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Jon Snow: ‘Crime, Punishment and the Media’

17th November 2011

Award-winning broadcaster, Jon Snow, took as his title “Crime, Punishment and The Media” when he delivered the tenth Longford Lecture at Church House, Westminster, on November 17, 2011, in an event chaired by the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabati.


“One cardinal, a former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the top dog at the Independent Police Complaints’ Commission – everywhere I look tonight in the Assembly hall, there is somebody of enormous import. Of course, everyone in here is of enormous import because they are human beings, but it is very daunting to stand here, and particularly daunting because I think there are at least 19 Longfords here, of one sort or another, one generation or another, and I want to say something about their father.

Thank goodness I was sent down from university because otherwise I would never have met him.  That is an absolute certainty, but when I was sent down [in 1968] I was completely pole-axed. I had no idea what on earth I could do.

I had had a terrible struggle getting there in the first place – dreadful ‘A’ Level grades – so it was an awful shock when I and nine others got rusticated. But then somebody told me that Frank Longford – well, of course, in those days, he was only ever called Lord Longford – that Lord Longford was looking for a director for the New Horizon Youth Centre, a day centre for vulnerable and homeless teenagers, aged 16 to 21, that he had set up.

And so I applied and amazingly I got an interview.  The ground floor of St Anne’s Church, Soho, was then and may even still be now, perhaps not, a very grubby place.  It was very dark, very dingy, and there was a very noisy swing door into it.  Then when you got inside, you could peer around and see a sort of Baby Belling with a lot of grease on it, and some old half-empty glasses of water and things.  Then, in the gloom, there were some booths, and in one of the booths sat three men – Frank Longford, John Profumo, and the Chairman of BOAC, Sir Matthew Slattery.

This was quite a line-up but, of course, being somebody who didn’t yet know that he wanted to be a journalist, my immediate eagle eye was drawn to Jack Profumo.  He was only six years on from Christine Keeler and the great scandal and the rest of it.  That scandal was almost the first scandal I had ever really consumed as a newspaper reader.  So it was electrifying to find this suave, charming, beautiful man sitting there.

And, then, of course, I looked around. Sir Matthew Slattery was the Chairman of BOAC, and was what you would expect, but Frank was not at all what I expected.  He was a complete shambles, his tie was at half-mast. One shirt collar was out over his jacket. He had a funny baggy sort of cardigan on underneath his suit although it was actually quite a warm springy-summery day. He immediately put me at my ease, and he only wanted to know one thing: had I definitely been sent down?  I said, “Oh yes, definitely”.  He said, “Well, then I think you would probably be just right for the job”, and I asked, “why‘s that?”  “Well, I chaired the enquiry into the Hornsea College of Art rebellion and Martin Walker, who was President of the Students’ Union, was sent down and I appointed him the last director of New Horizon.  He has unfortunately had a nervous breakdown but nevertheless I think you are just the right sort of calibre for this job”.

And so I started there. I told him I would be there for a year or whatever, but I didn’t intend to be there more than six months. I thought I’ll be here, work my passage, cleanse my sins – who better with than Frank – and then I’ll try and get back to university.  But thereafter I forged the most wonderful friendship with him because he was the most fantastically rewarding man, the greatest gossip I’ve ever met, unquestionably, the most faithful man, the most humble man, and yet the man who wrote five books of biography and then crowned it with a book on humility – a great achievement.

He was a lovely, lovely, lovely man and constantly in and out of the House of Lords and he connected us all with a raft of life that was way beyond anything any of us ever aspired to. And yet he had a connection with people right at the bottom.  When he had started New Horizon, he actually sat in St Botolph’s Church in the City of London and decided if he sat behind the table and advertised the fact that he was there, and that he had a little centre there for vulnerable people, they would come in and he would be able to work with them and help them forward.  But they would come in and usually grab five bob off him, or more, either willingly or by subterfuge, and he soon realised that he needed staff and so he had us.

