IF Nick Ross’ appearance at the Hay Literary Festival is anything to go by Henley is in for an interesting
IF Nick Ross’ appearance at the Hay Literary Festival is anything to go by Henley is in for an interesting ride when he comes to talk about his controversial book, Crime, next week.
The 66-year-old presenter of Crimewatch has courted much publicity with the non-fiction book which challenges accepted wisdom about crime. At Hay he shocked audiences by saying that he “probably would watch child pornography”, albeit only to see what all the fuss is about. He has also said that he sympathises with some phone hacking journalists and MPs who have been caught fiddling their expenses. In fact, he says crime is sometimes “justifiable”.
“Breaking the law is often not a bad thing,” he says. “Rosa Parks [the American civil rights activist] got fined for sitting in a white man’s place on the bus. There have been so many appalling laws. Laws that seemed right at the time — like allowing people to own slaves and trade them — which later we find repulsive.
“It’s not always wrong to disobey the law, but what is always wrong is to hurt people when it’s unnecessary or for one’s own advantage.”
It’s an interesting time to be discussing issues of guilt and accountability as there are so many controversial court cases under the media spotlight at the moment, and the married father-of-three has thrown himself into the thick of it.
The book — which he started working on 10 years ago — shines a light on what he believes are many misconceptions, generalisations and stereotypes that exist around crime. Of all the controversy he has stirred up, the biggest hot potato is that of rape and under-age sex. He has said that “it’s easy to get on a high horse about age” when talking about sex with a minor when in fact cases are often far from cut-and-dried.
He says: “For example if a 16-year-old boy has sex with a 15-year-old girl, technically it’s illegal, it’s having sex with a minor. That is not the same as a 45-year-old male having sex with an 11-year-old. They are very, very, different and we in this country have set the age of consent at 16 but in other countries it’s 11 and 12.”
Ross was working at the BBC while Jimmy Savile, who allegedly committed sex crimes against children, presented Top Of The Pops.
Ross says: “Jimmy Savile — I never liked. I didn’t meet him very often but I tended to recoil from him. In his case I think there is a difference. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, everyone knew they went together. In those days I don’t think anybody thought too much about what went on in the Top Of The Pops dressing rooms, one just assumed they were getting up to no good. It was a very different world.
“Our paths very rarely met. Savile was particularly manipulative. For some of the other ones, a lot of men have got to ask themselves, ‘If I was in my twenties or thirties and working in the pop industry and there were girls throwing themselves at me, how would I react?’ It’s very easy to criticise those who did.”
On the other hand, the former Crimewatch host says he was “very surprised” to learn about Stuart Hall’s sex crimes, although he had never met him.
On those other great topical crime subjects — phone hacking and fiddling expenses — Ross again shines a different light.
He says people at the BBC were also guilty in the past of using expenses to supplement their income — just as some MPs have been caught doing. And although not believed to be a victim of phone hacking Ross — who worked on Crimewatch until 2007 — says he understands why people did it.
He says: “Oddly, I’m probably rather more sympathetic to some of those who did these things than one might expect for somebody who’s been fronting Crimewatch for so long. I’m quite sympathetic to those MPs who got caught fiddling their expenses. If you find everybody else is doing it, you tend to do it yourself. We are very social creatures.
“I’m almost inclined to use the term ‘herd creatures’. In the BBC in the early days expenses were used as a form of income. That’s long, long, gone but if you didn’t go along with it, it was quite difficult.”
Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is questioning any preconceived perceptions the reader may have about the influence of race, upbringing and wealth on criminal behaviour. He also discusses the police, rehabilitation and the media’s coverage of crime.
Opportunity and temptation are recurring themes throughout the book. He says removing provocations is more effective than “politicking about how best to treat offenders”.
He says: “Fundamentally I’m saying most of the ways we think about crime are wrong. Most of the applications to reduce crime we think about politically are of marginal effect, including imprisonment. There are huge opportunities out there to reduce crime further — and huge dangers if we don’t take those.”
* Nick Ross is at the Kenton Theatre at 1pm on September 30 as part of the Henley Literary Festival. Visit www.henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk or call 0118 972 4700.