Fearful, with good reason

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The Independent Online
WHEN Abbie Humphries was finally found last Saturday morning, her parents did the decent thing. They went on television and thanked both the police and media for helping to get her back. Without widespread publicity, the suspicions of neighbours would not have been alerted.

But then, as so often happens, the recriminations started. By Monday the discussion shifted to whether the press and television had overplayed their hand in reporting the story. The answer is no: every person in the land, from small children to pensioners, was straining to know more about this extraordinary case. And why ever not, since our sympathies had been so thoroughly canvassed?

Roger Graef, the film-maker specialising in police matters, popped up on Radio 4 to push the argument further: that selective reporting of extreme and serious crimes distorts public perceptions and makes us feel that we live in a more dangerous, crime- ridden society. In other words, if you are about to enter hospital to have a baby, relax: the chances of it being snatched are minimal. It is only rarely that three-year-olds buying ice-creams are abducted and murdered, or children kill toddlers. The public must be encouraged to see everything in a reasoned perspective, and not be bowed down by an irrational fear of crime.

This argument has had quite an outing in recent months. Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times, now a columnist, has made it a hobbyhorse. He addressed a day-long conference on the 'Fear of Crime' earlier this year. And the BBC's governors took up the theme in a conference on crime in June. Polly Toynbee, the BBC's social affairs editor, burst into print afterwards to spread the message further, pointing out that since only 5 per cent of crimes are violent, reporting of statistics and trends should be far more balanced. There is nothing wrong with that per se, although I think a figure of 5 per cent is still too high.

But this argument is fundamentally patronising. Its proponents seem to think that people fail to realise that their attention is caught by the exceptional, the grossly outrageous murders. But we do realise this. That is why these incidents are so engrossing and horrifying. The 'fear of crime' argument has the effect of elevating the fear issue above the root problem, which is the prevalence and disfiguring nature of crime itself. It also plays into the hands of the police authorities and the Government: wouldn't we feel better if we shook off our fear and lived our lives in the knowledge that crime is apparently falling in some key categories? Even better, blame the media for making everything seem so awful?

What the 'fear of crime' school of thought overlooks is the arbitrary and random impact of crime on modern life. The man charged with murdering three-year-old Rosie Palmer was known to Hartlepool's Headland community. Yet there are so few focal points now that it is perfectly possible to know of someone without knowing them at all, or having the opportunity to get their measure.

In the past three months, and since hearing Simon Jenkins speak, I have changed my behaviour, becoming more watchful and, yes, more fearful, simply because of direct experiences of crime.

While walking up a staircase at a mainline station during rush hour, a man called out a sharp warning. As he did so another man suddenly rushed ahead of me. He had forced open my bag, and was about to snatch my purse.

Packing the car at half-term, I left the boot briefly unlocked and went back into the house: my daughter's suitcase was stolen.

Three weeks ago the elderly woman next door was eating lunch when she heard a loud bang. She went to investigate and bumped into an intruder who had broken through her front door. Now she has withdrawn to her small country bungalow, and is selling up, too fearful to continue living in London.

My husband told off a teenager for urinating on the steps of our local station. The youth and three other truanting children set upon him with karate kicks and steel-tipped shoes. His leg needed stitching and was so badly bruised he could hardly walk for two weeks.

The result of all this is that I clamp my handbag under my arm, never leave the car unlocked, have lost a much-liked neighbour, and expect working video-surveillance cameras to be installed shortly at the station. In other words, behaviour and environment have changed not because of my fear of crime, but because of my experience of it.

Of course, the Abbie story, and the sad, disturbed world of Julie Kelley are exceptional cases. But why shouldn't the fear of future incidents, however rare, lead to tighter maternity ward security and the use of electronic tagging? And why shouldn't the bored violence and threatening behaviour of louts be checked by anti-truancy campaigns? Or daytime burglars preying on elderly women be diverted into a job-creating economy?

Spare me lectures from the 'fear of crime' lobby: in some ways it is simply a prescription for laissez-faire.