Newspaper watch: Press frenzy on 'crime crisis'

  • 20 December 2006
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The media responded in a thoroughly considered and responsible manner to the recent spate of gangland shootings. Crime risks were soberly put in context; the causes of crime were analysed in detail; public prejudices and shaky assumptions were put under the microscope; proposed solutions were rigorously examined and assessed using comparative evidence from other administrations; the long history of jurisprudence was set out before the public with clear and concise explanations of the problems of assessing evidence as they have been developed over the centuries in which common law principles were worked out.

Actually that didn't happen.  Instead, most of the media went into a frenzy about the “crime crisis”. The crime correspondants told us lurid tales about the killers, based on leaks from “security sources”, although none of them managed to explain why the killers have not been arrested when their identities are apparently known to the Sunday World.

Fear sells and there's little that's more frightening than the prospect of being executed by a professional hitman. However, in reality, being shot dead remains a relatively small risk, dwarfed by the risk of dying in a car-crash, or from smoking, or from being overweight. The prominence given to lurid reports of crime only serves to magnify the risk in the public mind, causing unwarranted anxiety and public fear and paving the way for attacks on civil liberties.

In fact, not only do the newspapers pave the way for attacks on the public's liberties, in many cases they actively demand such attacks. Within 24 hours of the double murder of Martin Hyland and Anthony Campbell, the Independent had claimed that 23 of the 24 associates of Hyland had been on bail at the time of the murder. This claim, denuded of any context, was taken up by the rest of the media to demand stiffer measures, denials of bail and lower standards of evidence for ‘gangland' suspects. The minister for justice used these calls to opportunistically turn on the judiciary, painting them as being excessively reluctant to deny bail and unwilling to apply mandatory sentences.

Such knee-jerk reactions are, however, only likely to make life more dangerous for innocent people. The long experience of the “war on drugs” in the United States shows very clearly that it is not a war that can be won through security measures. As long as there is demand for drugs, people will try to make money from selling them and as long as they remain illegal, these people will settle their disputes in the old-fashioned manner. All the repressive proposals demanded by media commentators have been tried elsewhere and have singularly failed to affect the drugs market or the violence that is always associated with markets in illegal commodities. Laws of evidence and due process exist because, without them, experience has shown that innocent people get locked up. If a garda's word was sufficent for a serious conviction, the McBreartys would probably be rotting in jail today and that's a pretty unpleasant prospect for innocent people too.π