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.

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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.