New Horizon is now an absolutely wonderful place and it was then.  There were three of us then. There are 34 now, some of them are here, and it is a state-of-the-art wonderful resource.  We did some work during the recent riots and found that of the 250 young people who came through our centre in the three critical days, not one of them was caught up in any of what happened anywhere in London and yet the draw to go looting and to join in must have been great.  When we questioned them about what it was that prevented them, they said they felt they had a stake in their own futures, that in some way they had an on-going relationship with a group of adults who were going to help them to sort out their lives, and that really coming to where we were meant more to them than going off to Tottenham or Croydon or wherever to riot.

I’m speaking today, therefore, as Chair of New Horizon [since 1986], and I’m also a working journalist.  If I’m any good as a journalist, it is only because I am rooted in the New Horizon Youth Centre, because I have spent 40 years of my life going in and out of there on my bicycle.  It is fortunately ten minutes from my home, and ten minutes from my workplace, and it is a completely uplifting thing every time that you go there. It is also, of course, a very humbling thing, and a thing that reminds you that there are people who are deeply excluded from the world in which many of us live.

If I start, then, with Crime, the riots themselves are easy.  They are red in tooth and claw.  We recognise them as violent, naughty, taking away things that belong to other people, theft, robbery, very scary. It seems to worry us that that’s the way everything is going to go, and in that immediate period of the riots, we began to think, “Oh gosh, this is the beginning of the end, the underclass is rising up, we’ve had it”.

“Feral”, said the papers, feral …. The labelling of people who are not necessarily doing what we want to do is a problem.  Fire, arson, all these things were present, and they were very worrying, and yet, when deconstructed, we discovered that, although everybody said that every gang in London had got involved in this thing, there were actually very few gangs.  Very few people involved in the riots with any known connection with any gang.

There were at least a third – we now know from the Metropolitan Police’s own research – at least a third of them had special needs educational backgrounds. They were the people who are disconnected from the kind of connection we are enjoying here tonight.

The riots were a kind of neat summary of crime.  It was easy to identify that as crime. Crime comes, therefore, from below.  We can identify that, we can sort it, we can deal with it.  Crime is what we do if we fall.  But perhaps we compartmentalise crime too easily, ghettoise it.  Do we attempt to understand what crime really is? What about crime from above?

Now, here I have no desire to bite the hand that’s feeding us tonight and, in conjunction with The Clink, our sponsors have been more than generous tonight.  But there is out there – and not amongst them, but elsewhere – there is a systemic refusal to pay your dues in the society we live in.  Is it any kind of crime? Well, possibly not.  It’s quite clever conjuring.

When you read that big corporations have been excused £6 million of taxes, when you realise that people make it, and then take it and park it somewhere else, in the Cayman Islands, perhaps, making it here but parking it there, it’s not crime, it’s not illegal, but it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel what most of us do. How come that Britain, housing the world’s greatest financial centre, also retains a strange overhang of empire in the form of a whole raft of tax havens that extend from the Channel Islands to the Caribbean and beyond.

Even some of those who park in the Cayman Islands admit that there are some naughty boys there.  There’s something funny about one door – I’ve been there – one door with a label on it which contains the names of 964 businesses and yet there is only one room inside.  That’s an odd thing.  How do they do all that business in there?  And yet that’s the corporate headquarters and this is where the majority of the tax is paid or housed or lodged, but you don’t see notes pouring out of the windows.  It’s something notional, it’s something which you can’t actually touch, but in some way it has happened and it has not gone to any of the coffers that might actually improve the lot of many of the people that many of us in this room are working with every day of every week.

Now Frank Longford was a banker.  That was what amazed me when I met him on the second day.  He said, “I can’t stay long, I’ve got to go and chair a board at the National Bank”.  I thought, “My goodness me, that is something, to meet the chairman of a bank”, because a bank in those days was really rather a special thing.  I remember going to visit Barclays Bank, in Thirsk in Yorkshire, to ask if I could open an account.  Because my father banked there, the manager said I could bank there too. And as long as I had £1 to put into the account, Mr Gudgeon, the manager of the bank, said I could open an account at Barclays Bank.

And banking I think I understood very clearly. It was about taking in people’s deposits, earnings, investments, and then lending against them at a reasonable and profitable rate.  The bank didn’t borrow in order to lend. It had already taken in those deposits, so it knew what it had. It had a red side and a black side, and the black side was never overwhelmed by the red side.

