Hold on to your hats: Nick Ross's book on crime is actually not bad

There’s a lot that’s right in this book, but there are some deep flaws too, Alan White finds.

Crime: How To Solve It, and Why So Much of What We're Told Is Wrong
Nick Ross
Biteback Publishing, 361pp, 17.99

What with the best part of 30 years presenting Crimewatch and other programmes on the subject, seats on Government committees and even the setting up of an institution dedicated to its prevention, Nick Ross has thought a lot about crime. Not necessarily a recommendation, but what we can say for a start is that there is a lot of stuff in this book. Ross has read up and has plenty to say on every type of crime, from firearm homicides to illegal downloads to - we’ll get there in the end - rape.

In one interview he revealed that the book suffered heavy edits, which makes me wonder how big a work was originally submitted to his publisher: it weighs in at 361 pages and is so heavily referenced that notes are not included in the text: instead you have to type in phrases from the book at www.thecrimebook.co.uk in order to find the source. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur, but I found this somewhat annoying.

Anyway: in terms of scope, this may be the most wide-ranging book on crime ever published. But the central conceit that runs through it is very simple: prevention is better than cure. Or as Ross neatly puts it early on: “Crime has been with us since Adam and Eve and, surprisingly, God didn’t spot the solution. Rather than punishing the miscreants, it might have been better had he put the forbidden fruit higher up the tree.”

Now how willing you are to accept this rather depends on your perception of human nature. Perhaps you agree, or perhaps you think if God had done that then Adam and Eve would only have ended up crapping on the rhododendrons or something. In which case Ross’s aim is to win you over.

His thinking is rather less original than he or his publishers suggest. The last policing minister Nick Herbert was talking about the need for preventative justice as recently as 2010, and as it happens I dedicated most of a chapter of my own book to it in 2008, having been inspired by this 2003 report into a chief constable who nearly lost his job after mediating between two gangs, thus causing arrest figures to go down and panic at the Home Office. I’d love to believe my trailblazing ideas have a huge impact on the thinking of cabinet ministers, but the truth is there have long been debates on this issue. 

What Ross brings to the table is a vision in which prevention can eventually supplant detection. The rub for policy makers, of course, is that while we wait for this promised land to appear the police won’t be able to find out who stole your bike because they’re giving classes on securing them safely. It's not a concern for which he dedicates much time. However, it has to be said that he makes a good fist of arguing for prevention for much of the book. He has an eye for a telling historical anecdote, deftly running through the history of burglary and shoplifting in the Twentieth Century and arguing cogently how the huge decline in both crimes were influenced by social changes that simply made them harder to commit. 

And he’s very good on the fog of bullshit that wafts up from the interface between politicians, the media and the criminal justice system whenever we talk about crime. There are a number of uncomfortable truths that the public just don’t want to hear. First, as the criminologist Thomas Gabor says: “Dividing all of humanity into two camps - the decent and the villainous - is at odds with the facts.” Ross draws on everything from the Milgram experiment to recent political scandals to show that people are susceptible to temptation: crime is opportunistic, and it’s little more than an accident of birth as to whether you end up a street mugger or an investment banker fiddling the books.

Another truth we don’t want to accept is how the criminal justice system (CJS) amounts to little more than an elaborate confidence trick. It’s arbitrary as to whether a case makes court and produces a guilty verdict. It doesn’t reform criminals. It doesn’t take them out of circulation for very long. And it doesn’t put them off committing crime again.

Of course the police should be spending more time stopping crimes before they happen - they’re the best placed to do so - but instead they spend their time responding to crimes and filling out paperwork in order to placate the legal system. It costs millions, but this entire system has been gradually erected with barely a shred of statistical evidence to validate its efficacy. Many of Ross’s arguments on this have been heard before, generally from the ‘“left” - but as he points out, this shouldn’t really be political at all: it’s an issue of pragmatism.

So there’s a lot that’s right in this book, but there are some deep flaws too. First of all, there’s the issue of methodology. Ross wants criminology to be less of a humanities subject and more of a science, and writes well on the way it’s been infiltrated by various political doctrines. He also deconstructs the ludicrous way in which the media reports crime, and he analyses how unreliable crime statistics are to great effect. But then he uses all three as the primary sources for his arguments. When you’re just sharing an opinion rather than reporting, you’ve got nowhere else to go.

