set of numbers
set of numbers | ABC's Media
are political dynamite, and the media is trying constantly to light the
fuse of public alarm. This week on The Media Report we'll discuss the endless
battle between the police and the media over the way crime figures are
understood and reported. As law and order becomes a permanent political
campaign issue, each new statistic is a bullet in a war of words.
Hello, and welcome to the program.
Now last week on The Media Report we focused on televised police drama.
This week it’s the real thing. We’re looking at how crime is reported by
the media, and the way crime statistics play into the broader debate over
the nature and extent of crime. Data on criminal activity can be used in
different ways, to further different agendas, and they can represent a
dangerous set of numbers.
story here on The Media Report on ABC Radio National.
CRIME NEWS STORIES
Kennett was given an early gift in the State election campaign with the
release of the latest National Crime Survey showing his State has Australia’s
lowest crime rate.
Australia has the highest number of household break-and-enters; in the
year preceding the 1998 survey, 1 in 13 households were broken into in
that State, more than double the rate for Victoria, which had 1 in 28 households
Richard Court has set up a special Cabinet Crime Committee as statistics
show West Australians don’t feel safe.
The State Chamber of Commerce says small business lacks confidence in the
police service. A survey of metropolitan and regional businesses has found
7 in 10 businesses believe the level of crime has increased in the past
has become known as Australia’s heroin capital, with hundreds of drug users
travelling to the area every week to buy drugs.
been burgled four times, haven’t you?
Woman: I have.
So what needs to be done to solve the crime problem; have you got a solution?
Woman: I probably
don’t have a solution but I know that the first offence is a major offence,
and crack down on it straight away.
By most media accounts, we’re living in an uncertain moment in history.
Already the anniversary of the September 11th attacks is looming, reinforcing
for many people just how precarious life can be in the modern world.
Here in Australia,
the news media has an unrelenting appetite for crime. Law and order are
permanent features of both the political and the media cycle. But how well
do we understand crime, and what can be learnt from crime data?
In last week’s
program the former New South Wales Police Commissioner, Peter Ryan, talked
about some of his favourite police dramas. Well this week we’re looking
at the real-life drama, concerning crime and policing, that saw Peter Ryan
go head-to-head with sections of the media, something which became for
him an almost constant task.
The distractions from actually doing the job were just huge. Fifty-percent
of my time, if not more, was spent on dealing with those distractions,
and it wasn’t just media, it was one or two other things. Massive, massive
waste of time, energy and effort of me and other people who were having
to respond, whether we liked it or not. And I tried desperately to ignore
it, and then was accused of ignoring the media. ‘No wonder we send bad
stories about you,’ said one reporter, ‘you never talk to us.’ And I said,
‘I’ve tried to talk to you, but look at this headline.’ After I spent an
hour-and-a-half with this person explaining what we’d done, that come into
my office on the pretext of talking about reform, and I spent hours, brought
people in to show them the things we were doing with Aboriginal affairs,
multiculturalism, youth policy, drugs policy, schools intervention, a whole
range of leading-edge policing techniques and methodologies we were using,
and the headline was just a very personal attack. And the story then went
on very personally. And you get fed up with that. But it detracts you from
doing the job, and it really was hugely distracting.
crime is the story, and crime statistics merely reinforce that agenda.
Peter Ryan argues the media’s collective understanding of crime data is
fundamentally flawed, and usually just alarms the public.
There is a perception and a fear, you know, everybody thinks they’re going
to be robbed in the street or beaten up and their house broken into, and
any one of those offences is too many, so I’m not making any excuses about
levels of crime. But take assault as an example. Of all assaults reported
to the police (and not all of them are but a lot of them are because quite
often people have to go hospital for example) somewhere in the region of
50% are domestic related. Now that’s not husbands beating up wives, or
wives beating up husbands, by domestic related I mean in the confines of
a home or among friends; at a barbecue there’s a fall-out about something,
so somebody turns round and whacks somebody with a bottle or something
like that. So you’ve got more chance of being beaten up by going to a friend’s
barbecue, or in your own home, than you do walking down the street. Then
you break down the other 50% and a large group then is at a particular
pub, in Sydney there’s about five, six, seven pubs or so where the majority
of those type of assaults take place, and again it’s often among people
who know each other, even in passing they know each other. But they have
some kind of vendetta going. So you finish up with a total stranger walking
down the street who gets beaten up or attacked by another total stranger,
and the numbers are very small. You know, it’s this perception that it’s
Is it a sort of laziness do you think, on the part of the media that they
don’t break down the figures to give their audiences a clear picture, but
they rely on this notion of crime wave, or crime problem because it creates
an environment of fear which might be useful in selling the story?
