Paperback, 272 pages
Publisher: Elliott & Thompson (April 2016)
Selected by Tank
“If it bleeds it leads” or so the saying goes. Who would know better than Duncan Campbell, esteemed crime reporter? This clever, comprehensive and oftentimes funny book covers a history of crime reporting, from Charles Dickens’s Daily Mailarticles right up to the Leveson Inquiry. Campbell divulges and re-draws the forever-blurring lines of crime to ask: what is the relationship between the press, the perpetrator and the people?
“Wherever God erects a house of prayer,” wrote an early crime reporter called Daniel Defoe, “the Devil always builds a chapel there; And ’twill be found, upon examination, The latter has the largest congregation.”
The same applies to the news – stories of crime and the underworld have, for centuries, attracted the largest of readerships. But how did people become so interested in all those devilish miscreants – the bandits, the highwaymen, the murderers, the outlaws, the gangsters, the robbers, the cat-burglars, the conmen, the getaway drivers, the men and women who broke all the rules?
The Bible described how Adam and Eve were caught stealing forbidden fruit. Was that the first crime report? Was their banishment the earliest coverage of a criminal sentence, and was the killing of Abel by Cain the original murder story to whet the appetite of the reading public?
Crime reporting has been a staple of news since the first newsbooks, chapbooks and broadsides, as the early forms of the press were known, were sold in the wake of public hangings centuries ago, some of them initially read aloud for the benefit of the illiterate. From the capture of the highwayman, Dick Turpin, and the execution of the great escaper, Jack Sheppard1, in the 18th century, to the hunt for Jack the Ripper and the scandal of child prostitution in Victorian England, to the Brides in the Bath murders during the First World War, the Old Bailey trial of the Kray twins in the 1960s, and the funerals of the great train robbers in the 2010s, the fascination with the transgressive has remained unabated.
Some themes are constant. “Crime in England this century has increased 400%, in Ireland 800% and in Scotland above 3,500%,” Blackwood’s Magazine told its readers in 1844. The causes were clear. Big cities were partly to blame because “restraint of character, relationship and vicinity are lost in the urban crowd” but there were other culprits: “the employment of women has destroyed the familial bond, emancipating the young from parental control.” Twenty years later, another factor in the growth of crime was spotted by the Times: “under the influence of philanthropic sentiments and hopeful policy we have deprived the law of its terrors and justice of its arms.” A century and a half on, panic about lawlessness, dismay at the behaviour of the young and criticism of over-lenient punishments still provide a backdrop to the coverage of crime.
Why such interest? Why does the old news-desk motto, “if it bleeds, it leads”, still hold true? The writer Thomas De Quincey, in his famous satirical essay “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts”, published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1827, wrote of how he came across the case of John Williams, accused of killing seven people in east London in what were known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders2: “in came the London morning papers, by which it appeared that, but three days before, a murder the most superb of the century by many degrees had occurred in the heart of London”. In a postscript published in 1854, De Quincey added: “[E]very day of the year we take up a paper, we read the opening of a murder. We say, this is good, this is charming, this is excellent!”
Charles Dickens, in a letter to the Daily News on 28 February 1846, on the subject of the death penalty, noted that “there is about it a horrible fascination, which, in the minds... of good and virtuous and well-conducted people, supersedes the horror legitimately attracting to crime itself, and causes every word and action of a criminal under sentence of death to be the subject of a morbid interest and curiosity.”
 Jack Sheppard, 1702-1724, was arrested and imprisoned five times. He successfully escaped from prison four times before being hanged.
 The Ratcliffe Highway murders occurred in 1811. Seven victims were gruesomely killed but the murderer hanged himself before his trial.