Fear grows while real danger diminishes

CONTRARY to what seems to be popular opinion, journalism is in my experience a mostly honourable profession. Occasionally, however, the antics of some of my fellow tabloid hacks make me want to hang my head in shame.

journalism is in my experience a mostly honourable profession. Mostly. Occasionally, however, the antics of some of my fellow tabloid hacks make me want to hang my head in shame.

One national newspaper yesterday carried the headline: "A nation stalked by fear".

Was this nation Iraq? Liberia? The Philippines? It was not. It was this very land we live in.

The paper solemnly reported: "Britain is living in fear as crime soars across the nation...

"Official figures showed that rapes and street violence were rocketing. Police numbers disclosed that violent crime leapt 22 per cent last year."

It does sound frightening, doesn't it?

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But hang on a minute. If you read the official Home Office report properly, it makes quite clear that this "leap" in the chart was caused not by rising crime, but by a new system for recording it.

The underlying truth is that crime in Britain actually FELL by three per cent last year.

Another survey, published at the same time, reveals that an individual's risk of being a victim of crime is actually the lowest it has ever been.

So is this really a nation stalked by fear?

Well, yes, perhaps it is. Not by a reasonable wariness of actual crime, but by an exaggerated, hysterical fear that bears no relation to the facts.

It appears we have become a nation of xenophobes quivering behind our locked doors – scared of crime, scared of asylum-seekers, scared of strangers, scared of our neighbours.

Because we no longer know our neighbours. Just like us, they spend their day moving between a locked home, a locked car and a security-barred office or school. And they, no doubt, are scared of us too.

Anyone we don't know personally is now the mysterious "Them" – and we no longer know as many people personally as we did.

Kids no longer run off to play in the streets and fields, their exact whereabouts unknown to their parents for hours, as we did. Not because there are more dangers out there, but because we think there are.

If anything, this actually makes our kids more vulnerable, because there is no longer the safety in numbers that there used to be. And an adult will be less keen to go to a child's aid – because merely talking to a child in the street can get you branded a pervert.

The reasons for this insidious social change are many and complex. They include TV, computer games and – perhaps paradoxically – a general increase in wealth.

But there is a major factor which makes me, as a journalist, especially uneasy.

Here is another snippet from the British Crime Survey: 43pc of readers of national tabloids think the crime rate has increased "a lot", compared with 26pc of broadsheet readers.

A whole series of figures show readers of the red-top press are much more likely to be "very worried" about their chances of being a victim of crime than those who read more sober papers.

This may of course be partly because people who read certain papers are more likely to live in areas where crime is higher.

But I'm certain it also has a lot to do with what their papers tell them.

Stories about rape, murder and mayhem sell. Read enough of them and you could be forgiven for thinking such things are much more commonplace than they really are.

And, of course, "A nation stalked by fear" is a far sexier headline than "Real crime rate falls slightly".

It's a debate we have constantly at the Star. So yes, we will report the rapes and murders. But we are also honest enough to tell you that our town and our county are among the safest – and actually getting safer.

MOST of us do it, it's pleasurable and harmless – and for reasons I really don't understand I can't mention it in a family paper.

If I say you do it, you'll take it as a deep insult – though I'm quite sure you do.

They used to tell you it makes you go blind (it doesn't). Now the news is it's actually good for you (it fends off prostate cancer – hooray!)

By now you all know what I'm talking about, but I still can't mention it by any of its names. And I expect Outraged of Orford will write me an angry letter just for getting this close. How daft is that?

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