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After the BBC upheld our complaint about their misreporting of crime trends on BBC1 News, we looked at BBC News Online, and found a pattern of misreporting, which we describe on this page.
The following BBC headlines cover the official crime figures (published quarterly) between 2004 and 2006:
"Violent crime figures rise
by 12%" (22/7/04)
"Gun crime figures show fresh rise" (21/10/04)
"'Violent crime increases by 6%'" (25/1/05)
"Violent crime 'rise' sparks row" (21/4/05)
"Violent offences top million mark" (21/7/05)
"Violent crime shows 6% increase" (20/10/05)
"Violent crime and robbery on rise" (26/1/06)
"Robberies up 6% but crime stable" (27/4/06)
"Phones and MP3s fuel robbery rise" (20/7/06)
Reasonable people might assume these headlines reflect the trends highlighted in the official figures. They might also assume that violent crime has indeed been rising.
Both assumptions would be mistaken. The BBC headlines ignore the main trends (falls or no change in most areas of crime) and instead "cherry-pick" areas of crime which appear to have risen (but which on closer inspection are mostly shown not to have risen).
Violent crime has fallen since 1995 the official figures are clear on this. Recent "rises" in recorded violent crime have more to do with changes to recording practices than to real "rises" (see Footnote 1). The quarterly Home Office Statistical Bulletins (which contains the official crime figures a combination of police records and the British Crime Survey) make this clear. (See Footnote 2).
We illustrate, below, the pattern of misleading "cherry-picking" BBC headlines by comparing them with highlighted "summary" or "main points" in the Home Office Statistical Bulletins...
BBC headline: "Violent crime figures rise by 12%"
Home Office Statistical Bulletin (HOSB): "The number of violent incidents has fallen by 36 per cent since a peak in 1995". Between 2002/03 and 2003/04, the British Crime Survey (BCS) found "violent crime to be stable" (ie no rise).
HOSB: "There was an increase of 12% in violent crimes (i.e. violence against the person, sexual offences and robberies) recorded by the police since 2002/03 though much of the increase is likely to be due to the continuing impact of changes in recording." (See Footnotes 1 & 2)
BBC headline: "Gun crime figures show fresh rise"
HOSB: "significant falls in vehicle thefts, all household crime and all personal crime".
HOSB: "an increase of 310 [firearms] offences or three per cent compared to the year ending June 2003." (The yearly number of fatalities from firearms fell from 82 to 70 see Footnote 3).
BBC headline: "'Violent crime increases by 6%'"
HOSB: "The risk of being a victim of crime, at 25 per cent, is the lowest recorded by the BCS since it began in 1981."
HOSB: "The number of domestic burglaries and vehicle thefts recorded by the police fell by 23 per cent and 17 per cent respectively."
HOSB: "There was a seven per cent increase in crimes of violence against the person [...] but these increases in recorded violence appear to reflect continuing effects of improved police recording of crime."
BBC headline: "Violent crime 'rise' sparks row"
HOSB: "statistically significant falls in domestic burglary, vehicle thefts, all household crime and all personal crime".
HOSB: "The number of crimes recorded by the police fell by five per cent [...] The figures show a ten per cent increase in violence against the person but increases in recorded violence continue to reflect the improved police recording of crime."
BBC headline: "Violent offences top million mark"
HOSB: "Overall crime has fallen by seven per cent according to the BCS. There has also been a fall of six per cent in the number of crimes recorded by the police".
HOSB: "The risk of being a victim of either burglary or vehicle-related theft has halved since 1995 and is much reduced for other property crimes."
HOSB: "Violent crime has decreased by 11 per cent according to BCS interviews in 2004/05 compared with 2003/04."
HOSB: "There were 1,184,702 violent crimes recorded by the police in 2004/05, an increase of seven per cent since 2003/04."
HOSB: "The British Crime Survey (BCS) is considered the more reliable measure of overall violent crime. Police recorded crime is susceptible to recording changes, especially non-serious violent offences which form a large proportion of overall violent crime."
BBC headline: "Violent crime shows 6% increase"
HOSB: "The number of domestic burglaries and vehicle thefts recorded by the police fell by 11 per cent and 8 per cent respectively."
HOSB: "The number of crimes recorded
by the police fell by two per cent [...] Within this total there was a six per
in violence against the person but increases in recorded violence continue to reflect the improved police recording of crime and more proactive policing of violence problems."
