Crimes of the powerful
Crimes of the powerful

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Crimes of the powerful

Research, theory and crimes of the powerful

In this audio interview, Steve Tombs discusses some of the tensions and difficulties associated with researching crimes of the powerful that he and Dave Whyte examined in ‘Unmasking the crimes of the powerful’. The interview highlights the importance of power in constructions of harm and in defining what is ‘criminal’. To do so, he draws on experience researching and writing about a particleboard factory in Liverpool owned by Sonae Industria.

Working with local community members and campaigning groups, Tombs and Whyte sought to raise awareness of the harm and health concerns associated with the operation of this factory, but their research was challenged and they were threatened with a libel suit by Sonae. This example provides a useful illustration of the way the powerful can sometimes use their influence and resources both to challenge and to silence, thereby preventing scrutiny of harmful practices. Sometimes it is only when major incidents occur that wider public and political attentions are drawn to such practices. As Tombs suggests, by thinking more carefully about the importance of power, the way it operates, and the considerable resources that the powerful have at their disposal, the imbalance of criminal justice and problems of social harm become more clearly observable.

You should now listen to the audio below, ‘Research, theory and crimes of the powerful: an interview with Steve Tombs’.

Figure 1 Steve Tombs
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Transcript: Research, theory and crimes of the powerful: an interview with Steve Tombs

