Once a rough trade in self-serving but criminogenic information was elevated to the more noble, although self-appointed, task of ‘holding people to account’ in ‘the news of the screws’ and the media more generally, it was inevitable that political careers, and lives generally, would be destroyed by a barely regulated industry of censure and slur. In turn, that meant that powerful and very public people would become more professional in protecting their power, image, position and livelihoods. It led to an outbreak of libel suits just as night follows day.

It also meant a general escalation of the levels of both surveillance and networking, and that in turn ramped up the importance of both public and private police, security agencies and companies, information technicians and data analysts. The new professions of information gathering should not be excluded from any comprehensive debate about regulation. It would be primitive to think that only journalists commit the proposed new ‘information crimes’. Indeed, very soon they will be the least of the problem. In societies of mass incarceration, we should expect correspondingly upgraded phenomena such as routinized information abuse, automated social censure, data collection wars, data management prosecutions, and the professionalization of hacking.

Whatever the problems in regulating the press, we do live in an information society and therefore need a clear definition of these much-discussed future ‘information crimes’ so that everyone knows what the rules of the new game are. Journalists, and other information-cum-policing agencies, cannot keep using the defence of ‘free speech’, or ‘national security’, to justify everything they do, as if that supercedes criteria of depth, accuracy, fairness, privacy, civility and context.

The game has changed, the press has become part of the legislative function and a powerful policer and enforcer of morals and laws, so it has to be regulated and democratized, just as much as the police, parliament, surveillance and security industries.

At the Cropwood conference on Crime, Justice and the Media in 1981, mentioned in Part 2 of this series, the distinguished investigative journalist David Leigh said of the media-criminal justice relationship that

“Many of the conflicts between the system and the press come about because the criminal justice professionals do not recognize that this is a central relationship, not a peripheral one. Press and tv are not just commercial spin-offs’ from the activities of genuine public servants. They are the machine – however imperfect – which tells the public what government means, and the governors what the public wants” [p.85].

This recognition has happened and grown since, particularly within the police who cosied up to the media in a big way over the last 30 years, and also used them very professionally at times. But, that did not of itself advance the cause of “freedom of information”, as Leigh argued it would, at least not in the sense we understand that phrase now. It certainly meant there was a freer exchange between reporters and police of criminogenic information, free of regulation or even human hand during routine newsfeeds. Today our commitment to freedom of information has a much fuller meaning and requires the quality of information AND information-gathering that David himself has delivered throughout his career. Today it very much refers to rights to information, not gifts of information exchanged for money, drink, horses or sex.

The press is no longer even a local or national enterprise. Large chunks of it are now clearly owned by foreign capital, so cannot be expected to put the interests of this country or local regions above its proprietors’ own profit motives, cultural blinkers or political predilections. We football fans have all seen what can happen when you have more or less unregulated foreign ownership: loss of control of your club, dubious financial practices, prehistoric management styles, insensitive and weak corporate governance amounting to professional negligence, and a bout of abnormal chaos. Information and knowledge industries, as key processes in any democracy, are in even more need of ‘fit and proper’ person tests, thoroughly applied by bodies with teeth, and a battery of ‘good practice’ rules, guidelines and laws for absolute ‘no-nos’.

If the press, in particular, is to continue to play a key role in the politics of the UK, it needs to be regulated more closely and more openly, and, even more importantly, that press needs to rise above the lowest-common-denominator values in news production that reinforce knee-jerk conformity, puritanism, seediness and punitiveness. I doubt whether it can do that easily, whilst remaining narrowly, old-fashionedly capitalistic in nature.

If it does not change and encourage state regulation, the press will increasingly be at odds with a more educated, more informed, and freer population who increasingly expect their cultural products to be both free of sleaze and ‘clean’. It’s like online gambling: the companies who run that industry see the value of state regulation and usually strongly demand it. Similarly, experienced players in the sex trades understand very well that state regulation is actually in their interests.

The Murdoch approach, I suspect, will soon be history. Successful media moguls of the future might well be those who demand not resist more state regulation of printed, broadcast or online output: hopefully happy in the knowledge that they have less to hide than the state itself, but more likely knowing that they can profit from stability in their industry as well as hide behind regulatory principles and practices.

A liberal people, unimpressed with relentless, trivial gossip and well able to access erotica online, will gradually turn to the web for the real news of the world, and abandon ‘news of the screws’ in favour of straightforward, direct, viewing of sex in fabulous 3D HD, preferably without adverts at crucial points, and so become very part-time newspaper consumers, if at all. And if they want anything more highbrow, there’s always SkySports….. As a university teacher of social sciences for 32 years, I met fewer and fewer students who read a newspaper every day for its main news and leader comments, and then discussed it in class or even with their friends – you just wish they would – so I am sure the end is already in sight for the ‘press’ as we knew it.

