That’s it. This is open conflict.
I know that I take British tabloid journalese far too seriously, but tonight’s batch are, so to speak, MY TABLOID SPIN HELL.
Two boards outside the newsagents (what is their proper name?). Two bile-inducing headlines.
The first, in retrospect, was pretty forgivable. ‘BROKEN HEATING LEFT OAP CRITICAL’ makes sense in tabloid, if not in English. I would suggest that it was the paper that was critical; the OAP was just very ill.
The second, the Evening Standard’s, wound me up in two entirely specific and separate ways. The headline:
MADNESS: More Drivers Sent to Prison than Burglars
To start with, this is typical Standard harrumphing. It’s tabloid froth. This rag isn’t called the Metropolitan Mail for nothing. I’ll say this for the Standard, though: it knows its core market. What do City boys like even more than the Stock Market? That’s right. Driving their cars. Correspondingly, they very much don’t like getting speeding tickets, parking tickets, or being pulled over for drunken or otherwise dangerous driving.
So, because most car related crime (aside from stealing and joyriding) is basically a dangerous modification of otherwise legal behaviour, it’s easy to see ‘drivers’ as an innocent group unjustly punished.
Burglary, of course, can’t really occur by accident or omission. If you are carrying a hi-fi without permission from a stranger’s house, it’s fair to conclude that you know you’re committing a crime.
This is, I think, the intellectual basis of the Standard’s upset. Burglars are bad people who should be punished. ‘Drivers’ (or, to you and me, ‘people who have committed car-related crimes’) are essentially good people who may have done something a bit naughty, but only need a slap on the wrist and a driving skills course.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The Standard, eventually, does make a couple of very fair points about the futility (the act of criminalisation, even) of jailing people for relatively minor offences. It also says that research demonstrates that driving courses can be a much more effective corrective than prison. Oddly, there isn’t enough room in the article to identify this research. I would have said that it is the story: don’t lock them up if remedial work is cheaper, more effective, and better for the community.
Funny, though, that the Standard doesn’t seem to be in favour of rehabilitation when it comes to burglars, regardless of how well it compares against jail.
Note, please, that I’m not attempting to morally equate car-related crimes and burglary. For a start, I’m far more likely to commit the former, as I suppose most of us are. I do own and use a car, but if I have a jemmy, I certainly don’t carry it around. As I say, I’m not trying to equate the two types of criminal. I suspect the picture is far more complex than that. Many burglars are more morally culpable than those committing a car-crime, many less so. It very much depends which cases you look at, doesn’t it? The Standard does want to compare them, and thinks it knows exactly how morally culpable each group is.
Which brings me on to the second specifically annoying aspect of the headline. Remember that I said that there were two things? Right.
MADNESS: More Drivers sent to Prison than Burglars
As the article itself acknowledges, we are not looking at similar measures. Something like 10% of burglaries end in convictions. The perceived clear-up rate for motoring offences is vastly higher, because, with a few obvious exceptions, motoring crimes are logged by the police themselves, who are immediately and accurately able to identify the car involved. Hence, even in the same population, the conviction rates vastly differ, as will the raw number of crimes of each type.
With admirable bravado, the Standard tries for a grander conclusion:
“There is, however, no such thing as an undetected motoring offence as police can only record those they observe.”
In defence of the ES, here “undetected” for some reason means “not resulting in an arrest”. They are not making an existential point about trees falling in forests. All the same, this statement is patently untrue. Rapid rebuttal: hit and runs.
Anyway, the point is that the statement ‘More X are jailed than Y’ is logically and politically meaningless unless X and Y strictly ought to be treated the same. More men than women. More black people than white. More left-handed than right. Otherwise, we’re just shouting random comparisons, based only on our own peculiar bigotries:
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than murderers
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than Jeffrey Archers
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than corrupt union officials
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than memorials to Princess Diana
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than percentage house price rise in London in 2003
MADNESS: More stars than planets
Hm. I quite like that last one.