Sunday, May 24, 2009

Different paradox, same explanation

On a semi-annual basis we read reports of falling violent crime rates over the last 20 plus years.  Paradoxically, research consistently shows a significant number of Canadians feel less safe than ever.

Writing in theToronto Star, Kathy English reported on July 28, 2008 that 36% of the people in the Greater Toronto Area said they felt less safe than they did a year earlier. That disconnect between reality and perception can be traced to the way media reports crime.
Sensational crimes attract the attention of the public and news editors know this. There’s an old saying in newsrooms “If it bleeds it leads.” And, Mitchell Stephens made the same point in his 1996 book “A History of News” when he wrote that, “Crime news is prime news.” So, major crime gets front-page treatment.

Of course, politicians have been quick to exploit the public’s fear of becoming victims of crime. In April 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave aspeechin Winnipeg. In part, here’s what he said:

“Canada is a great country, and one of the things that has made Canada a great country has been our traditionally low crime rates…Times, however, are changing…Our communities are changing…And, the safe streets and safe neighbourhoods that Canadians have come to expect as being part of our way of life are being threatened by rising levels of gun, gang, and drug crime…

“And let me be clear, our government has absolutely no intention of standing by and allowing this plague of violent, organized crime to grow unchecked.”

He went on to announce Ottawa’s get-tough-on-crime plans. These include about a dozen crime bills to bring in harsher gun sentences and to make it more difficult to get bail. The Conservative government has kept up its unrelenting campaign against the country's criminals. The latest attack is on the practice of judges crediting the accused with two days served for every day they have been held in pre-trial custody.

So there is a symbiosis between media willing to milk individual tragedies to sell advertizements and politicians rising from a minor demographic on the fringe of Canadian society eager to skew the facts in their quest for power.

This came to mind when I read this article: Canadians see their country as corrupt.

The paradox:
Despite Canada's "squeaky clean" reputation, Canadians still view their country as corrupt, according to a Saskatchewan political scientist.
The facts:
According to the World Bank and Transparency International, business leaders in other countries believe Canada to be among the least corrupt nations. The scandals that absorb so much airtime and headline space, such as the infamous Airbus or sponsorship cases, have not ruffled that faith.

Canadians also report having little personal experience of petty corruption. When polled, very few report being shaken down by a cop or greasing a palm to get to the front of a medical queue.

The public perception:

An international Gallup poll in 2006 found Canadians were more on par with large European nations and the United States than countries like Finland and Sweden when they were asked if corruption in government was widespread.

Almost two-thirds felt political parties were affected by corruption and 39 per cent said the same of the judiciary and legal services.

The explanation, in a generous display of good will, offered by Michael Atkinson, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan:

Atkinson said the main problem is that corruption means something different for the general populace and politicians.

When corruption is measured formally, what is usually considered is behaviour that uses public office for private gain. Focusing on roles and rules makes tracking corruption easier -- as it assumes people will be self-serving and need rules and procedures. But the definition also "helps distance the concept from the need for moral evaluation."

Atkinson said that the public has an "ancient" or "classical" conception of the relationship between rulers and those who are ruled -- which is more like "political morality."

Politicians, on the other hand, are more likely to say that staying within the rules means there's no corruption, he said.

They believe making the rules tougher means there's no need to discuss principles, Atkinson said. Yet that's exactly what the suspicious public wants and needs to talk about.

"It's important to establish there's a dialogue of the deaf when we talk about these things," said Atkinson

For an explanation more grounded in the real world, see earlier discussion.  There is no fear Harper and the Thugs will not prod, no institution they will not denigrate for a chance to take over.  All this and the best they can do is a minority.

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