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Introducing white-collar crime

Updated Wednesday, 4th November 2009

 Louise Westmarland introduces the white-collar crime season

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We’re really excited about Thinking Allowed and the white-collar crime series because it fits in really well with the new course that we’re just starting at the Open University called Crime and Justice. And one of the great things about white-collar crime is that it illustrates a lot of the questions that we’re trying to cover on the new course.

Two of the main ones are: ‘What is crime?’ and ‘What is criminal justice?’ And the reason that white-collar crime and corporate fraud, and financial crimes really illustrate these questions is that corporate crime and white-collar crime isn’t the sort of thing that you normally think of as crime.

There’s various reasons for this, and I think primarily it’s because white-collar crime is a very hidden crime; it’s not a crime that television programmes, series, are necessarily made about, so the documentaries that are made for television about what the police do and therefore inform the public about what is crime and what is justice, are often about street crime. They’re about people committing acts that are very visible, whereas corporate crime and white-collar crime isn’t normally visible, and so it’s not on the criminological radar, as we say. It’s not particularly sexy. It’s not something that’s been particularly reported upon. It’s not something that criminologists have been particularly interested in. However, that’s changing now because of a number of things that have been happening.

Traditionally, it’s been seen as a victimless crime. It’s something a bit like shoplifting used to be viewed; it’s something a bit along the lines of maybe something that isn’t actually going to harm someone. When we think of someone robbing a bank, we think of them walking into the bank with a gun and holding up the cashier. We don’t think of someone in the back room, perhaps, stealing many, many more times than the person we might think of as ‘the bank robber’ would be taking.

So there’s two combinations of things here. There’s the fact that it’s a fairly invisible crime; it’s the fact that it’s seen as a victimless crime, and I think thirdly, maybe most interesting for criminologists and perhaps for the new course, it’s about the way that it’s very difficult to define as a crime, so our question: ‘What is crime?’ is very pertinent here.

So is it a crime when MPs are found to be supposedly fiddling their expenses? The recent scandal about the money that they’re taking to help them with their second homes, for instance. It’s difficult to actually class that as a crime because when they’re accused of taking money from us, the public, or from the funds that are supposed to be set aside for them, it’s fine. They can just stand up and say: “Hey! I did nothing wrong. I followed the rules, someone else signed the paper to say it was okay and I was given the money.” However, the public might regard those actions as morally wrong. We might say that they’re harming us, certainly harming the reputation of parliament, and perhaps even harming us as a country, because what may be seen as a corrupt practice is actually something that could be damaging the idea of democracy.

I think it’s the same with many other types of white-collar crime because, in a way, there’s a bit of a conspiracy behind the scenes here, isn’t there? If you’re running a bank and someone manages to take some money from the bank, really you don’t want to go public with that. You don’t want to tell everybody what’s happened because you’re supposed to be looking after that money and hey, you know, you’ve let your employee get away with that. And similarly with the MPs, really everybody fought pretty hard to keep this out of the news, originally, and this is an illustration of the way that power operates in the criminal justice system.

So when we talk about the second question: ‘What is criminal justice?’ I think corporate crime and white-collar crime also illustrates this very clearly because some people, some groups in society, have the power, and the MPs are a perfect example of being one of the most powerful groups in the country; some people have the power to stop these things becoming public and obviously it’s in their interests to do so.

I think, furthermore, when corporate or white-collar crime is reported in the news, the way that people view those news reports, and perhaps the way that those news reports are presented, tends to be in an unthreatening way. We don’t feel particularly threatened by the people that we see on the screen or read about in the newspapers as being dangerous to us. It’s not like street crime, it’s not like, you know, we’re seeing people dealing drugs or they’ve got guns or they’re going to actually do us some harm. We don’t view these people as necessarily different to us, whereas, in a general sense, quite often when, you know, so-called criminals are presented in the news, they’re being shown as ‘other’, as we might say, in the social sciences. In other words, they’re not like us.

When we see people who have been accused of white-collar crime, for instance, somebody’s been embezzling some money from an insurance company or they’ve been given the keys to the safe, or, more likely, they’ve been given a signature on a corporate cheque that they’re allowed to fill in for themselves. I think people regard those crimes as something that is non-threatening to them. It’s victimless, it doesn’t bother me, okay, so an employee managed to fiddle their employer. Well maybe a lot of people just think, well good on them because, you know, probably they deserved it, they should have been more careful. So it’s seen not only as a non-threatening crime, the people who are committing the crimes are like us and therefore non-threatening and perhaps non-criminal.

People think, well actually white-collar crime isn’t hurting me. It’s a bit like shoplifting and I suppose, in some ways, drink-driving used to be viewed. It was something that was victimless, it was something that wasn’t actually going to hurt me or myself, or my family, or anybody I know, and therefore not really worth bothering about, not particularly newsworthy.

I think that’s another thing, it’s not particularly sexy or newsworthy to hear about someone who’s perhaps been taking £5,000 a month from their employer unless it has some salacious aspects to it; perhaps the person was using it for something particularly interesting, or there was story of the person’s life that could be brought out as a newsworthy story. And then we might hear about it. But, in general, I don’t think that corporate and white-collar crime is reported in the same way that other crimes are because, as I say, people don’t find them so gripping.

So the new series from Thinking Allowed on white-collar crime really examines an unreported and under researched area of criminology. It’s picking up on two central questions, which we also highlight on the course. In other words: ‘What is crime?’ and ‘What is criminal justice?’

The series and the course explore areas of activity not often regarded or prosecuted as crime, and really they’re the sort of activities that are never going to come to the attention of the criminal justice system. The programmes, I think, will explore these issues and maybe actually bring some pretty new understandings to the questions.

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