FEAR AND FASCINATION

12 August 2010 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The vulnerability of rural areas to crime is a subject of intermittent and often quite impassioned debate in this country. Incidents in which countryside farms and residences are targeted for the purpose of robbery, occasionally resulting in the occupants being subjected to violence or terrified by the threat of it, although quite infrequent, occur from time to time and evoke strong feelings in the public.

They also carry with them a legacy of fear and unease for those living in isolated areas, to the extent that the question is asked whether the publicity and attention generated by these incidents is proportionate to the rate of their occurrence. The argument is sometimes made that more harm than good is done by highlighting the issue – people are left experiencing a level of fear that is far in excess of the level of threat to which they are exposed.

But fear and fascination go hand in hand in any debate about crime, especially attacks of the sort perpetrated on an elderly Cork farmer recently which promoted the Chairman of the Irish Farmers Association’s Countryside body, Eddie Downey, to call for more severe legal punishments for those convicted of such “despicable and cowardly” offences, and for more visible Garda policing of rural areas.

Statistical studies have shown that fear of crime is often highest among those whose vulnerability to it is relatively small. Older people, especially those living alone, may harbour a dread of being the victim of incidents they read about in the newspapers or see on television, while living lifestyles that in many respects minimises their exposure to crime. By contrast young people in their teens and twenties entertain little sense of themselves as potential victims even though they habitually in their social lives move through environments where crime is more likely to occur.

But if risk of crime is variable, public preoccupation with it is ubiquitous. Newspapers, television and cinema entertainment, and the shelves of libraries and bookstores are replete with it, testifying to an insatiable public appetite for an increasingly forensic amount of detail about the deeds and motivations of not only the criminal in fictional guise but also his real-life counterpart.

The purveyors of such material can usually refute criticisms of its emphasis or content by reference to the dictates of public demand. The fidelity to accuracy and dispassionate objectivity expected of the news media, however, does not entitle it to cite the predilections of public appetite as comfortably. The media in its various guises are often criticised for indulging in a prurient attitude towards the reporting of crime and of contributing to public hysteria. These accusations can be made adhere to some sections of the media more readily than others, but their prevalence sometimes contributes to a hostility and distrust that makes the job of responsible journalists operating in this area at times extremely difficult.

It is to the public good that the press reports upon both crime and its punishment freely and openly. It would be damaging to society to create an environment where this freedom was restricted, or an atmosphere cultivated where newspapers and other media exercised self-censoring curbs to conform to arbitrary notions of decorum or probity. The press in its turn, in enjoying its freedoms, has an obligation to strive for accuracy and context above sensationalism.

A fascinating example of the difficulties and temptations that the media are confronted with in the reporting of crime was supplied by the recent case of Raoul Thomas Moat, the gunman who was the subject of an intensive police manhunt in England in July before taking his own life while the police attempted to negotiate his surrender. The conduct of the police operation was subjected to the most exacting media scrutiny, particularly by the various 24-hour news channels, while it was in progress, and every aspect of the story was placed under a microscope of analysis and speculation right up to the moment of its tragic denouement. Undoubtedly the media stoked an atmosphere of fear throughout the area where the gunman was at large, and media activities placed impediments in the way of a complex and sensitive policing operation. But public safety demanded a flow of accurate and constantly updated information, and the police also relied upon the media as a conduit in its search for information from the public.

How these competing demands were balanced in this instance offers a fascinating case study, which media academics will no doubt ponder over long after the Raoul Moat case has faded from the public mind. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of all was how the gunman, in the course of the manhunt and in its aftermath, was held up by some sections of the public as a tragic, Robin Hood-type figure. No matter how wittingly or unwittingly complicit media attention may have been in cultivating this image, its persistence conveys one great and sobering truth about public fascination with crime that all those involved in its reporting should ponder at some length. We are all susceptible to attaching the romantic clothes of fiction villainy to the disreputable perpetrators of real-life crime, and it has now become quite common for the media to pander to this quirk of public taste by perversely lionising figures of the modern criminal underworld by depicting them in terms culled from Mafia movies or the pages of the more lurid crime fiction. The prevalence of the practice does not mitigate its unpalatable nature, and it does a great and injurious disservice to the many people who have fallen innocent victim to the activities of what are evil and in no way admirable people.

All the statistical reassurance we can muster regarding the fear or crime, and the body of speculation on the sources of its fascination, becomes irrelevant when we or someone close to us falls victim to it. Any incidence of rural robbery or violence that occurs is justification for the calls made by Mr Downey and others for severe sanctions for the culprits and the devotion of greater Garda manpower to the policing of the countryside.

This newspaper has consistently argued that the changes in the deployment of Garda personnel in recent times that have seen many rural Garda Stations close and the service available at others curtailed is an adverse development, which fosters a sense of insecurity across a large section of our circulation area. We must, however, readily acknowledge that the efficacy of preventive and investigative policing in the county patently acts as a deterrent towards criminal gangs targeting areas of rural Co Monaghan for their activities.

And our countryside is, objectively, a much safer place to live than it perhaps was twenty years ago. People are more conscious of personal security measures they can take, and there is no shortage of commercial operators in this area to accommodate their requirements. Initiatives such as community alert groups have proved effective as a source of reassurance, and the long-cherished network of rural neighbourliness is still vibrant in many parts and has become enhanced by the consciousness of the need to be vigilant against criminal activity.

If fear of it is something that we should strive to keep within reasonable parameters, we are right to be concerned about rural crime. A greater Garda presence in our countryside communities would not, we feel, be an unreasonable response to those concerns.

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