By Paul Mason
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Additional resources for Criminal Visions : Media Representations of Crime and Justice
The characterization of offenders in newspaper stories also largely follows Surette’s ‘law of opposites’. All official statistics about offenders suffer from a major problem: the perpetrators of the overwhelming majority of offences are never identified. Less than 3 per cent of offences result in a conviction or caution (Barclay and Tavares, 1999: 29), so those who are officially labelled as offenders are a small, almost certainly unrepresentative sample of those who commit crimes. There is a similar ‘dark figure’ in relation to the data about newspaper stories about crime: many give no or only rudimentary information about perpetrators.
Who are the victims? Victims have become increasingly prominent in newspaper crime stories. In the period 1945–64 the 112 Mirror crime stories we analysed gave details of 86 victims, but in 1981–91 the sample of 140 stories yielded accounts of 171 victims. In The Times the corresponding figures were 59 victims in 99 stories in 1945–64, and 56 in 63 stories in 1981–91. Whereas in the earlier period it was common for crime stories (most of which were about crimes against the person) to contain no account at all of the victims’ characteristics, by the 1980s this was rare, and indeed in the Mirror in particular there were frequently portrayals of several victims in each story.
But this was the most prominent of several crime stories. It concerned a disabled woman who had branded another woman with whom her husband had ‘associated’ while his wife was in hospital. The story highlights the judge’s comments while sentencing her to three years for the ‘savage’ offence. His emphasis is not so much on the brutality of her attack per se as that she took ‘the law into her own hands’ and used a punishment – branding – that ‘our laws’ now regarded as ‘too revolting to the civilised mind to be inflicted for any offence whatsoever’.