The Media Column: 'Missing the chance of a good scary headline really would be a crime'

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The Independent Online

You have to wonder whether tabloid editors appreciate the value of cash sales of their newspapers. So lurid are the depictions of crime on their pages that many of their readers must steel themselves just to go outside their front doors, let alone risk the war zone of the high street to visit the newsagent.

You have to wonder whether tabloid editors appreciate the value of cash sales of their newspapers. So lurid are the depictions of crime on their pages that many of their readers must steel themselves just to go outside their front doors, let alone risk the war zone of the high street to visit the newsagent.

The annual crime statistics for England and Wales - that alternative Hallowe'en in the political calendar, when most of the country (the part that reads the tabloids) is scared witless by prophecies of impending Armageddon - were published last week. The Daily Express led the way with a double-page spread dedicated to the "British crime explosion". Its chief rival, the Daily Mail, published disturbing pictures of an elite team of London police officers so laden with kit and armour that they made Robocop look like a special constable.

Presumably for the benefit of those readers who like dressing up in such clothing, the Mail provided a handy price-guide to the über-cop uniform, item by item. The helmet was valued at £130, and the useful riot-shield ("deflects bricks and petrol bombs") was priced at 80 quid. The balaclava and "acid splash proof" goggles were a reasonable £40, and the overalls - which the Mail said could "resist heat up to 750C for 10 seconds" - seemed a positive bargain at only £50.

The officers, who had clearly had the reassuring back-up of a camera-toting media rapid-response unit while raiding addresses in Brent, north-west London, were also carrying pistols whose price was listed as £200. The Mail for once resisted the temptation to say that they could have bought them cheaper on the streets.

Of course, police officers need to take every precaution necessary to protect themselves from the increasing risk of gun crime. The kit deployed by this Metropolitan Police team was, as the Mail said, "a sight to strike fear into the hardest of villains". But the showing of such images under the headline "The Chilling Face Of Policing 2003" would almost certainly have had exactly the same frightening effect on Mail readers. Which was almost certainly the idea.

The Sun deployed similar scare tactics in its approach to the crime stats story. "A Nation Stalked By Fear" was its assessment. Reading other pages of the "Currant", you'd think the thoughts of its readers were dominated by reality TV shows such as "Big Bruv", the "phew wot a scorcha" weather and the departure of Posh and Becks to Madrid.

But the paper's veteran political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, warned that "Britain is living in fear as crime soars across the nation". Intriguingly, he pointed to a piece of research in the Home Office stats showing that "of those who read tabloid newspapers, 43 per cent thought the national crime rate had increased a lot". The corresponding figure for broadsheet readers was 26 per cent. Some 16 per cent of tabloid readers were "very worried" about being mugged, compared to 7 per cent of people who took a broadsheet.

Kavanagh's explanation of the differences was that "many Sun readers, who include hardworking families living in inner-city areas, are witnesses to, or victims of, violence and other crimes". There could, of course, be another factor; that the readers of The Sun and other tabloids have been terrified by their papers into thinking that Britain is more dangerous than it really is.

Sir John Stevens, the Met's Commissioner, is beside himself with frustration at the reporting, as he told The Independent yesterday. "There are some articles that London is more violent than Johannesburg, which is absolute nonsense," he says.

What the crime statistics for England and Wales showed last week was that little had changed since the previous year. The total number of offences went down slightly, by 3 per cent, but the number of violent crimes went up, again slightly, by 2 per cent.

The Home Office produced a second set of stats that included a host of minor offences not previously recorded by the police. Although the majority of these harassment crimes resulted in no injuries, they were classified as violent and thus showed a 22 per cent rise in such offences over the previous year.

As ever in recent years, the Home Office believed that the overall fall in offences was a good story. And, as ever, David Blunkett and his team were cornered by the crime and home affairs correspondents and given a good working over.

Having covered this beat, I well remember leafing through the fat book of statistics, looking for the bad news story. The Times and The Daily Telegraph chose to do exactly that, but in much more sober and measured terms than the tabs.

The other broadsheets, like most of the broadcast media, opted for the middle ground. "Violent crime rises despite lower total of offences", was the Indy's headline. The Guardian's pointed out that the risk of falling victim to crime was at a 20-year low.

But such moderation means passing up on a good scary headline, and no place for the supercop pics. In the eyes of the tabloids, that really is a crime. Stick it in the statistics.

i.burrell@independent.co.uk

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