So the media circus is in full swing: knife crime is once again the dish of the day, and everyone is worried about it: senior police officers, ex-senior police officers, politicians, journalists, old ladies on buses.
I did a PhD on knife crime: shouldn’t I be glad about this? If anything, it might give my career a little boost. Sorry to say, I’ve seen it all before.
In 2014 the media was deeply anxious about knife crime. It was also agonising about knife crime in 2010, which is one of the reasons I decided to study it for five long painful years. An article in the Guardian today says that knife crime is at its highest since 2009 – my point exactly, that wasn’t very long ago really, but we had a similar media storm at the time.
And before that in about 2003, which in part lead to Operation Blunt in 2004, and ultimately to the Tackling Knives Action Programme, the success of which was regarded as ‘inconclusive’ by the government researchers charged with evaluating the initiative.
It was the same way back in 2000, after the death of Damilola Taylor; in 1995, after the death of Philip Lawrence; in 1993 after the death of Stephen Lawrence. There were concerns about knife crime in the 1980s, and again in the 1970s. In fact, way back in 1860s the tea rooms and coffee houses of the day were quivering to accounts of Italians ‘rollicking about Whitechapel’ (Pearson, 1983: 131) with their stiletto knives.
Someone even bothered to come up with a name for the way the media periodically seizes upon an issue as if it is new, creates outrage, and then…moves on to something else. If only I could remember what this name was… Oh yes, moral panic!
Thinking about knife crime and moral panics reminds me of the game ‘SIMs’. The main character is maybe a Guardian journalist or a Sun reporter. He walks into the kitchen. There is a pan on the cooker which appears to be on fire. The avatar flails its arms around and walks into the living room. In that room, there is a war going on, and people are dying. The little man flails his arms around, walks into a wall a few times, and then exits. He trundles along the corridor into the bedroom, where…global warming appears to be happening. Panic, arms flail, exit, before stumbling back into the kitchen…the KITCHEN is on FIRE!
And on it goes. Does this mean that terrible things are not happening, and possibly at an increasing rate? No. Does it mean that individual people, some of whom are young, are not hurting each other on a regular basis? No. Does it mean that the media should just not bother? No. In fact the £100 million just given to the police by Phillip Hammond attest to the power of panic. At the same time, throwing money at an entrenched problem isn’t always the best solution. And more importantly, few are served or saved when we have a media/political system with a memory span of about 3 years, which works on a never-ending cycle of interest, outrage and panic, followed by forgetting.
Pearson, G. (1983) Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, London: Macmillan.