BBC headline: "Violent crime and robbery on rise"
HOSB: The BCS found "violent crime to be stable [ie no rise] compared with the previous year".
No "main points" in the January 2006 HOSB mention a rise in violent crime or robbery. However, the bulletin provides details of changes in recorded crime which show that while there were falls in serious violence, violence involving no injury, sexual offences, burglary, vehicle theft, other theft and criminal damage, there were rises in robbery and violence involving non-serious injury.
BBC headline: "Robberies up 6% but crime stable"
HOSB: "The number of crimes recorded by the police remained stable". Recorded violent crime "remained broadly stable". There was a 3% decrease in firearms offences. (Note that in October 2004, a 3% increase was enough to generate the headline: "Gun crime figures show fresh rise").
No "main points" in the April 2006 HOSB mention the 6% rise in robbery, although it is mentioned briefly in the further detail, along with a 12% fall in serious violence.
BBC headline: "Phones and MP3s fuel robbery rise"
HOSB: "The British Crime Survey (BCS) shows that crime is stabilising after long periods of reduction. Police recorded crime shows a one per cent reduction in the number of crimes".
HOSB: "Violent crime as measured by the BCS has fallen by 43 per cent since a peak in 1995."
HOSB: "There were 765 homicides in 2005/06, a decrease of 12 per cent from the previous year. The homicide figure of 765 includes 52 homicide victims of the 7 July London bombings."
HOSB: "Police recorded robbery increased by eight per cent between 2004/05 and 2005/06. This is still 19 per cent below the 2001/02 peak in robbery."
In the past when we've notified BBC reporters about misleading crime reports, they've responded by pointing to the "complexity" of the crime figures. There are complexities, but the authors of the official crime bulletins have gone out of their way to simplify and clarify with bullet points and clear graphs (see examples on non-print version of this article link below). You don't need to be an expert to understand the crime figures.
All of the BBC News Online headlines from July 2004 to July 2006 (reporting on the quarterly publication of the official crime figures) cherry-picked "rises" in crime. Not one mentioned the consistent and significant falls in crime highlighted by the official crime bulletins. In most cases the "rises" reported in the BBC headlines were not real rises at all, but statistical anomalies caused by fundamental changes in crime recording practices. This was always made clear in the official crime bulletins usually in the front page "Main points" section, or the "Summary" section.
Some of the BBC Online articles do briefly refer to caveats concerning the violent crime "rises". But this is always further down in the text it doesn't mitigate the impression created by the headlines (and first paragraphs). Furthermore, the misleading impression of "rises" in violent crime is reinforced by a summary of links on some of the above BBC pages, which reads as follows:
"FROM THE ARCHIVE
2005: Violent offences up 7%
2004: Violent crime rises 12%
2003: Crime fight 'being lost'
2002: Street robberies soar
2001: Violent crime on the rise
2000: Big rise in violent crime"
1. Changes to recording practices have inflated the figures for violent crime, especially with minor offences. Certain "yobbish" behaviours (eg minor scuffles) have been reclassified as crime; a violent crime with many victims is no longer recorded as a single crime an incident with 3 victims is now recorded as 3 crimes; a higher proportion of violent crime is recorded eg the proportion of common assaults (without injury) recorded rose from around 50% to 68% between 2002 and 2003. (Sources: Guardian, 22/4/05, Panorama BBC1, 17/4/05, quoting: Home Office, Association of Chief Police Officers, British Crime Survey)
2. "The British Crime Survey (BCS) is considered the more reliable measure of violent crime. Police recorded violent crime has been inflated over the last few years by changes in recording practices (particularly marked since the introduction of the National Crime Recording Standard in April 2002), increased reporting by the public and increased police activity." (Home Office Statistical Bulletin on crime, section 5.1, July 2006. See also: 5.2 BRITISH CRIME SURVEY AND POLICE MEASURES OF VIOLENT CRIME in same document)
3. Home Office Statistical Bulletin: Crime in England and Wales, Quarterly Update, 21 October 2004. Firearm Offences, table 2, p6: 82 fatal injuries in year ending June 2003; 70 in year ending June 2004.
Links to the BBC pages and Home Office crime bulletins described above can be found in the non-print version of this article: www.anxietyculture.com/crimeheadlines.htm