Today you hear that capitalisation of banks needs to be more than six per cent, perhaps ten per cent.  That means 90 per cent  is somewhere else, out floating in the ether. What is casino banking?  I see that headline often, another label.  We may call the rioters “feral”.  The poor old bankers get called “casino operators”.   What is a casino bank? How much do any of us in this room know about casino banking?  But what goes on in the City of London, how much of it do we in this room actually understand?  How much do even the finance boys and girls themselves understand?  Or the regulators?

I talk to quite a lot of them. They understand what they’re doing, but they are not actually quite certain what the three people down the far end are doing, or down that end because they do something else, they work with derivatives or they may be spinning algorithms and managing to do trades in a nanosecond that pull in millions if not billions of pounds.

We just don’t know.   We ordinary mortals do not know how it works, and yet it garners enormous sums of money, and occasionally loses enormous sums of money.  And the head of the Financial Services Authroity has told us that a lot of this stuff is socially useless.  That’s an extraordinary thing for the Financial Services Agency chairman to say.  “I am regulating an industry in which there are a large number of people doing something that is completely socially useless.  It’s not a crime but it is socially useless”.

So I think, when we talk about the word “crime”, we shouldn’t get too narrow about it and we shouldn’t get too holier than thou about it.  There is no question, I am sure, that anybody who understands it is drawn into it and feels fulfilled doing it, although most of the people I meet are completely exhausted by it. The people who actually do it, seven days a week they are up when all the markets are open and never go to bed. It’s amazing to go down to the City and see how many lights are on at 2 o’clock in the morning.  Is it just the cleaners?  I don’t think it can be.  Something’s going on in there, people move about.  You see shadows go across the windows, too many for a vacuum cleaner.

No, not one of us really understands the full ramifications of hedge funding, algorithms, derivatives, the plethora of mechanisms by which nanosecond deals can be turned.  More money is traded in a day in the City of London and New York than the size of the entire economy of western Europe. In one day!   That is an awful lot of money.

Now, I’ve no idea what crime there is in these sectors, and I don’t know what it would look like even if I did know.  I’ve no idea of what per centage of financial activity in the City of London might constitute crime. Maybe none? Maybe some? Maybe a lot?  But I cannot believe that you can have an event so searing, so globally destructive as the meltdown of 2008 without what you and I might recognise as crime or an element of crime.

Yet how many are behind bars?   A few traders in New York?  Bernie Madoff who made off with US $50 billion.  Made-off. What a lovely name. He ran a ponzi scheme that went undetected for quarter of a century.  This might suggest one of my small points, which is that if the people working for the regulator knew how to do it, they probably would be doing it, and therefore, wonderful though they probably are, they may not be the match for the people who are doing it.

Then there’s the Serious Fraud Office.  I know about the Serious Fraud Office because, amazingly, it is housed in the building where I’m housed.  You wouldn’t think that you would put the Serious Fraud Office into a media headquarters, but there is it, on the first floor.  And when the British Aerospace deal unravelled because the court case was dropped – or it ravelled up, actually, it went quite nicely because the court case was dropped – the 18 unfortunate characters who worked in the Serious Fraud Office on that floor pitched up for their Christmas party in the very same pub that we were having our Christmas party.  And they sang like canaries.

What a grievous and terrible story they had to tell, but after that they were never allowed to make eye contact with us again, and never allowed to play football with us either.  They go out in their lovely shirts, – “SFO” on back, red shirts, big knees, strong muscles – and they go up to the local football ground where we play too, but we have to play on the next ground.  We don’t play with them.  Actually, I don’t play at all.

Now we are confronted by what Angela Merkel calls the worst crisis since 1945.  I think she’s probably right. I think she probably knows of what she speaks, even if even she cannot possibly master all the algorithmic mechanisms that exist in the trading systems of Frankfurt. We’ve no idea exactly what it is, we can’t see it, we can’t smell it, we can’t touch it, but it appears to be very big, whatever it is.  Dry cash machines, dead banks, hyper inflation, world recession – we don’t even know where the world finances will be by Christmas.