Dr. Deborah Drake
I'm Dr. Deborah Drake from The Open University and I'm here with Professor Steve Tombs from Liverpool John Moores University. Today I'm interviewing Steve about the connections between theory and research, and the tensions associated with researching crimes of the powerful.
So Steve, in 2003 you and Dave White wrote an article for the journal Critical Criminology entitled ‘Unmasking Crimes of the Powerful’. This is also the title of an edited book that you and Dave put together in which you and other scholars cover a wide range of themes related to researching crimes of the state and of corporations. I'd like to ask you what inspired your interest in this area of research. So how did you come to write this book?
Professor Steve Tombs
Well Dave and I had worked individually and together over a number of years on various issues relating to crimes of the powerful. And we had a growing sense that there were some specific issues related to research in this area. And we’d encountered individually and together I think numerous small incidents, where there’d been external pressures to reframe our research questions, and indeed our outputs, towards … shall we say … products which were activities and products which were less critical of powerful actors and institutions. And the reason for an edited collection was that we knew of others who had had similar experiences across a diverse range of areas. So, Joe Simm, for example, while researching the prison medical service or Paddy Hillyard when he was looking at state paramilitary collusion in the north of Ireland. So that was the first main reason, Deb. The second, I think, is that we were becoming aware as university workers of increasing pressures to generate external funding as the only means of doing research work but again we were aware that because we were researching the powerful we were researching the state, we were researching business institutions, there was much more difficulty to come by funding than it was for some of our colleagues engaged in mainstream criminology. So I think these were the two contexts which led us to the book and the article.
Dr. Deborah Drake
Great. In the article and the related book chapter, you cover a number of challenges associated with researching crimes of the powerful. Can you just give me a few examples of a particular challenge you’ve faced in your research life?
Professor Steve Tombs
Yeah, let me give you one specific example. It relates to work again undertaken with Dave White around the harm produced by a factory, a chipboard factory, which located in the north of Liverpool in 1999. It was owned by a Portuguese conglomerate called Sonae and it was opened with a two million-pound DTI grant and the Duke of Edinburgh came up and cut the ribbon. So it meant a lot to the area as a very poor part of Liverpool, in fact one of the poorest parts of England. And very quickly it became clear, not just that the plant was dangerous for workers inside but more apparently, most immediately, was polluting the local environment. There was a school immediately next to it and people in the local area began to experience various health complaints associated with formaldehyde exposure, which is one of the products produced in the manufacture of chipboard. And Dave and I were called in by a newly formed community group – Communities Against Toxic Sonae – in order to provide some assistance initially. And we started to research the company as best we could and the activities at the factory. Now the factory wasn’t unionised, so we were unable to get inside the factory via the trade unions and clearly management weren't gonna allow us inside the factory. And we didn’t have some of the scientific skills necessary to map the health effects per se upon the local community, but we could write their story on their behalf and with their input of course. And Dave and I did this in terms of publishing short articles in local magazines about the .. about the factory in an attempt to support the community’s campaign to have the factory either – in their words - clean up its act or close down. And I think we’d written three or four short pieces in the space of three or four years. We’d had various interest from local media, broadcast media, print media in and around the city and, kind of out of the blue, one Christmas, 2006, Dave White, myself, the person who edited the magazine where he’d put the articles, and also the person who ran the website which hosted some of our articles and indeed the other writings about the – other unpublished writings about the factory. We all received threats of libel if we didn’t desist saying what we were saying about the factory. Now, myself, Dave White and the editor of the magazine decided that this was probably a bluff. It’s a very common tactic used by companies who don’t want people to say critical things about their activities. But usually a bluff because often they're not gonna be or can't be carried through legally. Unfortunately the company who owned the website decided that they would close that down. Now that’s not a problem for myself nor for Dave in terms of us saying what we want to say, but it is a problem in terms of the documenting of what was happening in and around the factory because lots of material posted on the website by the local community were removed and not to be accessed anywhere in any form. So, the issues of libel, the threats of libel and the realities of libel have been documented in this area before. Edwin Sutherland in White Collar Crime famously had two chapters in the first version excised from that book. John Braithwaite talks about long bouts with pharmaceutical companies or their lawyers before he could publish his book Corporate Crime in the Pharmaceutical Industry. And this was a very, very small, very, very localised example of how corporate power can use those threats in order to silence critical work.
Dr. Deborah Drake
So what happened in the end?
Professor Steve Tombs
Well the libel threat was late 2006 and really through 2007, '8 and '9, the plant kind of felt silent in the sense that the organiser of the local group was a local reverend. He moved on. Often in these small campaigns people lose their energy. They lose their – their drive – their ability to carry these things forward. The plant was unionised so certainly conditions in the plant, inside the plant did appear to – did appear to improve until last December 2010 when just before Christmas two workers were killed inside the plant. The spotlight went back on to the plant and it was closed down temporarily. Early January [2011] the plant hit the headlines again just after re-opening. There was a big fire and an explosion. There was evacuation of the local community. And I think that in a sense has been the tipping point, because now the local politicians who four or five years ago had supported closure then fell silent. And now fairly united in seeking closure of the plant, and most importantly the local community now again were organising, the local media interest on their side. So the future of the plant is now very much in doubt.
Dr. Deborah Drake
I'm interested to hear your thoughts on how you move between your sort of theoretical interests and how you take these on board in your – in your research interests in the questions you ask. So can you tell me about how you see the relationship between theory and research?
Professor Steve Tombs
Well my interest, my basic interest, isn't how certain forms of power emerge and how power operates; what effects power has, how power becomes manifest in social life and so on. I should say my background is in Marxist political theory. I don’t have any training as a criminologist, per se. So throughout my work in particular I've tried to examine the nature of and the relationships between economic power, particularly the form of the corporation, and the state. But also change in state forms because the state clearly isn't a static entity or set of institutions. And those interests between those different forms of power have really coalesced substantively around corporate crime and harm. So then ,in particular, how corporate crimes and harms take effect how they are and how they might be regulated, and how those regulations might be enforced locally, nationally and internationally. And so, I think in keeping with one of the essential kind of tenets of almost all forms of critical criminology I've tried to look up or study up to use a famous phrase, to look up at power. And that’s meant trying to understand who and what has the ability to define what gets counted as crime; trying to examine the effects of the absence of criminalisation; and trying to find ways in which these processes of actual or non-criminalisation can be subject to challenge, for example in ways which may achieve greater protection for workers and local communities from the risks that are caused by certain kinds of economic activity.
Dr. Deborah Drake
So what difference does it make to how you carry out your research and practise that you come from a particular position?
Professor Steve Tombs
Well I think first of all I think it means recognising that my research does have a valued position, and its explicitly political so, I try to be as any academic or any social scientist but I'm always very conscious of what I engage in or what I'm engaging in it for and sometimes who I'm engaging in my research work for. I try to keep that very clear. And if that sounds a bit pretentious, I should emphasise much of my work is just boring routine slog. But I would say that throughout my academic career I've worked with trade unions, with other workers groups, with community and activist groups and that’s meant writing to and speaking to and with them and often as they see fit, so on their behalf. And it also means engaging in political processes at all levels from very small local meetings of small campaign groups to regularly making sure I submit evidence to relevant parliamentary committees, again sometimes on behalf of or with campaigning groups. So I've kept long-term relationships with many of the individuals and groups of people whom I have researched at some point. And I'd also say that I think this is a mutually beneficial relationship because I've now got access to people and places I could never have achieved otherwise. While at the same time, I think I've been using whatever skills I do have: time, resources, skills I enjoy as a university academic to make some very small contribution to various struggles for social justice.
Dr. Deborah Drake
That’s great. Thanks very much.
End transcript: Research, theory and crimes of the powerful: an interview with Steve Tombs
Research, theory and crimes of the powerful: an interview with Steve Tombs
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