed, examining the assumptions underpinning recent discussions of criminology’s public role is what I set out to do in the journal article which Wilson criticises (see Turner, 2013).     

Wilson’s main criticism of my article seems to be that it merely reinforces what he sees as a dominant tendency amongst academic criminologists to shun the kind of active engagement with the media that he himself has adopted. In Wilson’s view the criminological field is overpopulated with individuals happy to accept a modest role as ‘democratic underlabourers’ (see Loader and Sparks, 2010) rather than engaging in ‘newsmaking’ (see Barak, 1988) or what Wilson (2013b) calls ‘viewsmaking’, criminology.  Wilson suggests that my article is aligned with Loader and Sparks’s (2010) notion of ‘democratic underlabouring’ and that I unfairly dismiss the ‘newsmaking’ perspective without providing adequate evidence or quoting from some key recent texts in this area (including Wilson’s own work).  

The first point I would make in response to this is that I don’t think Wilson accurately represents Loader and Sparks’s (2010) idea of the ‘democratic underlabourer’. The ‘democratic underlabourer’ Loader and Sparks describe is not, as Wilson suggests, simply a criminologist doing what criminologists already do [1]. As such I think for Wilson to say there are too many ‘democratic underlabourers’ is inaccurate. To be fair I think what he meant was that too many criminologists are wholly concerned with producing knowledge which they communicate in ways that are utterly incomprehensible to the proverbial ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ and that they devote too little time to finding ways to make their knowledge accessible such that it can make a constructive contribution to public discourse. This may be an accurate point. However it is not the same as saying there are too many of Loader and Sparks’s ‘democratic underlabourers’ amongst the ranks of academic criminologists.   

As regards Wilson’s suggestion that I myself am ‘aligned’ with the democratic underlabouring perspective there is some truth in this. As I make clear in my article I think that, to date, Loader and Sparks have made the most theoretically sophisticated and democratically committed attempt to grapple with what it means for criminology to go ‘public’. I also concur with their suggestion that if criminology is to have a more prominent public role, that that role must be subordinate to the primacy of democratic values in the political sphere. ‘Expert knowledge’ might help to improve political deliberation but it cannot and should not replace it (a position I imagine Wilson also supports). Furthermore Loader and Sparks rightly identify and attempt to accommodate within their ideas the plural and disputatious nature of criminology, something which I think it is important to acknowledge if a satisfactory account of criminology’s public role is to be provided. So broadly speaking, yes, I am aligned with the notion that criminology’s public role must be democratically defensible [2].

In order to consider whether, as Wilson alleges, I unfairly dismiss the ‘newsmaking’ approach (and thus his work) without acknowledging its achievements, it is important to revisit what my article sought to do. The purpose of the article was to consider the ways in which criminologists have reflected upon the appropriate public role for their field and to interrogate the justifications which they have provided (or failed to provide) for their right to play any public role [3]. The ins and outs of doing ‘public criminology’, and the impact made by those who do it, were never my primary focus. It is clearly a fact that some criminologists have rolled up their sleeves and embraced the difficult task of translating academic research for mass mediated dissemination and I never set out to claim otherwise.

However, what I do say in the article is that as some criminologists (Wilson included) are frequently and publicly enthusing about the advantages of ‘public criminology’ (confusingly sometimes also referred to as ‘newsmaking criminology’ and ‘viewsmaking criminology’) it is worth taking some time to think about why and how academic criminologists should contribute to public life and under what conditions. So, reflecting on that particular issue, rather than providing an inventory of public criminology’s achievements, was always the focus for the article. As such, when I describe ‘newsmaking criminology’ as ‘appear[ing] to empty criminology of any meaningful content so that all that matters is getting one’s own favoured discourse heard’ (Turner, 2013) I do not mean that self-identified ‘newsmaking’ criminologists have not contributed to public debates in influential, perhaps even desirable, ways. What I mean is merely that they have done so in the absence of a satisfactory normative account of why their particular ‘criminological’ discourses should receive media exposure in preference to any other ‘criminological’, or indeed non-‘criminological’, discourses on crime. As such, I would dispute Wilson’s claim that I ‘airily dismiss’ the ‘newsmaking’ criminologists and suggest that, rather, what I do is to suggest that we might put their achievements on a firmer footing within the academy by providing a robust, democratically-defensible and theoretically-engaged account of their public value. 

