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

Amol Rajan
Friday 17 July 2009 00:00 BST

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.

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