A life of crime: Nick Ross is taking it to the streets to find out why we break the law

Nick Ross was the face of 'Crimewatch' for 23 years before being replaced by a younger model. But now, after a two-year televisual hiatus, he's back in his element – only this time he's chasing down the root causes of criminality rather than the criminals themselves
Click to follow

Television is not kind to presenters when they reach a certain vintage. Usually it is women who find themselves replaced by a younger model – the most recent casualty being Arlene Philips on Strictly Come Dancing – but when Nick Ross left Crimewatch two years ago amid banner headlines and bitter recriminations about ageism, it seemed that the reassuring voice that had told us "Don't have nightmares, do sleep well" for 23 years would be forever lost to the airwaves.

Indeed, in valedictory interviews, Ross revealed that he had rejected the sort of "other projects" the BBC often offers to sugar the pill of rejection, but the 62-year-old is about to prove the tele-obituaries premature as he makes the current-affairs equivalent of Bruce Forsyth's light-entertainment return from the grave. He is back this week with The Truth About Crime, a new three-part, prime-time documentary series on BBC1. It may sound like a final circuit of familiar territory, but it isn't. Indeed, there is an element of poacher turned gamekeeper about the whole project.

Official figures show that crime is falling, yet fear of being a victim of crime remains high. One cause, some experts suggest, is the influence of popular programmes such as Crimewatch, which, without context, brings the most sensational aspects of comparatively rare serious crimes into every living-room, making us all afraid to open our front doors after dark. It is a charge Ross spent the years he fronted Crimewatch vehemently rejecting, but now, a free agent and relaxed in a blue suit and open-neck shirt, he can apparently afford to be more equivocal. "As its audiences have declined," he says, "there was more and more pressure on the programme to be televisual rather than public service." '

Which is where The Truth About Crime comes in, he explains over coffee in the west London offices of the independent producers that have made the show. "What became depressing at Crimewatch is that, although it was great when we helped to catch criminals, we were always chasing after the event, once a crime had been committed. I wanted to look instead at how likely we are to become victims of crime in the first place and what can be done to stop crime happening."

And that is precisely what the new series does. It takes Ross out of the studio, away from scary e-fits and banks of phones, and puts him for a fortnight on to the streets of Oxford – pretty standard Middle England in terms of demography and crime statistics. Working with police, probation, youth-offending teams and the local A&E, he gathers hard data about the true extent of crime locally, and reveals in the process his own, pretty hard-hearted feelings about criminals, which will provoke and infuriate the penal reform lobby in equal measure.

For the four decades of his heyday at the BBC, Ross kept his opinions to himself, as befitted one of the big-name presenters of a publicly funded organisation. After growing up in comfortable Surrey, both his parents local councillors, he'd gone to Queen's University in Belfast in 1966 to study psychology, just as the civil-rights movement there was gathering momentum. Bernadette Devlin (the political activist who helped to form the Irish Republican Socialist Party in 1974) was in his year. The rising temperature in the city catapulted him into student politics and eventually into a job on BBC Northern Ireland, reporting the Troubles.

He rose quickly through the Corporation's ranks. "My first big break," he recalls, "was being asked to present Radio 4's The World Tonight when I was 25. I was replacing someone who was 67, so I can hardly complain about ageism now." With his twinkly blue eyes and boy-next-door good looks, the switch to the then-new-fangled breakfast television (on BBC1's Breakfast Time, with Frank Bough and Selina Scott) was apparently effortless. He went on to launch the consumer show Watchdog and host a pioneering and eponymous radio phone-in at the same time as fronting Crimewatch with Sue Cook. You couldn't get away from him on the BBC, though he did find time amid it all to marry senior ITV executive Sarah Caplin, with whom he has three, now grown-up, sons.

Such a glittering broadcasting CV makes Ross's evident disillusionment with aspects of television journalism now strike an odd note. He peppers our conversation with slights at the profession. Some hark back to a golden age. "All TV now," he remarks at one stage, "is about taking people on a journey. That is the cliché of the decade." Some decry dumbing-down. "This isn't a warts-and-all approach," he says of his new series. "You know the kind of thing, 'Oh, look there's a wart and we concentrate on that.'" And some are merely a bit sour, as when I ask him if he now tunes in to the new Kirsty Young-fronted reinvention of Crimewatch. "No," he says flatly. "It's rather like you've had a kid, he reaches the age of 23, and then you have no contact with him."

But there is something more going on than sour grapes or growing old. Something more positive. Ross is revealing a new side – as a polemicist and as the academic that he has in the past said he was set to become had the BBC not distracted him. So one of the things that clearly excites him most about The Truth About Crime is the opportunity it afforded him for data collection on crime. "We looked at every possible way to get to reliable data," he enthuses. "Our first idea was to do our own version of the British Crime Survey, which is the best data available at present, but that wasn't possible. Still, as part of the series, we did do one of the biggest surveys ever undertaken about crime and 14- to 15-year-olds, and I learnt a lot. Virtually every school in the city agreed to take part – asking their kids not just have you been victimised, but what have you done? And what we discovered is that for 14- and 15-year-olds, doing illegal things is not deviant. I won't go so far as to say that not doing illegal things is deviant for them, but it is certainly unusual."