Media and policing: morality and immorality meet at the scaffold

Why are media-criminal justice relationships so important, as David Leigh argued? The key in my view rests in the telling of the tale. Was the defendant guilty or ‘fitted up’ for his role as villain, or is he the victim of a self-interested and selective censure? Part 1 of this series ended by suggesting that talk about crime in the media, and other such ‘vivid tales’, was a form of moral recycling whereby dirt was dug up, laundered clean of damaging social and political implications, and then re-presented as the triumph of good over evil and the futility of dissent and conflict. Washing dirty linen in public does have a purpose: to tell your public that things have been cleaned. But, as the Frank Carson, the comic who died a few weeks ago, so wisely said: “It’s the way I tell ‘em”. The telling of the tale determines whether it is a censure, a protest or a joke.

I am reminded of a classic quote I often used when teaching sociology, by Kai Erikson [1964]: “In a figurative sense, at least, morality and immorality meet at the public scaffold, and it is during this meeting that the community declares where the line between them should be drawn”.

Societies seem to need a public scaffold, real or metaphoric, in order to discover the battle lines of morality. In today’s world, I often think it resides in comedy, where comics poke fun at people and taboos, that we find out what ‘goes too far’. Comedy is of course an important part of the mass media of entertainment and, increasingly today, of education, e.g. the social comment of Monty Python, The Young Ones, and Ben Elton preceded the present day Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You. Many comics in the UK today are graduates and Elton’s Dad is a leading professor of education, and very funny ‘live’. The public scaffold educates; it is violently poignant, deeply sad and depressing; but often surrounded by or redolent with the biting and melancholic wit of the clown. Frankie Boyle, like Clouseau, knew that.

The point is that public censure and vilification is not simply some elite plot, although no-one should imagine that hanging was always just desserts and never spiteful nastiness – against a class, or gender, or religion, or race. ‘The people’, with all their virtues and vices, collaborate with and enjoy these fateful rituals – to a point and for a while. Crime talk and public executions, gossip and stigma, censure and shame, allegation and repudiation, laying information and exclusion are something the public participates in willingly, with vigour, and all the wit and wisdom, ignorance and prejudice it possesses. Go to the Boleyn Ground, Anfield, Old Trafford or the Den and feel the hate, the contempt, the humour, the joy, and the aspiration if you want to understand ‘the public scaffold’ ‘live’, and if you want to experience how football crowds can be so cuttingly witty, full of hate, passionately caring (about their own players), and ritualistically obnoxious (to the opposition).

The public scaffold is where a line is drawn. Moral boundaries are enforced, but not necessarily wisely: scores are settled; spitefulness finds its scapegoat; dissenters are silenced; oppositions fought; nuisances removed. You either hate it or it comforts you. There is only a very small safe middle on a tightrope. It is vital to get the judgment call right. That is why criminal justice has a vital relationship with all forms of modern media. That is why the police had no problem absorbing new social media. They enjoy talking about crime and morality; they are fascinated with other people’s business; they need to know they are making the right calls or else they are just legal violence. They tweet and read CrimeTalk. Similarly, the media thrives on conflict, negativity and disruption – core news values – so crime, deviation and the anti-social are natural fodder for their canon.

This is why so many of us loathe the death penalty, despite feeling that in some cases it is justified: they get it wrong so often, mainly in terms of the accused but also the technology. It is murder by any other name when the corpse was innocent. When you study criminology you discover how fine the line is between public execution and judicial murder in so many cases, and how that fine line is interpreted much more liberally, for example, for whites than blacks in the USA. It gives no comfort.

As another aside, recent attempts in the UK to declare certain kinds of humour to be an infringement of discrimination laws completely miss the point. Humour is by its very nature politically ‘incorrect’, because it is a play on our conventions and a dance on our moral ambiguity, so to declare it politically incorrect is ‘to state the bleedin’ obvious’, as the UK comedy phrase goes. Humour must always fall off its tightrope regularly, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other.

Jokes dance on a moral tightrope, tease the norms of convention and challenge the assumptions of commonsense. That’s why they’re ‘funny’. That’s what ‘funny’ means. Being funny is to question why we draw the line where we do. As the mock drunk comic Freddie Frinton used to say, with cigarette ash dripping from one hand: ‘Good afterbule consternoon!’.

Historians will remind us that public hangings in the UK fed our morbid desires until as late as the mid-nineteenth century, shortly before professional football became popular, and drew large crowds, riotous and raucous gatherings, in search of entertainment or just to throw fruit at the condemned or to display opposition to the authorities. Reality television with its baying audiences, disputing the wisdom of the judges, is not that new an invention, although admittedly Strictly Come Hanging is unlikely to meet current television production values.