Yes, I think it’s that. It’s dramatising it. I’m not trying to trivialise
any of this, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very serious stuff, some
of our levels of crime, we don’t need these levels of crime, but we’re
still one of the safest communities on the planet in Australia, even though
some areas of our cities are tough, hard places; we’re still very, very
safe by comparison to other parts of the world. I mean that really has
got to be properly understood. But what we’ve tried to do here, we tried
here and we failed. I mean we all failed, and we all got into trouble over
it, I got into trouble over it in the media, one of my deputies got into
trouble, and I then had to correct what the media said that he said. And
what he said was correct but the media said it was incorrect, and I weighed
in to try and correct both of those and then was accused of publicly shaming
him because I had to correct. I wasn’t shaming him. It was that sort of
silly argument. So we said Right, we’re not making any comments about this,
we’ll leave it to the statisticians, the State statisticians who collect
the official figures for crime in the State and they can make the comments
So do you feel Peter, as though you’re on a bit of a hiding to nothing.
Oh yes, we’re on a hiding to nothing because some of the figures we were
using and we were quoting at the time and getting into horrible difficulties
over it, were the operational figures that we use almost on a daily basis.
I used to come into work at 7 in the morning, and on my desk would be a
breakdown of the more serious incidents from the last 24 hours, and particularly
overnight because you pretty well knew by the time you went home of an
evening anything serious that had happened. So we had a pretty good idea
on a daily basis. Now we are trying to deal with a problem, a crime problem,
a public order problem, on a tactical level. You have the broad strategy
of the policies you’re going to adopt in relation to crime generally, then
you have a sort of a tactical response which is in the hands of the local
police, it can’t be driven from the Commissioner’s desk in a force big
or small, it’s got to be dealt with by those on the ground. And those figures
would relate to an area of the city or a suburb, or whatever it was, that
that police station or that group were responsible for policing. So we
would use those figures. Unfortunately, the State system use another boundary
determination, so that crime within that boundary and the figures used
within that boundary, were different than ours. So it looked like there
was conflict there but in fact there’s nothing at all that was conflicting.
We knew what we were doing and we didn’t need anyone else to interpret
it for us. The State Department knew what they were doing, we knew what
we were doing, we both knew what each other was doing but we had to respond
on a 24 hour basis, and that’s how we used crime figures, not waiting for
statisticians to collect them as six months’ worth, and then compare them
with the previous year or the year before that.
But at the
end of the day you can make anything of statistics, as we all know, and
you can make them look good or bad. But we were always accused of trying
to fudge them, and of course that wasn’t strictly true. You try and be
honest, but you’re not given any credence for that.
Did you ever feel as though you were facing what in the media would be
called a beat-up, that people were generating stories to create a climate
that didn’t seem to bear any relation to the figures and the statistics
that you had in front of you?
Oh yes, undoubtedly. Absolutely undoubtedly. Time after time we tried to
correct, even to the extent of going to see editors, say Well come to my
office; I’ll come to your office; we’ll go and have lunch, and we wrote
letters, we sent press releases out, we’d give them details, copies of
reports. You know, spent hours and hours trying to correct inaccurate reporting,
or what was considered a beat-up or a wrong story. And we didn’t really
achieve anything. In the latter days of my commissionership, the criticism
I was coming under from one particular talkback show, we couldn’t get on
the air, they wouldn’t let anybody through the switchboard to talk and
say ‘That’s wrong’.
Towards the end of his time as Commissioner, Peter Ryan had been drawn
into an undeclared war with some parts of the media, most notably with
the radio talkback host, Alan Jones, a formidable opponent empowered by
a very large audience.
discussed his approach with the ABC’s Sally Loane.
Well Sally, I mean you and I know one another. I only say things as I see
them. For my own sake, I think that Peter Ryan’s struggling, and I think
that he’s struggling because he came in and didn’t understand the culture;
we all supported him for five years, but it’s not for us to determine all
Alan Jones, some people in the Labor party said to us off-air this morning
that they’re concerned about your influence, that you have too much influence,
and perhaps over some sections in the Labor party, including, you know,
including the Premier.
