I have nothing but sympathy for the embattled residents of council flats in Brill House in Brent, north London. Over a two-year period a gang calling itself the Press Road Crew notched up an astonishing 100 convictions. The catalogue of harassment makes grim reading, from spraying graffiti, to routinely smashing lights, damaging windows and cars, starting fires, attacking people with fireworks and urinating in public. In the end many people were too terrified to leave their homes and too scared to go to the police for fear of reprisals.
This story of a group of undereducated, bored youths causing mayhem on a council estate inhabited by elderly tenants is all too common these days. We read weekly of an increasing number of cases where a local authority has responded by issuing an Asbo (antisocial behaviour order) to try to restore calm and protect residents. Last September, after a court case lasting five weeks, followed by a three-week hearing in the Crown Court when six of the young men appealed, Brent Council issued Asbos against seven members of the gang, restricting their movements for up to 10 years. A leaflet was produced by the police and the council, with mug shots of the seven gang members, emblazoned with the slogan "Keeping Crime off the Streets of Brent". The leaflet was distributed to residents, and gave the boys' names and partial addresses, so that if they were seen breaking their Asbos people could telephone the police.
Many commentators have been outraged that, with the support of the civil rights organisation Liberty, three of the boys used legal aid to go to the High Court and claim that the leaflet infringed their human rights. On Thursday, two judges dismissed the case, which had cost the police and the council around £250,000 in legal fees, ruling that the leaflets were "justified, reasonable and proportionate". This was seen as an important test case, enabling other councils across Britain to publicise the identity of people given Asbos, as Lord Justice Kennedy said that these orders were unlikely to be effective unless the publicity that identified offenders "includes photographs, names and at least partial addresses".
The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is a huge fan of Asbos, which he considers an excellent way of controlling spiralling youth crime. But, no matter how appalling the behaviour of the repellent Press Road Crew, printing their pictures on a colourful leaflet simply adds, not detracts from their deep-seated desire to be big fish in a small pond. Publicity only feeds the egos of these sad characters, and grants them the fix of notoriety they have been so desperately seeking with their horrible behaviour. By sticking them on a pamphlet they achieve star status within their warped world. It would have been far better to deny them any sort of publicity whatsoever, issue them with dreary beige overalls, hand them mops and buckets, litter-collecting trolleys and brushes, and institute a period of intensive work cleaning up and repairing the neighbourhood they vandalised.
Just demonising young criminals is no long-term solution to the problem. They need to be taught trades, as mechanics, electricians, plumbers and builders. Then they can rebuild the damage they have caused and work for decent wages instead of sitting on their backsides smoking dope and drawing benefit. Finally, they need to confront their victims and apologise. Schemes like this work in communities in America and other parts of Europe. Of course, the victims of the reign of terror and intimidation inflicted by these young men have human rights too, and they have all my sympathy for the unpleasant time they have endured for the past two years. But, unless the root causes of youth crime are faced up to in a constructive way - more education and support - it will not go away. Printing leaflets will do no more than encourage the next crime wave of mini-vandals to enter the fray seeking their share of the spotlight.
Bashing BBC women
What on earth possessed Alasdair Milne, the former director-general of the BBC, to remark that "the television service has largely been run by women for the last five years and they don't seem to have done a great job of work"? Milne told Michael Grade, the BBC chairman, that he thought current programmes were "dumb, dumb, dumb" and that the BBC "had to pull its socks up quite considerably". When I left the BBC in the mid-Nineties, it was still completely dominated by middle-class, middle-aged men in suits. I even made a speech at the Edinburgh Festival bemoaning the domination of the "m" people, adding for good measure that there were far too many of them. In those days you could count the number of top female executives, from Anne Home to Jane Drabble to Jana Bennett, on the fingers of one hand. Over the past 10 years the best thing about the BBC television service has been the way that women have risen to the very top, as director of television and controllers of both BBC1 and BBC2. The result has been a rejuvenation of the output, a readiness to discard tired formats, and an enthusiasm for reaching new audiences. The other morning, the distinguished programme-maker Paul Watson (The Family, Sylvania Waters) was on the Today programme (a male stronghold) moaning about the dearth of documentaries, claiming a tidal wave of rubbishy reality television was making him feel ill. Tosh! I admit that Alan Titchmarsh fronting the latest major series on natural history has all the gravitas of someone reading out today's menu from Betty's teashop in Harrogate, but I do not subscribe to the mantra that the corporation is sliding down a slippery slope of mediocrity with a band of media whores at its helm.
Last night's confrontation between England and Wales on the football pitch was a relatively friendly affair after all the resentment that's been emanating from the land of Druids, Shirley Bassey and my mother last week. The Welsh, notoriously thin skinned, justifiably got the hump when a hapless Eurocrat forgot to include their country on the cover of a statistical report. A big blank space between England and Eire, where the land of Bara Brith should have been. I spent a week earlier this year entombed in a granite village outside Caernarvon trying to learn Welsh for a TV show. On my rare trips outside the compound I found the locals charming and good company. So I find it bizarre that Jan Morris should write this hysterical twaddle in our sister paper last Wednesday: "There are people in the Welshest parts of Wales who are made so profoundly unhappy by the whittling away of their language, their values and their way of life that they are driven to alcoholism, driven to nervous breakdown." Perhaps that goes some way to explaining my mother's bizarre behaviour, but I think Morris should get a life. Can someone out there please reassure me that the Welsh do have a sense of humour and are thick skinned enough to get over being left off a stupid map without turning to the gin bottle?Reuse content