He may not like criminology, but I’d contrast his technique with, for example, this piece of research into gangs in Waltham Forest. It, too, is flawed, but here we have first-hand testimony from gang members, probation workers and locals, maps of the gangs’ whereabouts, and general conclusions extrapolated from the interviews. And one thing you see a lot of in that report is the necessary interaction between police, schools, probation, housing officers and other bodies: utterly vital to a modern justice system, yet something on which Ross has little to say.

The report's conclusions may be wrong, and what the individuals might say may well only be subjectively true, but the truth is you can cut statistics and news reports as easily as you can interviewees’ words. Bluntly, you’re more likely to make a significant contribution to knowledge by concentrating on a single type of crime in a small area than by holding forth for a few thousand words on, to pick a chapter, “violence”.

So there's a pot/kettle element to his complaints about the selective use of evidence by various institutions. Ross is convinced that the “design” of estates can be a major preventative tool, and cites the Pepys Estate in Deptford as an example: with high-rise stairways removed, there has been “no crime”. Except: a) His only reference for this turns out to be, um, a documentary he filmed, b) There’s certainly some crime, and c) The forerunner of this kind of idea was the Mozart Estate in Westminster, which was completely redesigned by Alice Coleman, after which drugs raids, gang shootings and other social problems resolutely refused to go away. 

The other issue is that his method leaves major analytical gaps and unanswered questions. It's all very well to bemoan the "austere dichotomy" of innocent or guilty verdicts in court, but then you have to wonder what the alternative is. Probably guilty, but six months off for a sharp suit and a plausible manner?

Likewise Ross's analysis of statistics shows, he feels, that ethnic minorities aren’t unfairly treated by the CJS, but he’s unwilling to say whether over-representation is because they live in rougher areas or because of different “cultural values”. I have an opinion, based on a year researching different-coloured youths in housing estates everywhere from Brixton to Grimsby and seeing very similar patterns of behaviour - but it’s just a gut feeling based on talking to lots of people.

I get the impression that this view is of little use to Ross because it just isn’t scientific enough. That would be fine, but his own book does little to convince us that the analysis of crime can ever be an exact science. His efforts to do so, along with the fact he’s determined to write on every crime under the sun, also lead to some rather jarring clashes of tone. You can see where we’re going with this.

To the issue of rape, then. First, we should note the entire chapter is now available online: I invite the reader to draw their own conclusions, but here are mine. Ross certainly doesn’t say, “Not all rape is rape.” Those words were the invention of an excitable sub-editor. And the edited extract that appeared in the Mail did divest the argument of much of its nuance. Indeed, it’s only fair to see the chapter in the context of the book I’ve described above: a book almost entirely about stopping crime before it happens. I imagine these are the lines he would describe as key:

“Of course she was right that ‘no means no’, which is fine as a finger-wagging exercise, but being justifiably indignant is not the same as being prudent or pragmatic.”

One can sympathise with Ross - up to a point. There’s the kernel of a difficult debate with some very fine gradations here - when offering safety advice, when is the line crossed between promoting caution and victim blaming? Don’t take an illegal taxi? Don’t walk home alone drunk? Don’t wear high heels? The line “rape is rape” just doesn’t settle this. For more on this see here. But the problem is that Ross over-reaches. A lot:

“We have come to acknowledge that it is foolish to leave laptops on the back seat of a car...Yet for some it is heresy to suggest victims should ever be held responsible at all.”

It’s only by reading the rest of the book that you can understand how he’s ended up expressing these crass sentiments - it’s part of his work-in-progress to turn all criminal behaviour into a kind of mathematical equation (indeed he jokingly attempts this at one point). Laptop theft may, like rape, be expedited by various factors, but the simple fact is that everything else surrounding the crime from motive to victim impact is totally different. If we talk about it differently, it's not just out of respect to victims.

I feel sorry for Ross - he’s clearly a decent man who’s on a mission to do some good, and by all accounts he’s deeply upset by the reaction. But he really shouldn’t be surprised. His subsequent pronouncements on child pornography have only made things worse: all a little reminiscent of the middle-aged Harry Enfield character trying to come to terms with his gay son. It’s what happens when writers think too much, and don’t listen enough. In all fairness, the chapter on rape is an anomaly. The dull truth is that this is largely a comprehensive and thoughtful book.

Nick Ross subscribes to the idea that when it comes to crime, prevention is better than cure. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.