Why bad news is no news and crime is big business

November 21, 2003

Government censorship of criminal research is spreading to academe, say Steve Tombs and Dave Whyte

In 1997, after New Labour was first elected, one of Tony Blair's most trusted confidants, Lord Lipsey, said "happy days are here again" for social scientists. Now social researchers are wondering what happened to that heady promise. To satisfy its demand for what it calls "evidence-based policy", New Labour immediately increased Home Office external research spending by 500 per cent between 1998-99 and 2000-01. Most funding was for research to be done by university-based criminologists.

On the face of it, this encouraged a more open exchange of ideas between the policy and the academic communities, paving the way for a new knowledge base to tackle crime and promote justice. But this bonanza for academic criminology came with not so much strings attached as an entire orchestra, with David Blunkett as its conductor. According to an internal memo to staff in the Home Office research development and statistics unit, at Blunkett's behest, no externally funded research is to be published without ministerial approval. One researcher told us: "You can't really publish anything without political acceptance, no matter how significant your findings are. The atmosphere is becoming so harsh that young high-calibre researchers are leaving."

At the June conference of the British Society of Criminology, four papers were pulled by Home Office paymasters because of their content. None was particularly critical of the government, they simply reported mixed success in government crime initiatives. Among the authors of this censored research were some well-respected establishment names.

The move outraged the traditionally conservative BSC and prompted a summit meeting between the society and senior civil servants. Outrage was also provoked when a report, commissioned by the Home Office and written by a consortium led by UK criminologist Tim Hope, produced a critical evaluation of 20 of the Home Office's flagship burglary prevention projects; only one, they concluded, had been effective. But this report did not see the light of day. Instead, in June 2003, one year later, a glossy, four-page summary - under the authorship of a Home Office researcher, Jenny Kodz, and Ken Pease, who was formerly employed by and more recently seconded to the Home Office - gave a much more positive overview of the burglary reduction programmes. In doing so, Pease and Kodz pointedly excluded Hope and his consortium from their concluding acknowledgement. The summary report was accompanied by a celebratory Home Office press release, headed "Groundbreaking projects crack burglary". Hope was later to state that the Kodz and Pease summary was less a case of describing "what works", more a case of "pretend it works".

Close observers of the Home Office will remember that almost ten years ago, under the Conservatives, The Guardian reported that eight important in-house studies were shelved after ministerial intervention. They included a study that had found drug use to be equally prevalent among black and white young men and one that found refugees were, on average, highly educated and many had made significant economic sacrifices to escape to Britain. New Labour took this disdain for unhelpful research to a new level when, in January 2000, it censored a report prepared by the European Union on torture and degrading treatment by UK police forces. It was apparently the first of its kind to be published with passages blanked out.

Current processes of censorship are even more worrying since they attack university-based, rather than in-house, research. A clampdown is rippling through criminology. After talks with the authors of the withdrawn conference papers, BSC president Maureen Cain said: "It became clear that more general issues of freedom and integrity were involved, as well as matters concerning the career progression of our members."

The key issue is, of course, not the careers of a few academics but the way in which our knowledge of crime is being reshaped. Some of the most serious crime problems, not least those committed by companies, are ignored or under-recognised by Home Office and university research agendas. Our analysis of Home Office research over a 14-year period shows that of 571 research reports published, not one is concerned with crimes by business organisations.

This is a baffling absence. US research shows that these crimes cost almost 50 times more than street crime. In the UK, deaths caused by criminal breaches of the law at work add up to at least eight times the number of murders each year. Moreover, the Home Office is involved in plans for a new corporate killing law, yet there is no government-funded research to explore the likely effects of this reform. Finally, a growing body of independent research highlights the transnational links between legitimate businesses and organised crime. But even post-Enron, the government is not interested in such crimes, preferring instead to commission endless studies of crime mapping, mobile phone theft and playground crime.

In the Home Office's latest venture, seven-figure sums are being ploughed into the pseudo-science of "designing out crime". This has led to breakthroughs such as "crime-averse" coats with hidden pockets and "crime-free" café-bar chairs with smart hooks on which to attach our laptop bags. This, depressingly, is where Blunkett's tight grip on criminology is leading us.

In the business-friendly climate, there is little prospect of our knowledge of the causes, the impacts and the best ways to control business crimes emerging from the academic wilderness. John Wadham of Liberty warned recently that there was little difference now between cops and criminologists. This may well suit the government's strategy of marrying research to the imperatives of policy targeted on the usual suspects. But we will never produce the type of knowledge base that healthy progressive societies need when the government mantra of "evidence-based policy" is so easily translated into "policy-based evidence".

Steve Tombs is professor of sociology at Liverpool John Moores University.

Dave Whyte is lecturer in criminology at Leeds University. Their book Unmasking the Crimes of the Powerful is published this month by Peter Lang, £32.00.

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