And is that a big change from his teenage years? He laughs. "There is this idea that we live in a binary world of cowboys and Indians, goodies and baddies. Give us a break." He says this last phrase like a daytime-TV host, trying to get his audience going. "When I am with policemen or lawyers," Ross continues, "I enjoy asking them the question, 'Have you ever broken criminal law over something other than driving?' And you'd be surprised how few can say that they haven't."

But what about him, I persist. "Yes, I was caught shoplifting when I was kid. That's the classic time you do it most, when you're exploring boundaries. Thankfully Woollies didn't tell the police; they called my mother. She's now 92, and I am still shamefaced when I think about. God knows what would have happened to me if I had come up before the courts."

He draws on another episode from his childhood to endorse one key finding of his work in Oxford – namely that official figures misrepresent crime because so much goes under-reported. "The other thing is, I was victimised as a kid. Weren't you? I remember a gang of four boys on bikes surrounding me outside the fish and chip shop and taking my money. I was humiliated. I didn't tell my parents and I certainly didn't tell the police I'd been mugged. That was life. These things will always happen."

In the contemporary context of Oxford in his films, that tendency not to report crime covers not only the comparatively trivial (though long-remembered) incidents, but also the serious ones. "The first programme is about violent crime," Ross says, "and I thought I knew what we'd find. I've spent years writing articles saying the police don't know about the majority of violent crime, but had assumed that as the crime got more and more violent, the police would get to know more and more about it. But what we found was that in more than half the cases of violence that end up in the A&E department of [Oxford's main] John Radcliffe hospital, the victims did not report it to the police."

Alongside his work on Crimewatch, Ross has long been involved with a number of charities, most prominently Victim Support. What, I wonder, does he feel about the perpetrators of crime? Did getting closer to them on the streets of Oxford give him a greater insight into why they do what they do? "I worked on this series with the documentary-maker, Roger Graef," Ross replies. "He is probably more socially oriented in terms of believing that social intervention has a bigger impact on criminals than I am." I'm not clear what this distinction means. "Well, everyone," he continues, more briskly, "is obsessed with the criminal justice system, and with what I call late onset social answers to crime [is this classic academic speak?] when people are already quite committed to criminal careers. I believe they're looking in the wrong place."

This "social interventionist" school – which stretches from the government's Social Exclusion Unit to prison reform bodies and even the Women's Institute – looks for the causes of criminality in poor parenting and lack of education and opportunity for that group of youngsters most likely to get involved in breaking the law. Ross caricatures this at one point as believing that criminals offend because "they were farmed out to their grandmothers when they were three". He quotes the example of a 17-year-old mother he saw at the A&E department, feeding her small baby from a bottle "and never once looking at it. But what can society do about that? How do you make a lousy mum into a better mum? If I were Chancellor of the Exchequer or Minister for Better Mothers or in charge of the criminal justice system, what could I do to make her a better mother?"

There is, he concludes, no easy answer. However, conflating trying to deal with that mother's inadequacy with tackling the causes of crime is, Ross is adamant, a mistake ministers make. "Crime policy is now being debated before the next election, but it is happening as a political debate in think-tanks. Name me one great advance in the past 200 years that has happened because of think-tanks." I have worked out by now that he is fond of rhetorical questions, so I've given up even making a pretence of trying to think up an answer. "There isn't one," he ploughs on, "but then look at what scientists have achieved by methodically breaking down problems into their constituent parts and analysing them to find solutions. That is how we need to tackle crime – by bringing in the scientists."

His definition of science is a broad one. The examples he quotes include better urban design to cut down the opportunities for crime – what Ross nostalgically calls a return to "natural surveillance, back to the idea of the village, back to the idea of living as we used to live"; applying the sophisticated technology that has seen a huge decline in car crime in recent years to other areas; and even replacing bottles and glasses in problem pubs with ones made of windscreen glass that shatters but does not form jagged edges. The series shows how this was pioneered in Oxford in pubs on football-match days, and the A&E department immediately saw a five per cent reduction in the number of those coming in with cuts to the face and body. It is precisely this sort of technological solution backed up by data Ross is now outspokenly championing.

There is, of course, another cause with which he will always be associated – the search for the killer, in April 1999, of his co-presenter on Crimewatch, Jill Dando. After the acquittal last year of Barry George, the man originally convicted of the murder, does Ross feel the police are any nearer to finding the perpetrator? For the only time in our conversation, his eyes look away. "You wouldn't be able to publish my views if I told you them," he replies finally. "If I said that somebody was in prison and innocent, you could write screeds on it, but...all I can say is that as far as I am aware, none of the friends and family is particularly keen for the police to reopen this inquiry." Because they've already found the person who did it? "I am not going to say anything more about it."

So what next after The Truth About Crime, I ask, to break the silence that follows? "God knows," he says, relieved to change the subject. He's been writing a book on crime and rehabilitation. "I've enough on my plate right now. Crime is something I am not sure I want to do another TV programme on in the immediate future." He smiles, and then adds as an afterthought, "I am quite interested in doing one on health, though." We clearly have not seen the last of Nick Ross.

'The Truth About Crime' begins on BBC1 on Tuesday at 9pm. www.bbc.co.uk/truthaboutcrime .