Postmodernists highlight the superficial nature of contemporary society, which is viewed as having little depth any more. As a consequence, they argue, this puts the mass media in an even stronger position to ‘construct’ reality (at least in our heads). Therefore, postmodernists are increasingly researching how the media are in an increasingly powerful position to shape and construct meanings about crime.
This introduction unpacks ideas about postmodernism, society and how the media’s ability to shape ideas about crime is getting stronger.
Adopting the ideas of Geoffrey Pearson, postmodernism starts with the premise that people have a powerful combination of fear and fascination with relation to crime. As Left realism showed, people have real fears about crime, yet Pearson points out how we are at the same time fascinated with crime, as evidenced by crime sections in bookshops and libraries and programmes like CSI on television. It could be argued that Crimewatch is a postmodern construction generating both fear and fascination from the content.
The ideas of Pearson are explored here and related to media coverage. The examiners would credit the contribution on Left realism.
Kooistra and Mahoney see the bulk of media coverage of crime as ‘intertextual’. This has overlaps with postmodernist Jean Baudrillard’s concept of ‘simulacra’, implying that the media are increasingly blurring reality and fiction — even the reporting of crime. It is claimed that all the media, including the BBC, are ‘dumbing down’ and presenting crime news in a way that panders to the lowest common denominator. It is argued that competition for audience numbers has driven this trend with the outcome of crime reporting becoming a mixture of entertainment and sensationalism, what Postman refers to as ‘infotainment’.
A lot of important concepts and terms are discussed in this paragraph. The implication is that an increasingly competitive media will portray crime in an increasingly superficial way.
Kidd-Hewitt and Osborne make the point that the postmodern media are particularly prone to constructing crime events as a ‘spectacle’. They argue that media (and their audience whom a commercial medium has to reflect) like nothing more than a major crime event, preferably with good pictures, such as murders, people kept hostage, stabbings and shootings etc. that they can turn into a spectacle.
The idea of spectacle is an important one here. It reflects the standard criticism of the postmodern values of image and style over substance.
Kidd-Hewitt and Osborne go on to argue how these spectacles are engaging, partly because of the ‘fear factor’ but also how news-production teams often mimic Hollywood movies. With events like ‘9/11’ and the London tube and bus bombings, audiences become both repelled by such spectacles but drawn in through fascination at the same time.
Here the media are being accused of generating an image of society that bears no relation to reality, adding to the fears people have, especially about the extent of violent crime.
Postmodern analysis of crime coverage in the media has identified how criminal activities have become a form of entertainment. This does not just apply to fictional police programmes; real-life crime is now repackaged with programmes like Police Camera Action. Real-life events on the streets attract audiences, presumably seeking vicarious pleasure from incidents such as car thefts and violent and dangerous driving.
The turning of real-life crime into entertainment is an interesting postmodern phenomenon.
In conclusion, it would seem that a postmodernist analysis of the media’s coverage of crime raises some interesting questions, with crime increasingly portrayed as a spectacle or a source of entertainment. It is argued that media competition for audiences is driving this ‘dumbing down’ of reporting, with an increasingly superficial audience demanding to be entertained, even when serious events like crime are involved.
This final concluding paragraph sums up the key ideas outlined above.
Topic 4 Crime control, prevention and punishment
Criminal justice system and other agencies
1 The criminal justice system is a comprehensive term that encompasses all the agencies of law and order. These include the police, the courts, prisons, the probation service and the Crown Prosecution Service. The Home Office and Ministry of Justice oversees all these agencies.
2 This is closely related to Right realism’s ‘rational choice theory’ and is based on the premise that crime will be deterred when the costs are raised and the benefits reduced. The emphasis here is not so much increasing costs through tougher punishment as making it harder to commit crimes in the first place.
3 Target hardening is closely linked to situational crime prevention and refers to initiatives that involve targeting areas or groups that are seen as prone to criminal activity. Measures might include extra policing, CCTV cameras, improved lighting etc. to reduce the opportunities to commit crime.
4 It is argued that such policies simply result in ‘crime displacement’. That is, crime is reduced in one area but criminals simply move into neighbouring areas. An example of this was King’s Cross in London, which was successfully targeted, but crime rose in adjoining areas.
5 Wilson and Kelling’s broken-window thesis supports the idea of clamping down on incivilities. It is argued that removing low levels of anti-social behaviour helps to prevent more serious crimes occurring. The introduction of ASBOs by New Labour was another tool in the fight against anti-social behaviour, as were alcohol-free zones and curfews. However, critics argue that such policies have had only a limited effect in reducing anti-social behaviour, which is still a significant problem in some areas.
6 The term ‘actuarialism’ derives from the insurance industry and describes the practice of identifying groups most at risk of offending and concentrating resources on those groups. This results in the police targeting working-class and ethnic-minority areas, which they perceive to be where criminals are concentrated. Marxists argue this simply makes white-collar and corporate crime even easier to commit as such activities are ‘below the radar’ of mainstream policing.
7 Consensual policing applies to the type of policing that is centred on the community. Such a view of policing is somewhat rose-tinted. The police are portrayed as on the side of the community and representing the interests of the law-abiding population. Police officers are not portrayed as different, but part of the community they are drawn from. They are supported by the population, and are seen to share their common-sense values. If a police officer is caught doing something wrong, then the community is rightfully shocked and in favour of severe punishment for abusing their position of trust.
The conflict approach is very different and supported by Marxists. They portray the police in terms of ‘them and us’ and some, such as Scraton, go as far as to refer to them as an occupying force over the working class and ethnic minorities. Rather than reflecting consensus values and the community, those adhering to the conflict view see the police as reflecting the interests of the rich and powerful. The policing of working-class areas is therefore all about social control and the imposition of law and order. The police are also perceived as targeting certain groups, such as young black males, who are more likely to be arrested, charged and prosecuted than other groups.
8 Discretion refers to the police practice of not necessarily enforcing every law but using their judgement about whether to arrest or simply warn individuals. Clearly every individual police officer has certain values and prejudices, which may mean they treat people differently according to their class, gender, age, ethnicity or sexuality. Attitudes can become reinforced in the police force through their shared norms and values with regard to certain groups. This culture is known as the ‘canteen culture’. Marxists would argue that the working class and ethnic minorities are targeted, while a blind eye is turned to the misdemeanours of the middle and upper classes.