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Review essay: David Wilson's Looking for Laura: Public Criminology and Hot News

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David Wilson Looking for Laura: Public Criminology and Hot News. 2011. Sherfield-on-Loddon: Waterside Press. xxiv and 224 pp. Foreword by Donal MacIntyre. P/b £22.95 with free delivery in the UK.


Looking for Laura is a vivid testimony to David Wilson’s huge and bold contribution to the creation of a ‘public criminology’, a term that will be the focus of this review. The book’s subtitle is ‘public criminology and hot news’. It contains plenty of interesting stories of David’s investigations into prisons, serial killers, policing, the internet, shootings, profiling and psychology and the presentation of this work in mass media formats.


It is a book I should review despite the fact that David is a friend, a referee of mine, and even a former player in my incredible, or, more accurately, scarcely credible, cricket team in Cambridge 1983-91, The Old Spring CC, named after a sponsoring pub and not an indicator of mid-life crisis. That team had quality, playing frequently against good club-level, some county-level players and even the occasional international, and playing over 40 games a season. Composed of an unholy mix of robust builders, a stubborn driving instructor, the serially unemployed and unemployable, an accountant, an architect, a top businessman, all sorts of Cambridge postgrads, a delicate literary critic, historians of varying calibre, the occasional affluent gadfly of uncertain origin, abode or purpose, visiting scholars of high cricketing ability, actors of note, and a star all-rounder, a sociologist who captained the side like the great Mike Brearley, relentlessly to one moral victory after another, and even to win a few games. Distinguished alumni include Professor Peter Swaab [English UCL], the actor Jonathan Cake [Mosley and Desperate Housewives), Judge Dennis Davis [Cape Town High Court], Dr Tom Morris [Artistic Director, Bristol Old Vic], and our very own Boycott, Professor John Pratt [Criminology, Wellington]. The list of the undistinguished is too long to mention, but I believe the young David Wilson managed 4 or 5 ducks in 6 innings, as the scorebooks will show. However, rugby was really his forte and once he had played for HM Prison Service, scoring many tries, his career as a prison governor was assured. This is not to mention that I met David when he was doing his doctorate in history in Cambridge, American Civil War if I remember correctly.


The point is not nostalgia for great times but that David was always a man of the people whereas too many criminologists are monads talking to themselves. The book is named after the search for one Laura Stainforth, a 15-year old from Cleethorpes who ran off one day with a 49-year-old. David’s introduction addresses the interface between crime, the public and the media. He had for some years “deliberately and consciously adopted a strategy whereby I talk to the print and broadcast media” [p.xv], unlike those of us who have tended to avoid the media, at least after our initial experiences with them. But wait, before going any further, let us note that David is talking about newspapers and television mainly, and that at Birmingham City U, as he tells us, he only teaches on Thursdays. He made the time.


In my view, we should not talk of public criminology as if the term ‘mass media’ excluded higher education and our students. Students are merely members of the public who fell under our influence! From experience, I know that David is great with students, clearly seeing them as public, and my Irish students love him after his visit in 2014 and 'the session' afterwards. But I think we should understand media to include education and remember that when considering public criminology many of us redeem our sins by teaching long hours and many students. Many of us already are public criminologists in that we are devoted teachers, and in a certain way: we not only give students detailed attention but we talk to them as members of the public, not as our children, and we try to reduce the amount of technical jargon in our speech. Indeed we admit growing numbers of ‘mature’ students. Criminology teachers are in many ways producing that public, one with civic awareness, as well as the criminology of the future.


Because crime is at its historic core a public matter, criminology must be taught in a public way to a diverse public. It should never retreat into a reclusive technocratic cave, sitting alone playing with its dependent variables. Nor should it ever become a private toy, especially not for the rich and powerful. The whole point of crime, criminalisation and criminology is that it is there to protect the res publica, the state, that repository of the public interest in the name of the people. It therefore cannot be privatised inside a web of impenetrable technical language or aloof and cloistered distanciation from the mass media. It is tempting. After all, how easy is it to fit years of research and thinking into a 5-second soundbyte? And why should we? Journalists never offer money, and they are pushed to claim that our collaboration is always in the interest of the public and never media profitability or convenience. Moreover, our statements get badly rewritten, distorted and scrunched. We are not even in the same game as them - they are in the 1-minute game, we are the long firm. Their product is only intended to be like baked beans, as one senior journalist once told me: in one end, easily and fast, out the other soon after, often with wind but few lasting effects either way.