Erikson also said, in a less well-known observation from the same article: “Today we no longer parade deviants in the town square or expose them to the carnival atmosphere of Tyburn, but it is interesting to note that the ‘reform’ which brought about this change in penal policy coincided almost precisely with the development of newspapers as media of public information. Perhaps this is no more than an accident of history, but it is nevertheless true that newspapers (and now radio and television) offer their readers the same kind of entertainment once supplied by public hangings or the use of stocks and pillories. An enormous amount of modern ‘news’ is devoted to reports about deviant behavior and its punishment: indeed the largest circulation newspaper in the United States prints very little else.” [1964: 14]

For all those of you now asking why we do this as a species, Erikson’s answer was that we fear the unknown. Interpreting his point liberally, we can see today that knowledge is power, and control, and control allays fear and gives comfort. Publically vilifying and mocking those we censure gives us a sense of control over the unknown madness of human immorality, or more prosaically that which we do not understand or want to understand.

There are a lot of unknowns in our world, or invisible things we barely understand, such as the nature of spirits, good and bad, the reason for our existence, what unifies us as a species, family relationships, sex, death, and the meaning of life itself. So, we draw some lines on the blank map and create likes and dislikes: we may not know anything much but we do know what we like. So, it’s a ‘boo’ for the pantomime villain who’s darkly creeping up ‘behind you’. It’s all really a stab in the dark, so to speak. We go with our instincts and say this thing creates a good spirit and this one has bad spirits. Then, today, we rationalize it.

These instincts are coloured by what works. As a Bemba lady said to me in Zambia in 1982, through the translation of Jean Calmettes, a friend and fondly remembered French Catholic priest, in answer to my question as to whether she preferred African medicine or European: “the African [we say witch] doctor rubs twigs on women’s arms and some get pregnant, some others got pregnant after taking fertility drugs, so I use both“. And that’s the truth: we use whatever we can to try to control our ‘luck’.

Getting a result guides our thinking. We can give form to our fears and prejudices by looking at coincidences, convergences and feelings prior to that which works. So if someone does something bad we work backwards and believe that they had ‘bad spirits’ inside them causing the bad thing, hence the savagery of witch murders today [see ‘Witchcraft murder‘].

We cannot abide not knowing or understanding why bad things happen. We see danger in this dark unknown, and call it evil, or bad spirits, or a modern equivalent such as weirdness, deviance or crime. We used to think the badness resided in the body so we burnt the body, cut bits off or simply ripped it to pieces. Then we decided the bad spirits were in the mind and invented psychoanalysis, psychology and psychiatry. That gave us ‘deviants’ and ‘the criminal mind’. As Erikson said: “Traditonal folklore depicting demons, devils, witches and evil spirits may be one way to give form to these otherwise formless dangers, but the visible deviant is another kind of reminder” [1964: 15]

Unfortunately for the human species, the Life of Brian was all too accurate. So often we find a sandal and cry ‘it’s the Messiah!’, and all too often we also see what might be a mole on someone’s face and conclude that they are marked by the devil, leading us to stammer, look away and repeat the word ‘m…m.. mole, m…mm…mole’ endlessly, as in the Austin Powers film.

The mole with a mole

Talk about crime is a never-ending and futile witter to try to foreclose on our fears. But it ain’t gonna happen. As soon as we squeeze those fears into Pandora’s box, someone immediately objects. Criminology is not a science just a scientific way of talking about crime. It is but one attempt to put fear back into its box.

Of course, if it is your son or daughter that is murdered, or your property that is taken from you, your dignity and reputation that is destroyed, you want the culprit to be brought to the scaffold of justice. Well, in practice, your pain will be eased by bringing anyone to the scaffold, as long as you don’t know they are innocent – the last thing you want is for the box to be re-opened and told ‘we don’t know’. That’s why, I imagine, the media tends towards the punitive; it makes people feel better to close the box.

It’s probably also why the speeding ticket system is accepted by so many despite its objectionable selectiveness and sneakiness: at least some guilty parties are fined – it gestures at the fact that we all know a line should be drawn somewhere even though some of us hate the way that they do it, parking their police cars at the bottom of steep hills on empty roads, and disagree with their levels, enforcing 80 on a safe 70 mph motorway but not 40 in a 30 mph residential area.

Moral recycling is needed continuously, along with a sense of humour, so let us put media, police and politics into the mixer and ask the next obvious question: if media deployment of crime, deviance and dirt is just a modern form of censure and closure, do we have to tolerate the excesses they get up to?

This is where the argument goes crucially astray so often because the media will answer for you ‘yes, excess is inevitable’ and so we should protect freedom of speech instead and maintain self-regulation. When in fact, if my logic so far has been good, the correct answer is ‘no’ – for the simple reason that we always need to draw lines on the moral unknown to stop it becoming dangerous and that applies to media excess too. By definition, there must always be an excess in everything which needs censure. Drawing the line and putting the excess away into the box is how we protect ourselves from the dangers we do know about, and defer the arrival of those we fear.

Sumner, C.S. [1981] Crime, Justice and the Mass Media. 14th Cropwood Conference. University of Cambridge, Institute of Criminology.

Colin Sumner is the editor of Crime Talk and a former Professor of Criminology and Head/Dean of the School of Law, University of East London.  Part One of this post appeared on Inforrm on 3 March 2012 and Part Two was published on 14 March 2012.

This post originally appeared on Crime Talk and is reproduced with permission and thanks.