A few weeks ago, Danny Rose the Tottenham and England footballer was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He indicated he couldn’t wait to quit football because of racism in the game. He’s not the only black player that has spoken out, Raheem Stirling of Manchester City and England had previously raised the issue of racism and additionally pointed to the way the media portrayed black players.
I have no idea what its like to be subjected to racist abuse, how could I, I’m a white, middle class male? I have however, lived in and was for the best part of my life brought up in, a country dominated by racism. I lived in South Africa during the apartheid regime and to some extent I suppose I suffered some racism there, being English, a rooinek (redneck) but it was in the main limited to name calling from the other kids in school and after all, I was still white. There was some form of logic in apartheid; separate development was intended to maintain the dominance of the white population. Black people were viewed as inferior and a threat, kaffirs (non-believers) even though the majority were probably more devout than their white counterparts. I understand the logic of the discourse around ‘foreigners coming into this country and taking our jobs or abusing our services’, if you are told enough times by the media that this is the case then eventually you believe. I always say to colleagues they should read the Daily Mail newspaper and the like, to be informed about what news fables many of the population are fed.
I understand that logic even though I cannot ever condone it, but I just don’t get the logic around football and racism. Take the above two players, they are the epitome of what every footballing boy or girl would dream of. They are two of the best players in England, they have to be to survive in the English Premiership. In fact, the Premiership is one of the best football leagues in the world and has a significant proportion of black players in it, many from other parts of the world. It is what makes the league so good, it is what adds to the beautiful game.
So apart from being brilliant footballers, these two players are English, as English as I am, maybe more so if they spent all of their lives in this country and represent the country at the highest level. They don’t ‘sponge’ off the state, in fact through taxes they pay more than I and probably most of us will in my lifetime. They no doubt donate lots of money to and do work for charities, there aren’t many Premiership footballers that don’t. The only thing I can say to their detriment, being an avid Hammers fan, is that they play for the wrong teams in the Premiership. I’m not able to say much more about them because I do not know them. And therein lies my problem with the logic behind the racist abuse they and many other black players receive, where is that evidence to suggest that they are not entitled to support, praise and everything else that successful people should get. The only thing that sets them aside from their white fellow players is that they have black skins.
To make sense of this I have to conclude that the only logical answer behind the racism must be jealousy and fear. Jealousy regarding what they have and fear that somehow there success might be detrimental to the racists. They are better than the racists in so many ways, and the racists know this. Just as the white regime in South Africa felt threatened by the black population so too must the racists* in this country feel threatened by the success of these black players. Now admit that and I might be able to see the logic.
*I can’t call them football supporters because their behaviour is evidence that they are not.
A few years ago, probably about three or four, I found myself appointed as some form of school liaison person for criminology. I’m still trying to conjure up a title for my office worthy of consideration as grand poohbah. As I understood my role, the university marketing department would arrange for schools to visit the university or for me to visit schools to promote the university and talk about criminology.
In the beginning, I stumbled around the talks, trying to find my feet and a formula of presentation that worked. As with most things, it’s trial and error and in those earlier days some of it felt like a trial, and there were certainly a few errors (nothing major, just stuff that didn’t work). The presentations became workshops, the ideas morphed from standing up and talking and asking a few questions, with very limited replies, to asking students to think about ideas and concepts and then discussing them, introducing theoretical concepts along the way. These days we try to disentangle scenarios and try to make sense of them, exploring the ideas around definitions of crime, victims and offenders.
There is nothing special about what I do but the response seems magical, there is real engagement and enthusiasm. I can see students thinking, I can see the eyes light up when I touch on topics and question society’s ideas and values. Criminology is a fascinating subject and I want everyone to know that, but most importantly I want young minds to think for themselves and to question the accepted norms. To that extent, criminology is a bit of a side show, the main gig is the notion that university is about stretching minds, seeking and acquiring knowledge and never being satisfied with what is supposedly known. I suppose criminology is the vehicle, but the driver decides how far they go and how fast.
As well as changing my style of presentation, I have also become a little more discerning in choosing what I do. I do not want to turn up to a school simply to tell pupils this is what the course looks like, these are the modules and here are a few examples of the sorts of things we teach at the university. That does nothing to build enthusiasm, it says nothing about our teaching and quite frankly, its boring, both for me and the audience.
Whilst I will turn up to a school to take a session for pupils who have been told that they have a class taken by a visitor, I much prefer those sessions where the pupils have volunteered to attend. Non-compulsory classes such as after school events are filled with students who are there because they have an interest and the enthusiasm shines through.
Whilst recognising marketing have a place in arranging school visits, particularly new ones, I have found that more of my time is taken up revisiting schools at their request. My visits have extended outside of the county into neighbouring counties and even as far as Norfolk. Students can go to university anywhere so why not spread the word about criminology anywhere. And just to prove that students are never too young to learn, primary school visits for a bit of practical fingerprinting have been carried out for a second time. Science day is great fun, although I’m not sure parents or carers are that keen on trying to clean little inky hands (I keep telling them its only supposed to be the fingers), I really must remember not to use indelible ink!
Tomorrow, I am speaking to prospective students at our Applicant Discovery Day, and so I decided to focus this week’s blog on my first-year module on True Crimes and other Fictions. It was also inspired by a recent article bought to my attention, in the Guardian, titled ‘From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment?’ (Rubenhold, 2019). The article shows us there is a clear fascination with true crimes, especially the more grisly and serious events. There is also clearly a fascination held with Jack the Ripper as the mystery of his (or her?) identity remains, and is unlikely ever to be definitively solved.
