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Crime Reporting: the first and purest form of journalism and why it is under threat

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

Gabriela Jacomella writes:It all kicked off with the Bible. Adam, God, the Snake, the Apple. "If you go back to Genesis and take Adam's sin as the first crime, and God's punishment as the first criminal sentence, there is enough justification to say that crime reporting is the first and one of the purest forms of journalism", stated Duncan Campbell at the very beginning of his Oxford seminar, before plunging into a passionate exploration trip across space and time – from the "Golden Age" of the roaring 50s ("when the three London evening newspapers sold 3 million copies together", and "there were crime bureaus rather than individual reporters") to the mid-70s- when amongst the so-called ODCs, "ordinary decent criminals", a great distrust of the press emerged as a consequence of the Daily Express’s "betrayal" of Ronnie Biggs – and beyond.
The thesis supported by Campbell, a long-time crime reporter and US correspondent for the Guardian, was simple and straightforward: this specific sector of journalism, he said, "is in a strange way under threat, although you might think it's an odd thing to say", given the recent coverage provided of the case of Jon Venables, the killer of the young British boy, James Bulger in 1993. But there is a crucial difference, Campbell maintained, between actual crime reporting and "comment aria" of the kind which proliferates in newspapers nowadays, in which "a lot of what you read (…) is ill-informed", with a tendency "to concentrate on particular crimes", such as the latest frenzy on paedophilia. "Better informed and less hysterical, facts rather than opinions": Campbell's suggestions could be applied to any sector of journalistic coverage.
But when it comes to crime reporting – where, "just like in sport, things actually happen" – the picture becomes gloomier. The threats, Campbell says, are multifaceted and not easy to counteract. The first to appear has actually become less dangerous by now: that is, the alleged glamorization of crime, which begun with the Eastcastle Street robbery in 1952, "when Winston Churchill in person asked for daily coverage", and went on with the mystique of the 60s focusing on characters such as Ronnie Biggs and his Great Train Robbery gang. But according to Campbell, "this has changed to a great extent": the recent coverage of the "Tonbridge five" trial, for instance, "the greatest bank robbery in this country so far", has been virtually non-existent.
Campbell spent some time in tackling the second allegation, concerning the possible effect of crime reporting on "increasing the fear of crime". According to the terrorizing facts and figures splashed on the front pages of some newspapers, he said, it is "amazing" to see their readers "still walking on the streets". But when confronting murder rates, reports and stories (including Dostoevsky’s description of London in 1860s), the landscape we get is "more or less the same as in the Victorian era".
It is with the third and fourth threats, anyway, that the definition of crime reporting as an "endangered species" becomes more concrete and plausible. Libel laws are the biggest issue here: since the 1970s, when a group of policemen sued (and won), Sunday papers which had named their office in connection with the case of a colleague arrested under a sexual offence Act, the media have been refraining from covering certain stories, knowing that they "are unable to afford legal expenses", Campbell said.
And money, once again, is the key: the last and ultimate threat, closely related to the media crisis, is the overall cut in expenses. "Have you ever been to the Old Bailey?", Campell asked. "It is a great experience. And the first times I went there, the galleries were always packed. I was there last week: most of them were empty". Times have definitely changed since the Daily Telegraph's "marmalade droppers", as Page 3's trial reports were called (back when the newspaper had full time court coverage), because "you read them while having breakfast, and they were so extraordinary that you let your marmalade drop". Today, terrorism and international crime are more expensive to cover, and this adds to the expenses. "Financial reasons, together with this extraordinary obsession with celebrity news", Campbell added, "are killing crime reporting".
"If it bleeds it leads, used to be the old slogan", he recalled, before giving his final and heartfelt pledge for the survival of this threatened form of journalism: "This country is becoming more and more punitive. We have twice as many people in prison than we had 20 years ago… the first jury trial just happened. It is terribly important that crime gets covered in the proper way". Because "through crime reporting, you can see what a society is like". And – possibly – where it is getting things wrong.