Still, in the absence of any explicit exposition on the value of criminologists’s contributions in the mass media, it is possible to consider what some recent examples of ‘public criminology’ in action might tell us about the potential that such activity has to enhance public life. Wilson himself has suggested that some key benefits which might be achieved through ‘public criminology’ are: (1) public education; (2) putting crime issues into a ‘broader context’, recognising complexity and grey areas; and (3) exerting a ‘cooling’ influence on what is often a heated topic of public debate. But, as Wilson and Groombridge (2010) and Rowe (2013) point out, public criminologists oriented to these objectives will inevitably experience significant ‘tension’ when attempting to pursue them through the media as core media agendas and priorities will often clash with those of the public academic. Indeed, Rowe suggests that whilst the possibilities for criminologists to contribute to media coverage are expanding so too are the risks of ‘misrepresentation, simplification or marginalization of perspectives that seek to challenge dominant narratives of crime and responses to it’. These risks create the danger that criminologists will retreat from engagement with the media, leaving a void which less-informed others will be only too happy to fill (Rowe, 2013: 13). 

In his blog post Wilson (2013b) objects to this aspect of Rowe’s analysis, asserting that Rowe ‘lags behind’ the small number of criminologists ‘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’.  Wilson goes on to state that his own awareness of how media framing works, and of the need to reach out to wider, and potentially more challenging, audiences is behind his success as a contributor to the Daily Mail writing, amongst other things, about the Raoul Moat case. Wilson describes this case as providing a ‘perfect example of the various, tensions, opportunities and dangers that exist for the public, newsmaking Criminologist’. In contrast with Rowe (who suggests that the kind of ‘rolling-news’ coverage which is provided in relation to extreme events such as the Raoul Moat manhunt, provides limited opportunities for meaningful criminological contributions) Wilson looks back on his involvement in the media coverage of the Moat case as a positive example of what public criminologists can achieve. In his own assessment of his work Wilson claims that his contributions to the Daily Mail were ‘perfectly framed’ for the paper and yet also offered an argument to which Mail readers would not usually be exposed. 

However, and as Wilson notes, other writers have offered rather less flattering assessments of his Daily Mail contributions. Well-known blogger, author and columnist Owen Jones accuses him of ‘class hatred’, and of reducing the white working class to the status of ‘knuckle-dragging thugs lacking legitimate aspirations’ (Jones, 2011: 6 cited by Wilson, 2013b). Ellis et al (2013) suggest that he draws on ‘established discourses of individual psychopathology’ and fails to consider the powerful impact of media and other public discourses in constituting, making available and reinforcing a hegemonic version of masculine identity which is heavily invested in violence. Wilson’s response is to argue that neither Jones, nor Ellis et al, properly acknowledge his article’s foregrounding of a range of issues including domestic abuse, misogyny and the impact of deindustrialization on men in Northern England. He also suggests that the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is unlikely ever to appear in the Daily Mail. He is probably right on the latter point, but does that mean that the concerns expressed by Jones (2011) and Ellis et al (2013) and the cautionary notes sounded by Rowe (2013) can be so easily discounted?    

Well, if we examine the content of Wilson’s articles then I think there is reason to suggest that Wilson has somewhat blithely dismissed the concerns of his critics, rather than engaging with them in a constructive fashion. Jones (2011) seems to have a point in his suggestion that Wilson invokes the image of the white, working class as relatively unevolved (‘knuckle-dragging’). Writing in the Daily Mail in July 2010 Wilson explicitly likened the women posting pro-Moat messages on Facebook as reflective of the historical tendency for women to be attracted to ‘large, tough, violent’ men, and suggested that they were displaying values compatible with an earlier stage in the ‘evolutionary development of mankind’. 

Furthermore, whilst Wilson did indeed draw his readers’ attention to Moat’s misogynistic attitudes and history of domestic abuse, as well as to the wider issues associated with deindustrialization in the North of England, it is important to consider how he ‘framed’ these issues. For example, in referring to the expressions of support for Moat as ‘a howl of rage from some of the Northern, dispossessed, white working-class who feel, however unjustifiably, they have been neglected by the sweeping social forces changing modern Britain’, in my view, Wilson gave with one hand and stabbed in the back with the other. Moat’s supporters were made out to be emblematic of the whole white Northern working-class; the working-class were portrayed as ‘howling’ like toddlers, or animals; they were said to ‘dispossessed’ but their perception of neglect was ‘unjustifiable’; they were negatively affected by change, but that change was a ‘sweeping force’ seemingly disconnected from human agency. 

