I’m still working my way through Sunday’s Observer’sCrime Uncovered” advertising supplement. The web version doesn’t do justice to the dead-tree version, which is a 62-page glossy magazine, starting with the brilliant cover by sculptor Gavin Brammall and photographer Andrew Hall. Whatever the reasons for publishing the section, it contains some amazing photography, and lots of excellent writing. The disparity between actual crime and the fear of crime looms large as a theme throughout.

Geraldine Bedell opens the package with a what reads like a popularising literature review of contemporary criminology and police strategy. The story includes these gems about the misaprehension of crime in Britain:

  • … media coverage of a recent report that the number of crimes known to the police had fallen by one-fifth since 1992 focused on the fact that, nevertheless, street robberies had risen. Street robberies accounted for 2 per cent of crimes, and mainly involved kids nicking other kids’ mobile phones.
  • Since the end of the First World War, crime has risen steadily, pretty much in line with growing prosperity. Professor Gloria Laycock of the Jill Dando Institute says crime is not the result of poverty but of affluence. … Her explanation is simply that ‘in a capitalist society, there are a zillion things to pinch’.
  • At some level, we may even quite like crime, because we need goodies and baddies to construct a narrative of ourselves. And however uncomfortable crime is, it’s better than war, which is what breaks out when people commit crimes in tribal societies.
  • Nick Ross of TV’s Crimewatch, who is writing a book about crime, points out that most of us would be appalled by a burglar who breaks into a hospital and steals £100 from petty cash. But if a builder offered to do £5,000 of work without passing on his VAT or tax for cash, we might be more equivocal, although the results to the NHS would be similar.
  • … it is widely believed that 10 per cent of offenders are responsible for 50 per cent of crime. … According to the British Crime Survey, four per cent of victims suffer 40 per cent of crime.
  • … the studies that have managed to correlate crime levels with television violence suggest that, to make a difference, we would have to go back to the sort of programming that we had in 1945, because the biggest change was between then and 1974.


I wrote a magazine article a few years ago about the “arms race” between grafitti taggers and local authorities seeking to prevent tagging. Using a different analogy, this story describes the same process:

Crime may best be understood by analogy with evolutionary ecology. In the same way that microbes are engaged in a constant tussle with immune systems, and predators with their prey, criminals are locked into a cycle of creativity that is then thwarted, or prohibitions that are then skirted around. It was ever thus: shortly after the Greeks introduced silver coinage in 600BC, someone produced a silver-plated bronze forgery. Car thieves will rent a new model to explore its vulnerabilities. In a complex process resembling spying and counter-espionage, security systems can be ‘turned’, so that pickpockets can watch people patting their wallets as they pass a ‘Beware: pickpockets’ poster.

According to Paul Ekblom of the Home Office’s Research Development and Statistics Directorate, who is responsible for developing much of this thinking, ‘an equilibrium can be approached in which a certain level of crime is the lowest that preventers can achieve, when set against increasing costs and other requirements such as freedom and privacy, and the highest that offenders can achieve, when set against risk and effort’. But the equilibrium is only ever brief. New targets for crime are constantly appearing, such as the mobile phone, new lifestyles mean that homes are left empty all day, and new attractive criminal environments arise, such as the queues for ATMs.

The challenge is to keep up with the adaptive criminal, and in the past we haven’t been good at that. </blockquote>

Now, if only the Guardian would learn to make decent Saturday magazines instead of the Julie Burchill-contaminated rubbish they perpetrate 52 times per year…