Leading Article: Tawdry truth behind the lovable villain

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The Independent Online
THE seven pages in yesterday's Sun devoted to the return to Britain of Ronnie Knight, wanted by police since the Security Express robbery in 1983, contained a richly ironic detail. When the door of the Sun's chartered private jet opened in the Heathrow sunshine, a waiting police inspector made a grab for the tanned chap in the white linen suit. But he had nabbed the wrong man. This was not Ronnie Knight; it was the Sun's own reporter.

The incident symbolises the ethical confusion in journalists' and readers' attitudes to notorious robberies. Books have been written and films have been made about them; their perpetrators, whose business is not with the general public, have somehow escaped the bad name of the ordinary criminal.

The popular conception is that these robberies are brilliantly planned manoeuvres of which the SAS would be proud. This is true up to a point: Roy James, driver of the getaway car from the Great Train Robbery, was a racing driver with six lap records to his credit. But robberies are more often tawdry, brutal affairs: at Security Express, the robbers persuaded a man of 60 to open the vault by dousing him in petrol and rattling a matchbox by his ear.

The bloody lives of the Kray brothers showed them to be a far cry from the lovable villains of East End nostalgia. Equally misguided is the notion that bank and bullion robberies are victimless crimes. They may strike a blow against the capitalist system. But they bankrupt underwriters, raise insurance costs, and are the reason why bank clerks hide behind bullet-proof glass.

For only one quality is this bizarre public affection justified: sense of humour. Charlie Wilson, the train robber assassinated in 1990, called his Spanish house Chequers. Ronnie Biggs sang with the Sex Pistols, and advertised coffee on Brazilian TV with the slogan: 'When you're on the run, you need a good cup of coffee.' And Ronnie Knight, brought before a magistrate yesterday, showed an endearing confusion about his financial means. At one point his solicitor offered pounds 100,000 in bail; minutes later, he said his client intended to apply for legal aid. But it is odd to note that interest in the lives of these people should run so high at a time when fear of crime remains so great. Perhaps this is because we prefer organised crime to the capricious risks of its casual equivalent.