Throughout the two articles on Moat which Wilson wrote for the paper (Wilson 2010a; 2010b) familiar, and sociologically unenlightening, Daily Mail staples like ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘underclass’ were rolled out, alongside emotive phrases like ‘dark forces’, ‘twisted mindset’ and ‘grotesque narrative’ which are difficult to read out loud without one’s face being forced into a kind of sneer. At one point Wilson seemed to imply that only it was unemployed people whose lives lack ‘work or stimulus’who were sucked into watching the real-life soap opera of the Moat manhunt unfold, as if the eyes of a nation weren’t glued to the saga at the time. And always in the background of these articles there lurks a low but constant note of othering, occasionally made explicit (such as when he refers to ‘an amorality that exists in our midst’). The plain implication appears to be that misogyny, domestic abuse, violence and deindustrialization are their problems, not ours. One might ask, then, whether there is any point in Wilson drawing attention to these factors, if it is only to locate them squarely in the lives of the allegedly morally degenerate ‘others’ whose lives he purports to describe [4]? 

As Ellis et al (2013) observe the Raoul Moat drama may have been ‘the perfect crime story’. Wilson’s framing makes it just so, if one happens to subscribe to the worldview of the Daily Mail that is. And here lies the problem for Wilson’s self-proclaimed mastery of ‘perfect’ framing: so adept has he proven at adapting to the Daily Mail’s ‘house style’ that he appears to have forgotten that often it is not just what you say but the way that you say it that leaves an imprint on people’s minds. 

It would seem, then, that Rowe (2013) was quite right to emphasise that there are very real ‘risks’ when criminologists seek to engage with the media. However, Rowe does not mention what may be the greatest risk of all: not that the media will misrepresent what criminologists say, but that criminologists themselves will misrepresent what criminology is. The lure of media relevance and interest may lead us towards certain topics, as well as certain ways of ‘framing’ them. But a line needs to be drawn between making knowledge widely accessible and making it easily acceptable (if all sociological knowledge were readily acceptable into common-sense then there would be little point in us doing research). 

I certainly applaud Professor Wilson, and indeed other criminologists, who seek to find novel and effective ways to enlighten the British public about issues of crime and justice falling within their own areas of expertise and interest. However, I am concerned that in his blog post Wilson (2013b) has been a little too quick to dismiss those who sound more cautionary notes, who seek to explore the theoretical underpinnings of the practical enterprise he is engaged in, or who point out the potential unintended consequences of his media engagements. One such unintended consequence may be that most of the criminology which goes ‘public’ is representative of only a narrow segment of criminological work: that which feeds into and reinforces common-sense understandings of crime and how we should approach the matter of its control, whilst neglecting more critical perspectives which seek to situate ‘crime’ in relation to a much wider range of social harms [5]. For me, it seems likely that such a development will be to the detriment of high quality democratic dialogue. In the end, then, unless self-proclaimed ‘public criminologists’ can give a coherent account of how their approach to media engagement enhances the health of our democracy, then, for me at least, one question looms large: precisely which ‘public’ is ‘public criminology’ for?   


Barak, G (1988) 'Newsmaking Criminology: Reflections on the Media, Intellectuals and Crime' in Justice Quarterly 5 (4) pp. 565-585

Ellis, A; Sloan, J and Wykes, M (2013) ‘ “Moatifs” of masculinity: The stories told about “men” in British newspaper coverage of the Raoul Moat case’ in Crime, Media, Culture 9(1): 3-21

Jones, O (2011) Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, (London: Verso Books)

Loader, I and Sparks, R (2010) Public Criminology? (London: Routledge)

Rowe, M (2013) ‘Just like a TV show: Public criminology and the media coverage of “hunt for Britain’s most wanted man”’ Crime, Media, Culture 9(1): 23-38

Turner, E (2013) ‘Beyond “facts” and “values”: Rethinking some recent debates about the public role of criminology’ in British Journal of Criminology 53 (1): 149-166

Wilson, D (2010a) ‘A howl of rage from a bitter and deluded underclass’ in Daily Mail 16 July 2010 View at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1295161/Raoul-Moat-Facebook-tributes-A-howl-rage-bitter-deluded-underclass.html (Last accessed: 27/04/13) 