Jake Arnott used some of my stuff in his novel The Long Firm. So maybe we are in the same game. I could never forget that scene in Lenny’s Tale, episode 4 in the BBC serialization, where the radical-liberal sociologist, who has taught the psychopathic, working-class, homosexual gangster, Harry, for two years in prison and given him his new manuscript on the sociology of deviance to read over. Harry, played by that great actor Mark Strong, measures his words like a surgeon, before delivering the damning verdict that the text needed a lot more Foucault and was old hat, shallow. He tells Lenny that deviancy theory is dead. He says he is a homosexual not gay, because he likes his boys turned out nice..... Critical sociology indeed, but with better acting....


David Wilson, quite rightly, wants criminologists to take seriously that which the public wishes to discuss, “to inject some reason into what is understood about crime and punishment” [p.xvi]. His comments on Loader and Sparks’ Public Criminology are polite but telling: their language alone speaks the difference. Our Oxford and Edinburgh colleagues talk of the need for criminology to “cultivate the will and necessary tools to make sense of the place and functions of the debate around crime and punishment in contemporary culture” [quoted in bid., p.xviii]. That somewhat misses the point of course. We are not studying public criminology from an ivory-towered distance, we are doing it. Universities are not personal property, quiet estates with pleasant gardens for pedantic research, well separate from the great unwashed with all their noise and anger, their warts, farts, foibles and universal insights. Criminology needs to smell the coffee of the public’s agenda, not the government's. The public in Ireland want to talk about the crimes and misdemeanours of bankers, multinational tax evaders, property developers, priests, and the IRA; not talk of talk or some idolatry of clever acts of cultural deviance.


When launching the new BA Criminology in UCC recently, the first in Ireland, and therefore with its own distinct moral and political concerns, very different from those of that UK jurisdiction in the North, the first criminologist I invited to speak was David Wilson. David does public criminology; he does not talk about it that much. Looking for Laura is therefore an insight into his practice and concerns, with no punches pulled. It gives plenty of clues how to deal with the media, one of which is to turn down most requests for interviews, if only to avoid becoming an unpaid researcher or a “rent-a-quote” [p.xix]. It is a personal record of his dealings with mass media [p.xviii].


I would have liked David to comment in greater detail in the Introduction on the dangers of his experiment in braving the media. Yes, you get access to stuff and places you would never see otherwise, but, equally, the story gets re-framed and the agenda rarely seems to change. David consciously chooses not to talk about his impact, mainly because impact is so hard to gauge and even if you do pin it down that discovery would probably reduce the chances of it ever happening again. Fair enough, but the deeper issue is that the agenda seems permanently set, and that progress in changing that agenda is slow. Criminologists know what I mean: the punitive attitude, the fascination with murder and particularly serial killers, the fatal attraction of the detective who thinks outside the box and probably has never seen a box, or worn one, and the value of working outside the rule of law to kill the villain and do the decent thing.....


This matters to the chattering classes - because it might mean that just doing our jobs is reproducing the same rotten system daily. Maybe, and we should all have reflected on this after Marx’s comment long ago on the functionality of crime for police, law professors, judges etc, just maybe, we should stop talking about crime. Maybe, as in The Long Firm, as Harry says, the work we do should not attempt to rehabilitate, since for professionals crime is their work so how can earning a living possibly be seen as recidivism? In aiming for progress, maybe we are just doing ‘our’ work and maybe it benefits us more than the villain doing 10 years or their victims who cannot get their property or their loved ones back?


Maybe…..But there are no doubts in my mind that I prefer the system I know to  one that might involve stoning, a ducking stool, capital punishment, and a visceral brutality with no appeal. We do see progress, even from the Victorian period with its mine-owner magistrates sentencing coal-miners harshly for stealing from the pit. We do not really need more Foucault, contra gangster Harry, to delude us that criminology is just discourse in historic lineages with no social cause, or mindless gossip. We as a society actually do need to describe, explain and assess the links we see between crime and social contexts. Harry, like several real-life crooks, gets his sociology degree and wants to be understood and to understand himself. Victims and police do the same, for the same reason. We want our lives to mean something and not to disappear without a trace. We also want the unrelenting shit of violence and injustice to reduce, if not go away altogether.