Whatever it is out there, we just do not know how it will end.   And we may muddle through and we may all meet each other at the Eleventh Longford Lecture and say, “That was a lot of hot air, Jon.  You built a very large thing which never happened”.  But a lot of people think it might happen, but when you ask them what it is that will happen, they can’t exactly tell you, but they tell you that Mr Berlusconi not being with us any longer in quite the role he wasplaying is possibly a good thing.

So I come to Punishment.  For me punishment was a lost university degree, a lost life in the law, and for no apparent crime.  All we were sent down for was running a sit-in in the university’s administrative headquarters because the university was investing in a company which had very large holdings in apartheid South Africa.  Nowadays you’d get crowned for that, but not then.

For Mr Madoff, his punishment is incarceration until he dies.  For some of the rioters, it’s four years in jail.  “Prison” becomes a label. So does “ex-prisoner”, and the crime committed. I could not possibly have come here today to lecture you about that kind of crime and punishment because most of the people in this room know much more about it than I do.  I’ll never know as much as you know because, even though I am touched by it by meeting some of our young offenders, that doesn’t make me any kind of expert.  But just as I would expand the concept of crime, I want to expand the concept of punishment into a wider scope.

I want to tell you about Carla Rees.  Carla Rees is the most wonderful, innovative classical flautist. She lived in Croydon and her street became an eerie place on the first night of the riots.  At nine o’clock she began to sense that where she was, was not safe.  She was in her own flat but there was a very ugly feeling outside. There was a lot of noise and she decided she should leave and she took one of her 19 flutes which just happened to be in the car. She and her partner headed away from Croydon.  That night, in a pub somewhere in central London, she saw her own house burn to the ground and the whole row of houses with it.  Her 18 flutes went with it and her two cats and every possession she had in the world.

That was a punishment.  For what?  Who knows, but it was punishment.  She experienced what people who go to prison experience, who lose everything. She experienced total abject, brutal loss.  She was punished. I went to see her. The insurance company had been fantastic.  They had provided her with a very nice, very, very small cottage in a row in Windsor. She loves Windsor and she would love to live there.  But she still has nothing tangible around her.  She has one flute, one music stand.  She lost 650 staves of music which had been adapted for her flutes.

Three of her flutes were bass and alto flutes, huge instruments with special extra engineering on them to enable her to produce even more remarkable sounds. They each cost over £10,000 and were made by single workers, one in Japan and one in Holland.  So she lost tens of thousands of pounds in flutes, but you saw the community pull together and raise £30,000 for her in the local music shop. So there was some degree of redemption for her.

But when I left the house in Windsor, I couldn’t help noticing in a house that it had no furniture beyond the three chairs around the dining table and I presumed a bed upstairs. I couldn’t help noticing that, hanging next to the front door on eight hooks, was one coat and one scarf.  She had nothing beyond what I had seen.

And then I think of the massed ranks of unemployed young people, a million punished for the fiscal and financial failures of their elders. I think of women haemorrhaging jobs ten times faster than men, according to yesterday’s figures.  It is when I think of this suffering that I think of the unpunished crimes which may or may not exist, may or may not have brought this about, but I don’t know and I don’t actually have a mechanism for knowing, even though I am a well-paid reporter supposed to get at these things.

It is an impossible world to penetrate, it’s so complex.  It’s so complex that there is no one person on earth who has any idea of the totality of how it works, yet those who fall foul of it by accident are punished by it.  Therefore, when I think of crime and punishment, I want people to expand out and think about what we do to each other in this world, about the huge gulf between rich and poor, the huge gulf in this country between rich and poor, the huge gulf between the rich and poor in India, and in Africa.  We can’t fix it overnight, but if we begin to think about it, we can do more.

And so I then reach the Media, no paragon of virtue, I do accept, and this is where I also do see redemption and loads of hope and lots of optimism.  I am extremely optimistic about what is happening to information. Just as the financial houses of the world have been turbo-charged by the web, much of what is done can only be done because of the speed of communication, digital communication.  So information has been liberated by the internet. We are seeing the democratisation of information.  Mechanisms exist now to politicise, to campaign, to bring together, as the Arab Spring has shown, however uncertain its outcome.  Here in the developed world individuals within corporations, civil servants within ministries, are beginning to contact us, are beginning to use the discreet mechanisms of the internet to tell us about what is going on, to tell us about things that go wrong.