Well Sally, I don’t seek any of that, and as I said, as I’m speaking to
you, my staff are listening to me, so they know exactly what I do. I hardly
speak to anybody, I just get on with my job and I say it here, but it’s
true, I do have a very, very significant audience in this city, and I suppose
that is a factor. And they write to me, and I write back, but I don’t get
on the phone to Bob Carr or anybody else, or the Prime Minister, saying
‘Well I think you should do this’, or ‘I think you should do that’. Whatever
I believe, I say on the program. Off the program there’s no other agenda.
The only agenda is what I present as program content to my listeners. If
those views reach some kind of consonance with people who listen to my
program, well so be it. But that’s not something that I set out as an instrument
of what I’m doing. I just say it as I see it, and if people don’t like
it, they’ll switch off, that’s why the knob is there.
Alan Jones talking to Sally Loane on Sydney ABC.
for Peter Ryan the off switch doesn’t help much when you’re trying to stem
the flow of negative publicity about crime and the police. In his opinion,
examples of specific offences were presented as evidence of crime waves,
which Ryan regarded as little more than scaremongering, often based on
You know, you get little communities writing into you saying the crime
wave in such-and-such a small town in the outback maybe, because a couple
of shop windows in the main street were broken Saturday night, and a bit
of graffiti appeared, or something. Yes, it is bad for that community,
it’s not good, but it’s hardly a crime wave. It’s a problem, and a problem
can be tackled in a different way. But of course people become fearful,
it’s widely reported and you’ve got these vandals, these unknown vandals
going through the town smashing it up, when in fact those unknown vandals
are probably somebody’s children who is reading that newspaper, living
in that community. They’ll get a bus to go to another community to smash
it up, you know, it’s somebody in the town. So you’ve always got this fear
of crime, and it’s a very, very easy thing to prey on.
How do you think that crime should be reported? Do you have in your mind
a model way that a responsible media could accurately inform the community?
I don’t, I really don’t know. The system we have at the moment I don’t
like, for obvious reasons because for all the reasons we’ve just been talking
about. What is the way forward, other than be more responsible, but at
the expense of what, you’ve got to ask, because newspapers judge their
performance different than everybody else’s, it’s all to do with how many
sales they can get. So therefore the more lurid the headline, one assumes,
equals an equivalent number of sales. And just be, I think, just more responsible
and more pragmatic. There are some societies, civilised and advanced societies
I’m talking about, not dictatorships or anything, where crime figures are
never discussed, they’re just never discussed. A crime being committed
might be discussed, a robbery or a murder, or a serious sexual offence
would be discussed, and the capture of the people responsible would also
be discussed, but you wouldn’t get this daily, weekly flogging of crime
statistics affecting a few streets.
Do you think that’s a good idea? Do you think there should be less reporting
of statistics that can be manipulated and provided out of context? Do you
think that leads to misunderstanding?
I think it does, and I think that the silly thing is that there’s an implied,
underlying, unstated comment that we, shock! horror! We’ve discovered (‘We’
being the newspaper) We’ve discovered because the locals have told us after
we went knocking on their doors, that this street, this suburb, is crime-ridden,
and what are the police doing about it? Answer: Nothing. And it implies
that a) we don’t know about it, which is stupid of course, b) that we do
know about it and we’re deliberately, against all the odds, not doing anything
about it, we’re just ignoring it completely; and c) we’re diverting our
resources to something else. We’re keeping them in police stations and
shutting the door. You know, of course we know there’s crimes committed,
of course we’re doing something about it, of course we’re stretched in
four streets away from that particular problem spot. But you can go to
any problem spot, or any spot, and you’ll find a problem and make that
the big problem. And it’s unfair to give the impression that the police
are deliberately ignoring it, when in fact that just simply is not the
Peter Ryan, former Police Commissioner in New South Wales.
For criminologists, analysis of crime data can occur without the political
pressure to get specific results or the need to sell newspapers or advertising
space. In academic analysis, figures on criminal activity are never black
is Associate Professor of Criminology at Griffith University in Brisbane
The media’s use of statistics is very different, or its use of stories
about crime is very different. They really don’t want to understand patterns
of crime or the kind of totality of the larger picture of crime, nor do
they really want to explain it at all. What they want to do is mainly sell
newspapers, or sell advertising on television to make crime dramatic, to
make it exciting. And the way that happens is that you pick a celebrated
case, you take a story that is newsworthy, has values, that have interesting
victims and offenders, and typically these stories are about violent crimes,
atypical cases, and the kind of activity that normally the police can’t
control, even if we had all the resources.