Murders obviously matter, as do serial killers and paedophiles; especially if you are a victim. Children like Laura need protection; hippy-dippy liberalism is dead and certainly not one for parents. The key point that recurs throughout David Wilson’s work is that “true crime” disproportionately predates upon the poor, the vulnerable, the elderly, women, runaways, “throwaways” and kids. David’s standpoint is always that of the human victim, not so much the damage done to that abstraction ‘society’. Ultimately, he connects with that human aspect of serious crime and tough punishment that brought many of us into criminology in the first place; not the desire to justify our own social deviance. 


The opening chapter, on “Children, the Internet and the Crime Figures” is a very good example of what is attractive about this book. The stories of David’s encounters with the media are frank and endearingly to the point, but at the same time he gives us comments on the official statistics and the British Crime Survey that are incisive yet more interesting than the usual formulaic textbook critique. Combining his focus on the media reaction with a constant awareness of the perpetrator’s damage and/or threat, he is able to paint a picture with rich texture, one whose macabre nonsensicality can still make room for a smile at the futility and stupidity of our species. This is no apologia for the media nor an idealistic tale of communicative success.


Indeed, like crime itself, the reporting of crime appears banal and error-prone. David confirms something I have long thought: you can easily deter the media by asking for money, because they never seem to have any budget, despite their plush 5-star venues, or by insisting on telling the truth of your research because they are far less interested in that than keeping their market happy. The chapter also hints at the pushy aggression of journalists, the media scrum for a byte of superficial information; creating an unpopularity and even contempt that they do not seem to understand one bit.


The media’s shock and horror at its own sins during the phone-hacking scandal was a case in point. Like naughty boys, in unison they cried ‘what us? We regulate ourselves’ But should we be without them, the little rascals? The following chapter on serial killers is another good example of Wilson’s beautiful combination of analytic acuity with full engagement with the concerns of a mass public.  It discusses the role of forensic science in popular culture and the lawyers’ dubious ability to criticise that science, but his keen eye hits the fact that both academics and the public are fascinated by the stunning normality, and even banality, of many serial killers, such as Nielsen, a civil servant and former soldier and police officer. Steve Wright, “socially conservative”, one of the serial killers discussed, played golf, allegedly occasionally with the Chief Constable [p.55], after a string of failed marriages and businesses, and his killings were, says Wilson, a revenge against his culture’s failure to reward or recognise his worth.


The media’s relentless obsession with serial killers, forensic science and CSI almost conceals their insight that even serious crime can be committed by stunningly normal people, something ‘scientific’ criminology has only recently begun to accept, along with the other very contemporary revelation that apparently normal people in very establishment positions can be stunningly psychopathic and anti-social. This “hot news” may rarely have been consciously understood by the mass media but their news values tell them it sells product. As Graber’s research indicated in 1980, the mass media disproportionately report the sins of the powerful, celebs and the super-rich. True Confessions of course set the standard in the 1920’s.


So, no, maybe we do need the hacks that “hold people to account” [Rupert Murdoch, see Sumner 2012 in CrimeTalk]. The protocols of academic science may prevent us intuiting the insights a salacious and greedy media stumbles upon and holds to its bosom, like the magic key to a door it knows exists somewhere. If the commercial press were n’t there, would criminology have studied crimes of the powerful more readily? It is academic. In any case, we should neither forget that the media obsession with serial killers has little critical depth. No programme ever explores the possibility that the army is a natural port in a storm for a serial killer: why not get paid for doing what comes unnaturally? Nor do the media discuss the fact that serial killers typically target the vulnerable and powerless. Would they be portrayed differently if they preyed upon property developers and bankers? Yes, because that would be easier to explain, as rational, and some might even try to justify the acts. Yet, there is a rationality in serial killing, as Wilson argues, because that parasitic vulture the serial killer, like De Sade, is at core a mirror reflection of predatory social relations whereby the greedy, selfish, arrogant and inherited wealth brigade parasite upon the weak and poor to salve their frustrations; a bit like the current Tory government, in fact. ‘Punishing the poor’ is certainly the motto on their coat of arms (and see also Wacquant’s book of that title in 2009).


