Here in the UK, rates of violent crime have dropped. And not just tailed off, but plummeted; falling faster than in other countries in western Europe. This is according to a new report from the Institute for Economics & Peace, which details tumbling levels of homicide among other offences, and a commensurate increase in “peacefulness” being felt across the whole country.
But according to opinion polling in the UK, the majority of people actually believe something very different: that crime is rising and has continued to do so throughout recent decades.
With documented rates of violent crime falling throughout the West, why is there this continuing divergence of experience and expectation? And how do you challenge and adjust people’s perceptions of the risks in their communities?
One school of thought is that the news media is to blame. Local TV stations and regional rags seem consistently obsessed with violent crime. This may help to explain the continuing paranoia that seems to stalk – in particular – older people, many of whom fear an apparent criminal menace lurking around every street corner.
But for your average senior citizen out in the sticks, the supposed peril of urban living is likely borne of reading rabid and reactionary red-top tabloids, rather than personal experience. The particularly depressing contemporary adage of “if it bleeds, it leads” often sums up the editorial process of these titles. It is a sad fact that sales of papers soar when a grisly crime is reported in all its macabre detail.
Some populist politicians play the game, too. There are few ambitious individuals in the corridors of power who will argue that stability and satisfaction prove as electorally useful in the short-term as a good measure of unease and uncertainty. But such incidences are increasingly few and far between.
The brilliant psychology professor Steven Pinker has written extensively about these issues – stressing that people in the developed world today are less likely to experience and suffer violence than their predecessors in any other era of history. One great theme of his analysis is the profound impact that printing, popular writing and communication have had on humans’ ability to empathise with others and expand their moral sphere.
What a pity it would be if – in spite of all the statistics in reports like this from the IEP – people continued to live in unnecessary fear simply because both press and politicians need them to.
Tom Edwards is news editor for Monocle 24