Sir Stephen Lander, head of the Britain’s new Serious and Organised Crime Agency, has told the Indy that his agency “will be set priorities by the Home Office that are partly based on how much newspapers write about different types of organised crime.”

As part of the formula, 33 national and regional newspapers have been monitored for the past five years and measured for how many words are written on each type of organised crime. Illegal immigration came top of the list, with drugs in second place.

Sir Stephen explains:

“The brainboxes in the Home Office have been putting together a sort of harm model. It articulates the harm that is caused to the UK under a number of headings – the rewards taken and made by the criminal, the social and economical harm to the UK, the institutional harm, and tries to put a cost. It also brings into play judgements about the degree of public concern – and they have a proxy for this which is the amount of column inches in the press. It is pretty rough and ready but it is asking the right questions. It is asking not what is the incidence of something, but what is its impact.”

Perhaps those Home Office “brainboxes” should hire some of those much-derided media studies graduates to point out why this is a really, really silly idea.

Crime reporters rely on the police as their key sources. In other words, the sorts of crimes highlighted by newspapers will reflect, roughly, the priorities and preoccupations of the law enforcement agencies. Using news coverage as a proxy for ”public concern“ is therefore a nonsense because it will effectively create a giant feedback loop.

While the media “indexing hypothesis” generally predicts media preoccupation with police preoccupations, there are huge exceptions to this rule which further undermine the idea that “public concern” — however measured — is a useful way of prioritising police resources.

Media crime coverage is a major cause of the well-known disjunction between perceived crime rates and statistically-measured incidence of crime. Threats highlighted by journalism are often at odds with what actually are the most serious threats. Vast rainforests are killed to cover statistically unusual crimes like stranger murders of young, white, female children. Comparitively little is written about esoteric complex frauds and other white collar crimes that the agency is presumably supposed to tackle.

Update: Spyblog has more on this.

Update2: … and The Register.