Wilson, D (2010b) ‘Violent narcissist who thought he was Rambo’ in Daily Mail 12 July 2010 View at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1293954/Raoul-Moat-Violent-narcissist-thought-Rambo.html (Last accessed 27/04/13)

Wilson, D (2011) Looking for Laura: Public Criminology and Hot News (Hook: Waterside Press)

Wilson, D (2013a) ‘The TV academic: balancing the demands of a double career’ Guardian Professional. View at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2013/mar/28/tv-academic-celebrity-media-career (Last accessed 27/04/13)

Wilson, D (2013b) ‘Raoul Moat and Public Criminology’ Blog post. View at: http://criminologyinpublic.blogspot.co.uk/ (Last accessed 27/04/13)

Wilson, D and Groombridge, N (2010), “’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


[1] Perhaps, Loader and Sparks have not helped matters here because they somewhat confusingly refer to both a broad sensibility of ‘democratic underlabouring’ and the specific figure of the ‘democratic underlabourer’. However, a careful reading of their text reveals that the ‘democratic underlabourer’ is a criminologist with a particular orientation towards what we might think of as intellectual diplomacy. She attempts to support the productive coexistence of different modes of criminological knowledge production and their collective interaction with the wider public sphere in such a way as to support a ‘better politics’ of crime, crime control and criminal justice. This is not the daily bread and butter work of most criminologists who are, I think it is fair to say, primarily concerned with producing knowledge, rather than with undertaking intellectual diplomacy

[2] Where I part company with Loader and Sparks is over their rather optimistic assessment of the prospects for their conception of democratic underlabouring to facilitate (i) peaceful coexistence between starkly different approaches to thinking about and researching crime and (ii) a ‘better politics’ of crime, crime control and criminal justice. I suggest that democratic values occupy a precarious position in the contemporary public sphere, and that our politics are all too vulnerable to domination by particular interest groups and certain narrow ways of knowing about the world. In this public sphere inconvenient conclusions can be buried, alternative perspectives crowded out and research agendas skewed.  Under these conditions, my article asks, what hope is there for the ‘better politics’ which Loader and Sparks rightly desire?  

[3] The article approaches this task by describing and examining three perspectives on criminology’s public role which I believe can be discerned in the existing literature: (1)  ‘Fighting for truth’ – (see Currie, 2007) criminologists should use impartial scientific methods to identify objective, value-free ‘truths’ about crime and then disseminate these perspectives widely and assertively; (2) ‘Newsmaking criminology’ (see Barak, 1988)  – criminologists should develop a strategic approach to working with the media in order to ensure alternative ‘discourses’ on crime and justice are heard (3) ‘Democratic underlabouring’ (see Loader and Sparks, 2010) – criminologists produce knowledge in three modes – Primary, Institutional-Critical and Normative – some criminologists should work as ‘democratic underlabourers’ or ‘diplomats’ helping to interpret and negotiate between different modes of criminological knowledge and the wider public sphere in order to bring knowledge to bear on ‘matters of public concern and dispute’ and thus help to bring about a ‘better politics’ of crime and justice. Ultimately I argue that none of these perspectives is entirely satisfactory, because none of them offers a plausible and democratically-defensible response to either the manifest pluralism of the criminological field, or the wider political context within which a variety of ‘facts’ about crime jostle for position in a public sphere prone to dominating influences.

[4] It is worth adding here that I think it is fair to suggest that Wilson’s implication that the by-lines assigned to both of his Moat articles in the Mail were misleading is somewhat disingenuous. Both by-lines use phrases which are completely reflective of the language used in Wilson’s articles. No ‘sub-editor’ can be blamed for this; the by-lines are not false advertising for the content which follows.

[5] Take Wilson’s most recent foray into TV documentary: ‘Killers Behind Bars’. From the title, to the description of the academic front man as a ‘real life “Cracker”’ to the bizarre CSI-style trailer which sees Professor Wilson walk through a mock-up murder scene and spray an unidentified substance onto a brick wall, this programme has clearly been designed to, as Wilson himself says, harness ‘the public’s fascination with murder’. But, apart from the fact that the presenter is a criminologist, what has this kind of CSI-framed, cold-case research got to do with what most criminologists do? The answer, as I am sure Wilson is well-aware, is very little.

1 comment:

Chris Mccormick said...

that's a nice column, nuanced and critical of an easily mis/done thing, speaking and writing to the media by criminologists