One thing that Peter Ryan suggests is that possibly the police should give
the public less figures about crime, there should be less reporting. What’s
your response to that?
Well my response to that is that there can be very useful and careful distillations
of information that we have about crime. What I think citizens really need
to understand is the facts of crime at some level, divorced from their
emotion, and the media make crime an emotion, an anxiety, something to
kind of talk about and then something to then kind of try to create a reassurance
around. So several years ago, people talked about the news generally, not
just news about crime. But I think it is the case for crime as well, is
that the story really is about disorder than the creation of order around
it. That’s the policing story. The policing story is one in which you’re
trying to create order from disorder. So what the media like to do is use
the police in several ways:
First, to kind
of show that order is occurring around disorder; we see that all the time:
‘The police have come in to stop this disturbance’. ‘There was a big disturbance
and the police came’ and you observe how order is restored.
another way the media like to use the police, and that is to show their
incompetence. There’s lots of ways in which our news organisations like
to bring down officials a peg, and it’s part of the kind of media story
again: ‘That’s very newsworthy; let’s get that politician’, or ‘Let’s get
that angle; let’s keep the government on its toes.’ And I feel at some
level I think citizens can look through that. But it seems like it’s really
making (and maybe from time to time there is a value to it, because we
have seen exposes) but it is making the police into a folly for a bit of
news fodder, which I think is probably unfair.
The media sets
agenda, and it can in extreme cases, even create crime waves. We need to
distinguish fear of crime from real crime, so when I say the media creates
a crime wave, it creates the perception of a crime wave.
Professor Ross Homel, also from Griffith University’s Department of Criminology.
Homel has just returned from Britain where he was able to see first-hand
the latest statistics on crime for the UK.
It’s quite interesting. I spent a weekend staying at the home of the Director
of Research and Statistics for the UK Home Office, the head honcho. The
British crime stats were released a couple of weeks ago and he showed me
their figures. One of the interesting comments he made was that they’d
done research on the influence of the media on perceptions of their crime
statistics. It turns out that readers of the tabloids believe that crime
is getting worse, that we’re getting more violent and so on, whereas readers
of the broadsheets actually do have quite a different perception, and they
generally get a better picture of the true nature of the figures, which
are inevitably mixed. That was the message in the British crime stats two
weeks ago: very mixed, good news, bad news, same as here, always good news,
But does that mean that they’re not relying on the same basic statistics,
that what you’ve got there is a different editorial line in the way they’re
going to cover those figures?
Well they’re relying on the same figures, but as you just said, they’re
putting a different spin on the figures, they’re emphasising different
aspects so that the tabloids will emphasise the increases, whereas the
broadsheets might present more of a balanced view.
I think the
journalists face a real challenge, because they’ve got to very quickly
understand what the key message is, and we’re proposing a joint degree
at our university between journalism and criminology, where we might actually
train people to do this job better. It would be the first such joint degree
in Australia, and I suspect there is a degree of training required so that
journalists have a better understanding of this very complex problem.
Do you think that the media’s focus on law and order, does it reflect in
your opinion, the media’s agenda to sell newspapers, or is the media being
sensitive to public concerns?
I actually think the media’s being sensitive to public concerns. I think
there is genuine public concern about crime, and we touched on that in
the papers this evening. We have higher expectations about our standards
of living now than we’ve ever had before. We demand higher standards of
service; when we go and buy something we demand clean, efficient public
utilities and streets and so on, and we demand safe environments, free
from accidents and free from crime preferably, and violence.
So I think
that is one factor, it’s our rising standards of living and our rising
expectations, which is why we’re less and less tolerant of those things
which impact and infringe on that quality of life. So we don’t tolerate
now what would have been tolerated 100 years ago in the private or the
public domain. Nevertheless, I think there is good evidence that serious
problems are getting worse, and we alluded to that today as well. The drug
problem, we can also allude to evidence that juvenile crime for example
has really increased over the last 30 to 40 years in this country, as has
child maltreatment and abuse, quite substantially, using the best available
evidence. So there is legitimate public concern about problems that have
in fact, at least within living memory, gotten worse. And I think the media
are actually picking up on that. Now they may amplify that concern and
perhaps distort it to some extent, in order to sell or to do their job,
but on the whole I would locate the problem back in the community, not
so much in the media.