This theme is the direct target of chapter 3 on Mike Todd, former Chief Constable of Manchester who committed suicide in 2008. David Wilson retired from the prison system, as a governor, because of having to defend its “appalling culture”, and I myself, an enthusiastic teacher and recidivist intellectual, quit academia for 10 years because its culture disgusted me after 30 years enduring it. I felt uncomfortable with this chapter because I worked with Mike Todd once on a conference in East London at my request. He struck me as a gentle man, a thinker and progressive, and unusually well-educated in social science for a police officer: ‘new breed’. Nevertheless, David’s chapter is well worth reading as an acutely educated and reasoned assessment of whether the ‘cop culture’ [Reiner 2000] of pragmatism, machismo, sexism, action-orientation and social conservatism is reflected in the style and decisions of top cops. The analysis becomes especially acute with the discussion of Alison Halford’s comments on Todd’s alleged aggressive and licentious lifestyle, because Halford was passed over for promotion many times and never made Chief Constable. This leads to an engaging analysis of whether we taxpayers get value for money given the weaknesses of cop culture and their support in high places. The police, quietly backed by the media, are undoubtedly a major player in the interlocking elite that runs most countries.


Further chapters on the importance of assessing television output and movies about prisons and criminal justice as proper topics of research, on serial killers and crime reporting generally, on various famous murders and their glamorisation of crime by the media, on offender profiling, and on psychological explanations of murder demonstrate Wilson’s wit and wisdom and combine an erudite knowledge of ugly human reality with both humour and the public’s interest in it. Sometimes, the text drifts into the rambling of an obsessive but that is what we academics do, and more importantly it is this fascination with the underworld, the dark side, that drives the public’s interest in the sordid details. Crucially, the text never ceases to tell us something substantial, albeit combined with something gossipy and rivetingly tawdry, something that no academic textbook conveys.


The classic Wilson line is that the responsibility for serial killing lies within both the individual killer and the social structure that produces both him and his victims (p.165). The victims of British serial killers “have been exclusively confined to certain marginalised groups in our culture - the elderly, gay men, prostitutes, immigrants, babies and infants, and young people moving home and finding their feet elsewhere in the country”. The killers themselves he sees as social and personal failures responding homicidally to structurally endemic challenges to their status, identity and wealth. This conclusion demands much more analysis but it meets the public head on and creates an arena for further debate and research.


The media return in the final brief section where David concludes that even he does not advocate initiating engagement with the media but merely responding to their advances in ways which might bring “reason” to the “heat of the public discussion of crime and punishment (p.194). The success of his “experiment in public criminology” is left open to us readers. My view is that the mediatedness of our lives has changed so much with the internet that the terrain for debate has changed. In many ways, that field of discussion is much less public, much more private, and much more open to individual idiosyncrasy. No one reads the same stuff. Some of David’s stories are hard to know what to make of, unless you know them, having read, watched or listened, for that very reason.


Criminology as a public pursuit was always difficult. It is now more so. This is partly because of increasingly fragmented and segregated audiences, but it is partly because academic criminology is returning to being a self-referential technocratic discourse only read by those with the credentials and knowledge of ‘the code’. On the other hand, we have now educated more people in criminology at undergraduate and postgraduate levels as the public come inside our educational institutions, fascinated by what they have read or seen. Crime and punishment become their windows on the world they live in, their way of doing social science and humanities, their hope of understanding the difficulties of existence. So, maybe, after all, education has become part of the media and media part of education; and maybe education is now integral to that public sphere that debates crime and punishment. Maybe, journalists and academics are not so different in their fascinations but simply deal at different levels of patience and understanding. If so, we will always be ‘looking for Laura’.


David Wilson has worked at the coalface between higher education and mass media, and his integrity and determination have ensured they will continue to talk to each other, probably with fewer delusions and more understanding than ever before. A more criminologically educated public will, in my view, always be a gain, a sign of humanity and progress against injustice; a social basis for future wisdom. This modest book deserves much more attention and should be widely used in teaching, especially first year undergraduate criminology, to bridge the gap between emotional response and analytic sense.



Colin Sumner, Editor of CrimeTalk and Head of the School of Sociology and Philosophy, UCC, Cork, Ireland.


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