However, the focus of the article is not to recount more grisly details, but is an observation on the desensitization which has occurred in relation to the murder of women. We are bombarded with their images when alive and posing happily alongside gruesome crime scene photos of their deaths. This has occurred since Jack the Ripper, and the reporting on canonical five, famously with the publication of the crime scene photo of Mary Jane Kelly, described as the ‘poster girl’ for Jack the Ripper’s crimes. My students who had to choose a true crime text and analyse it critically in a book review and presentation highlighted the sensationalisation of these events in the press and the true crime genre as a whole (see Rawlings, 1995; Wiltenberg, 2004 and Bates, 2014).
Another interesting dimension identified by Rubenhold (2019) in the case of Mary Jane Kelly, is that among Ripperologists she is considered the most popular, due to her being seen as attractive but also due to the particularly brutal nature of her death. This takes us nicely to the recent BBC One documentary on the infamous crimes of Jack the Ripper, which continues in the traditions of depicting images of dead women as entertainment, along with the promise of new revelations on the case. I watched the documentary last night and while there was some focus on the brutality of the killings, there was reference made of the lives of the women and recognition of the assumptions made about them as sex workers, somehow less worthy of our sympathy compared to other victims. However, in anticipation of the documentary, Rubenhold emphasises the dehumanising effect of the victims with the adoption of the ‘virtual reality dissection table’, as the latest tool used to fuel our fascination, in addition to the hundreds of books, websites, blogs and TV documentaries. The new revelations rarely focus on the lives of the women, beyond their status as victims of a brutal killer.
However, what also struck me is the promises made by the documentary, a ‘re-opening’ of the case and using new technology to identify Jack the Ripper. For those who have not engaged with the wealth of literature on the case, the digital and criminological autopsies to identify the killer, and the use of geographical profiling may have provided new and fascinating detail on the key suspects. For those who are aware of literature on the case, the listing of key suspects was nothing new and there was even a high profile new development in the case to identify Aaron Kozminski as Jack the Ripper, with a claim of DNA evidence linking him to one of the victims (Evening Standard, 2019). The revealing of the name, and the revelation of a new victim were presented as new developments warranting re-opening of the case and the scrutiny of criminologists, ex-police detectives, profilers, forensic experts and a celebrity. No doubt the latter was introduced to offer some familiarity to fans of TV crime dramas, and draw viewers in, all part of raising the profile of the documentary. I had recently covered the case in a seminar on my module on True Crimes, using the same suspects which are widely identified in the ‘Ripperology’ community. We listed the evidence presented and all identified Kozminski on the basis of his proximity to Whitechapel, his skills as a barber, and his violence and traumatic childhood in Russia, prior to emigrating to the UK. We examined the validity of the evidence presented in various blogs, online resources, news reports and while there was general agreement about our suspect, other students made the point that we could find equally convincing information about others.
This is the essence of one of the problems of our fascination with true crime accounts – most people will maintain their fascination, based on legitimate emotional responses and assumptions which they will hold on to, and explanations of events they will take as fact. So, when a documentary claims to have new revelations, and conclusions presented in the case as reliable, for many people watching, there would be no need to question this. The same approach seems to be clear with the latest documentaries and dramas on another infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy, famous not only for his crimes, but also for his drive to remain relevant and gain attention. Rubenhold emphasises that whatever the focus of these dramas, allowing watchers to gawp at the images or depictions of the victims when they are dead perpetuates this cycle of dehumanising victims and reducing them to entertainment. Much like the Jill Dando case, and numerous others, the reality is that no matter what technology is adopted, or how often cases are re-opened and scrutinised by one expert after another, some cases will simply never be solved.
I think it is this lack of closure which frustrates not just victims and those connected to events, but also viewers who not only demand to see gruesome images but also demand to have new revelations and conclusions to cases. To be told ‘we don’t know and we never will’ is simply not good enough – whole industries have been based on those willing to stake reputations on delivering the truth. Rubenhold calls for and end to the use of crime as entertainment, to stop the ‘parlour game played for our own entertainment and at the victims’ expense’ (2019). It is perhaps unrealistic to believe we can put a stop to this, but perhaps broadcasters, publishers and those in the true crime industry can stop to think about their responsibilities and the constant re-hashing of old ideas as new revelations. It makes the work of criminologists to inform the public more important, as there needs to be a better understanding of the impact of these events, the effects of sensationalizing them, in addition to how the public understand the response to crime – our work continues, and it feels like we still have a lot to do.
Bates, K. (2014) Empathy or Entertainment? The form and function of violent crime narratives in early 19th Century broadsides, Law, Crime and History, 2.
Rubenhold, H. (2019) From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment? Guardian, see https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/02/from-jack-the-ripper-to-ted-bundy-why-are-dead-womens-bodies-still-being-used-as-entertainment?CMP=fb_gu
Rawlings, P. (1995) True Crime, The British Criminology Conferences: Selected Proceedings. Volume 1: Emerging Themes in Criminology. Papers from the British Criminology Conference, Loughborough University, 18-21 July 1995.
Tobin, O. (2019) Jack the Ripper may have been Polish barber Aaron Kosminski, scientists claim after fresh DNA tests, Evening Standard, see https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/polish-barber-aaron-kosminski-was-jack-the-ripper-scientists-claim-a4094191.html
Wiltenberg, J. (2004), True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism, The American Historical Review, 109 (5):1377-1404.