One of the things that we’re realising from research is that we can never
talk about media effects on people, and media stories about crime and their
effects on people, because it’s highly interactive and reciprocal. People
select out what they want to read and/or see, they select out how they
want to take that story in.
Does that release the media from responsibility, to a certain extent?
It doesn’t release the media from responsibility, but it does say – I was
just reading, going through some other research on this recently; one of
the things that we’re coming to see is that people who spend a lot of time
watching popular television, which includes an enormous diet of crime news
and crime stories, and spend a lot of time doing that and not other things,
develop what’s called a mean world view. So part of the problem has to
do with how people actually spend their time, and if they’re spending it
kind of viewing all of these things, and it’s not just the effect of that
on them, it’s also they’re choosing to do that as well, so what does that
mean about who they are, and how they look at the world, So I think it’s
a real problem, in terms of media responsibility because crime is a vast
form of entertainment. Look at mystery stories, are at one edge of a whole
genre of crime fiction, and I enjoy reading mysteries, I enjoy watching
mystery stories, I enjoy watching crime stories.
So on the one hand it’s almost a sort of hypocrisy that there is criticism
of elements of the media for the sensationalist way that they cover crime,
and yet if we look at what people like to hear and listen to and read about,
it’s actually crime.
Well I think there was a transformation apparently in the newspaper business
in the 19th century in New York City, and our friend Joseph Pulitzer did
it, when he said that what we want to do is transform the news from the
sense of just delivering facts about what happened, to a sensibility that
the whole world is watching. That is, we live in a world where our mundane
lives are made much more exciting by these hyper exciting stories that
we’ll probably never experience, but we like that excitement, and that
whole world is watching gives this kind of highly dramatic view of news
and news events. If papers would just deliver a very factual and educational
story about crime, they would be a lot like the students in my criminology
classes, they would feel they’re just going to university, and boy, that’s,
well they might learn something, but is that why they’re reading the newspaper?
I don’t know.
Associate Professor Kathleen Daly, and before her, her colleague, Professor
Ross Homel, both of whom teach criminology at Griffith University in Queensland.
So to return to the former New South Wales Police Commissioner. In Peter
Ryan’s opinion, what principles should guide the media’s coverage of crime?
I think there’s only one, and it’s honesty and fairness; really two, honesty
and fairness, because the problem is, if you don’t put both sides of the
story or examine a situation properly and research it effectively, and
a lot of the comments that are made are not properly researched, they’re
all hearsay and bar room gossip sort of thing, a lot of them, quite truthfully.
If the public have a right to know, they’ve got a right to know everything
and they’ve got to know both sides of a story, not just the one that seems
to be making the headlines. And I think one thing that happened to the
print media particularly, was that every reporter gets a by-line, so there’s
no reporters any more. So if you’re a reporter, the front page is your
target or certainly page 1, 3, 5, and you’re going to do your damnest to
get your name in big letters across the front of that page, or page 3.
And if we went back to ‘our staff reporter said …’ or ‘in an interview
with our staff reporter …’ or ‘following research by some of our staff
…’ You see how you change the emphasis, you don’t get a personal report
in the newspaper, you get a newspaper report in the newspaper, and quite
often, a lot of their so-called reporters are not skilled or able to make
comment, and everybody wants to make comment, as if they’re a columnist
and a commentator rather than a reporter.
Do you think that police reporters need to be skilled roundspeople that
have actually devoted some time to coming to terms with the nature of the
Yes I think so. I mean I looked at the gallery that I used to face daily,
and they changed about five or six times, there were only two or three
left in the police reporting group who I met pretty well from Day One.
All the others had changed several times; they’d became instant experts
on crime and then moved on to something else, whatever it was they were
Peter Ryan, the former Police Commissioner for New South Wales, with the
staff reporter from The Media Report.
Now Peter Ryan
also said that talkback radio is a threat to democracy. Well that suggestion
is the topic of a special tenth anniversary edition of Australia Talks
Back. That’s this evening on Radio National. Congratulations to Sandy McCutcheon
and the team.
Thanks to my
producer, Caroline Fisher and the technical operator, Peter McMurray.
Guests on this
Former NSW Police Commissioner
Professor Kathleen Daly Griffith University School of Criminology and Criminal
Ross Homel Griffith University, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Edited audio of an interview with Sally Loane, ABC 702, Sydney, Nov 2001.