Sometimes the information is wonky and we pursue it and there is no truth in it. Sometimes it’s there, but to have the capacity to sift through this stuff, that’s the problem. There is so much material coming in now that it is very difficult to keep pace with it, but it is an exciting time.  And I believe in many ways we are just entering the golden age of news and information because we are being alerted increasingly to wrong-doing, abuse of power. Our secretive society is being opened up

Naturally, we also fear anarchy, that in fact there will be so much information, too much information, that it would be impossible really to hang on to the system and keep things going. But other people rejoice at the overthrow of closed systems that serve the interests of the few over the many.  The information revolution is only half begun. I can’t believe in my lifetime that, when I started in 1973, we were still sending wind-up, beautifully-lensed Bell and Howell silent cameras to Downing Street so that when Harold Wilson’s pocket caught fire in his jacket because he had left his pipe in there alight, we didn’t get the sound but we sure got the smoke.  And the interesting thing was we sent a silent camera down there because we never used to shout.  We never used to say, “Prime Minister, what do you think of Mrs Merkel today?”   We do that now.  We never did it then.  Not until Mrs Thatcher’s time did we begin to call out because of … I don’t know.   I think it was because we had sound and we had a dawning period of irreverence.

We were very, very well-behaved in the early days.  I felt so privileged to be allowed to be in Downing Street.  Now it’s funny.  Now that it’s closed off to the public, it doesn’t feel so privileged.  It is a very strange thing.  You go there and you become part of “it” instead of being still you, going up the old Downing Street, saying “Mummy, see me, I’m just outside now, take the picture”, just as they took Harold’s picture in his shorts when he was ten.

So TV survives, papers are in a bit of trouble but, you know, it is an amazing thing, now we can broadcast this right now, just like that. When I started we had to bath the material in a lab for four hours. It was film, so we had four hours to make telephone calls to find out what it was we had got and whether they were telling the truth.  Now, heavens, we want it now, we want it on the screen now.

So, you know, we are not necessarily any more accurate than we were then, but we’ve certainly got more information.  Potentially, the social network may fill our voids of understanding about the financial world.  I am an optimist.  I mean, it is an incredible thing to stand here with so many people who intercept with the prison system and to have heard a Conservative Minister of Justice say he wants to empty the prisons.  That’s an amazing thing. To hear any minister say they want to empty the prisons …   Successive ministers of any old party have wanted to fill the prisons and have succeeded in doing so, and suddenly the tide has turned.

Who would have anticipated that the wholesale expenses corruption in the Lords and in the Commons would be so exposed, even if under-punished, particularly in the Lords?  We are beginning again to question what we do, and that can only be a good thing.

So, in summary, I just want us to think outside our box where we see people in cells, and where we see crime in court, and where we see probation, and where we see all sorts of mechanisms for work in the community.  I want us to widen out and think, “Hang on a minute, have we got it right?”  Yes, of course, we have got to deal with anti-social behaviour, and we’ve got to deal with people who ruin the lives of people like Carla Rees who had to cancel her flute tour of America and her flute tour of Europe.  She’s been set back three years in her musical life.  Yes, we have to punish people who did that.  But we also need to attend to the bits we don’t even understand. We’ve got to try and make ourselves more aware of the world in which we live, and ask questions, endless questions, and Google for answers, and see if the answers are true.

They may not be.  If they are not, tweet, see what anybody tells you.  It may all be rubbish but somebody out there knows.  I’m amazed by Twitter.  You know, people tweet you the most fantastic articles that you would never have read. You suddenly get to see The Catholic Herald in a way you never saw it before because you may not ever buy it because you may not even be a Catholic and you may not know where to buy it, but somebody tweets you an article or an OpEd and suddenly you are informed.

It’s fantastic.  This great moment of information is what could sort all this out.

Thank you very much.”