23 Oct 2009

Above the law? Thinking Allowed investigates white collar crime

TX: From Wednesday 4 November, 4pm, BBC Radio 4 – 3 x 30mins

Corporate fraud and financial crimes dominate today’s front pages and in a special three-part series for the BBC Radio 4 series Thinking Allowed, Laurie Taylor goes behind the headlines to investigate white collar crime – from its late addition to the statute books, to the increasing difficulty in securing a conviction. Made in association with The Open University, the programmes look at the culture, practice and prosecution of white collar crime, with Laurie speaking to leading academic experts and professionals on both sides of the law.

Analysis by sociologists Dr David Whyte and Professor Steve Tombs – both of whom have contributed to a new OU course Crime and Justice - of the 2008 Health and Safety Executive figures showed that there are 30,000 major accidents including amputations, blindings or maimings at work every year - yet only 5% are investigated by the police. This compares with an investigation rate of over 90% for serious injuries suffered outside of the workplace. Convictions are also low for fraud cases – a crime which costs the UK at least £20 billion annually – with only a fraction of that figure recouped through successful prosecutions. City accountants are claiming fraud is now at its highest ever level and that it may treble during the recession.

Speaking to those involved with cutting edge research, Laurie Taylor asks if historic attitudes of leniency towards white collar crimes exist today; how attitudes to these crimes affect the police, judiciary and corporate world; whether the police are reluctant to engage with the corporate environment; and if status plays a role in whether people are viewed as criminal and how they experience justice.

Dr Deb Drake, a criminologist at The Open University and academic consultant to the programmes said: “Class, perception and status all seem to play a role in how criminals are treated in our judicial system. There is the notion that those of high status get shorter and easier jail sentences, and that crimes committed by people at work are not investigated by the police. This is a timely and challenging look at a very particular kind of crime – it promises to be a compelling series of programmes.”

Why people commit white collar crimes: Here we define white collar crimes and how they are socially constructed. We explore why/how individuals and corporations commit them. Research by Tombs and Whyte shows corporate environments contribute to an atmosphere where criminality is possible or even likely (sociological research claims that Barings ‘institutionally’ encouraged Nick Leeson’s fraud). Maurice Punch, Professor of Sociology at the LSE talks about his research, Suite Violence: Why managers murder and corporations kill. What are the growth areas? Why are some acts conceptualised as non-criminal even though they break the law? What is the attraction and what are the rewards for the individual?

How society tends to decriminalise professional crime: What social factors contribute to a culture in which police are unwilling to prosecute white collar crime, and when they do they are often unsuccessful? Most corporate crimes are left to regulatory agencies rather than to the police, why? There are claims that a traditional class difference between most police and most white collar criminals puts them off getting involved – we discuss the ethnographic research. Gary Fooks, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Southbank University talks about his ethnographic work on the Serious Fraud Office. Why do agencies like Revenue and Customs use non-prosecution methods to recoup their missing revenue from tax fraudsters, and how do these methods affect society’s attitude to crime generally?

How courts and prison treat white collar criminals: Ideas of mitigation and rehabilitation are prominent in thinking about our judicial system but do they play any part in the concept of white collar crime? Does that affect how white collar criminals are treated in court and in prison? Michael Levi’s sociological research shows middle class offenders are treated more leniently and released earlier – is this because they don’t match the criteria of the archetypical ‘criminal’. Is the idea of ‘harm to the public’ the main guiding concept behind the incarceration and if so are white collar criminals really less likely to harm the public? In Safety Crimes Tombs and Whyte demonstrate that white collar criminals harm far more people than blue collar criminals, but in a less direct way.

TX details: From Wednesday 4 November, 4pm (repeated Sundays after midnight) BBC Radio 4.TX information correct at time of issue.

Programme Credits
These Thinking Allowed editions are a co-production between The Open University and the BBC.
The Producer is Charlie Taylor, the Editor is Sharon Banoff.
BBC Commissioning Executive for the Open University is Emma De’Ath.
The Broadcast Learning Executive for The Open University is Caroline Ogilvie.
The Open University academics for the series are Louise Westmarland and Deb Drake.

The OU and the BBC have been in partnership for forty years, providing educational programming to a mass audience. In recent times this partnership has evolved from late night programming for delivering courses to peak-time programmes with a broad appeal, to encourage wider participation in learning.

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