The Big Question: Why are public perceptions of crime so at odds with the official statistics?

Why are we asking this now?

The findings of the British Crime Survey (BCS), an annual analysis of crime figures for England and Wales, were both striking and positive. Positive because crime is going down; striking because the findings are at odds with public perceptions. The number of murders, manslaughters, and child killings has dropped by 17 per cent to a 20-year low. Thefts and domestic burglaries are up, but overall crime is down by 5 per cent, with violent crime and gun crime down by six and 17 per cent respectively. And yet, as surveys consistently show, though public perceptions of crime fluctuate (generally quite mildly), the prevailing view steadfastly holds that crime is much more widespread and out of control than it really is.

What does the BCS reveal about current public misconceptions?

As with polling on immigration, far more people think certain types of crime are a problem nationally than think they are a problem in their local area. This suggests that survey responses reflect a generalised anxiety about crime in Britain, rather than the personal experiences of respondents. The proportion of people who perceive an increase in crime nationally (75 per cent) is far higher than that which perceives an increase in crime locally (36 per cent). The difference is most stark for knife crime (93 per cent of people think there has been an increase nationally, compared with 29 per cent locally) and gun crime (86 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively), despite actual reductions in both these offences (see graph opposite for further details).

Why do some crime statistics cause more confusion than others?

Street crime and what is loosely called anti-social behaviour are far more likely to fire the public imagination than other crimes. An extensive academic literature examining why this may be the case has arisen. A 2007 report by researchers at IPSOS Mori said: "A large part of the explanation is to be found in media coverage... media portrayals of crime and justice do seem particularly perverse." Newspaper pages are often full of gruesome details of violent crime on Britain's streets: such tales are frequently more gripping than stories about "plastic" crime such as credit card fraud, for example. People who are worried about disorder close to their own homes feel they can relate to them. This in turn encourages further coverage.

Which criminal cases have done most to shape public opinion?

Dozens of very high-profile cases over the past two decades have been influential in raising concerns about violent crime. Some officials trace the surge in anxiety to the death of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager stabbed to death near a bus stop in Eltham, South-east London, in 1993. His murder, which may have been racially motivated, sparked a national outcry. More recently, Rhys Jones, 11, was shot dead by Liverpool gang members, Graham McKenna, a former soldier, was stabbed while on the way to a football match with his son, and Ben Kinsella, 16, was slain in Islington, North London, while out celebrating the end of his GCSEs.

Does officialdom blame the media too?

In private, ministers express deep frustration with the fact that genuine progress in the fight against crime is often unreported, with the effect that voters tend to be ungrateful for police successes, and constantly demand that more should be done. In public, MPs express sympathy with voters. In a speech in London this month, the new Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, said: "People are entitled to doubt the statistics. They are entitled to say 'my perception is very different to those statistics'." Probation officers are less reticent with their frustrations. Last year, Andrew Bridges, the Chief Inspector of Probation in England and Wales, said the media should focus on "mundane truths" rather than "exciting fallacies".

How is public perception shaping government policy on law and order?

Among the most memorable of Tony Blair's slogans was his 1997 manifesto pledge: "We will be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". Labour has been tough on crime, not least by inventing new offences. Disputed research suggests more than 3,000 new laws have been enacted since Labour's election, with a corresponding number of new crimes. Public demands for tough action, many of them filtered through the press, have been heeded: harsher sentences, record numbers in prison and more police on the streets. But a key reason for public misconceptions is that most people have confused, and contradictory, views on crime. For example, poll after poll shows most people want tougher sentencing, but they also think prison doesn't work. Critics say that because of this, the Government's policies are chiefly designed to allay fears, not be effective.

What measures has Labour taken to address anti-social behaviour?

Tony Blair made a "Respect" agenda central to his second term in office. Three Acts in particular, two introduced during his reign and one during that of Gordon Brown, have targeted anti-social behaviour. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced the controversial anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) and parenting orders. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 gave police long-awaited powers to disperse large groups of people, and equipped landlords with similar powers over unruly tenants. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 allows police to close premises used by drug dealers or those involved in suspected organised crime.

Don't all the main parties try to exploit public fears to their advantage?

Before the recession, the Conservatives said they wanted to do for British society what, in their view, Margaret Thatcher did for the economy in the 1980s – that is to say, renew and reinvigorate it. The slogan they invented to help convey this intention was "Broken Britain", which Tory spin-doctors thought had the dual advantage of being alliterative (and therefore conducive to headlines) and a mechanism for tapping into public fears about the disintegration of society. The Liberal Democrats have also tried to show empathy with public perceptions, albeit to a lesser degree: Nick Clegg, their leader, has promoted a "tough, effective liberalism" as the hallmark of his party's policy on crime.

What is Alan Johnson doing to bring public perceptions of crime closer to reality?

The new Home Secretary announced a policy blitz when he moved over from the health ministry in Gordon Brown's latest Cabinet reshuffle. Admitting (a little belatedly, his critics said) that the Government had been "complacent" on anti-social behaviour, Mr Johnson said it was unacceptable that some offenders waited for up to two years before being served with Asbos. He promised to work with the Ministry of Justice to speed up the process by setting maximum waiting times on obtaining an Asbo, limits on the number of times a case can be adjourned and training schemes for those who apply for the orders, such as council officials, so they can lead court cases rather than being forced to brief the Crown Prosecution Service. Mr Johnson said these measures should suffice and there was no need for a "scattergun" approach.

Will the public continue to exaggerate the true extent of crime?


* Media outlets will continue to focus on particular types of offence.

* The public will always have confused and contradictory views about crime and the law.

* Surveys of public opinion will continue to be used as outlets for people's general anxieties.


* As crime rates fall, the public will translate local improvements in fighting crime to a national level.

* Better enforcement of current laws will increase people's confidence.

* Information campaigns will eventually get across the message about successes in tackling crime.

voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game