Nick Ross puts Oxford crime in TV spotlight

Nick Ross in Oxford

Nick Ross in Oxford

First published in Search by

Nick Ross presented Crimewatch for 23 years, signing off with the infamous words, “Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well”.

Now the 61-year-old is back on TV in a three-part documentary, The Truth About Crime, which begins on Tuesday on BBC One.

Nick and his team filmed for a fortnight in Oxford with the police, the fire service and at the John Radcliffe hospital:

HOW DID THE IDEA OF THE TRUTH ABOUT CRIME COME ABOUT?

There’s this huge public argument about how much crime there is.

The statistician is telling us the crime rate’s coming down dramatically, but most people feel like it can’t possibly be true.

The documentary-maker Roger Graef and I got talking and decided to take a typical British city and really see what happens – not just the police statistics, but really swamp it every way we could to find out what's going on.

WHY OXFORD? POLITE, MIDDLE-CLASS ENGLAND SPRINGS TO MIND?

I have to say I thought of Oxford as dreamy spires too, but from crime statistics we knew Oxford was a city with a typical crime rate.

The Thames Valley Police had a reasonably good reputation, so we didn’t feel we were going to be side-tracked on local policing issues.

But the clinching factor was that Oxford's main hospital covers the whole of the city, which meant if someone was injured we were going to be able to find them.

FROM YOUR RESEARCH, WHAT DOES THE REAL CRIME PICTURE LOOK LIKE?

Fundamentally, it’s not what you see on the front pages of newspapers. Gun crime is very rare in Britain and most of us are very unlikely to encounter knife crime.

What we did discover was how concern for headlines has overshadowed something much more common in terms of quality of life, and that's antisocial behaviour – which can be really debilitating.

DO YOU THINK THE MEDIA AND POLITICIANS ARE TO BLAME FOR PAINTING A FALSE PICTURE?

It’s difficult. It’s easy to be holier than thou about these things. On Crimewatch we would pack into an hour’s programme more violence than 20 people were likely to experience in their lifetime, but that’s the nature of the beast.

To be honest, we were worried we weren’t going to be able to get enough material for the programme on violent crime, because nothing was happening.

We should have spent the first 10 minutes of the programme showing that, but you can’t because that’s just not how television works, so we’re as guilty as anyone else.

WERE YOU SURPRISED BY YOUR EXPERIENCES DURING FILMING?

Interestingly, I got more sleep than I thought I would. Even I, who used to say on Crimewatch that crime is rarer than you think, overestimated how much crime there would be.

DID YOU WITNESS ANYTHING PARTICULARLY SHOCKING?

What did shock me was how bad intimidation is on some housing estates. This is a nice, middle part of the UK and large numbers of people would talk to me in their homes, but when I was on the street with a local community officer they wouldn’t. I found that really worrying.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON HOW THE COURT SYSTEM DEALS WITH CRIMINALS?

The criminal justice system is very good at delivering justice where it can – what it’s not, and never can be, is a primary instrument in cutting crime. If and when a case does come to court, it’s such a careful, cautious process and takes so long. I mean, if you burned yourself on a hot stove and it burned you 24 weeks later, would you learn not to touch a hot stove? I think the delay itself is a problem.

WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING TO CURB CRIME?

The last thing we should be is fatalistic, as there are lots of things we can do. The best solutions are natural. CCTV is almost an admission of failure in a sense, so making things more human is one of the key things we discovered.

Also, taking a scientific approach, looking at numbers and patterns and then looking for ways of disrupting those patterns. Take drunken assaults. Very few people walk around with a knife, but in a pub there’s lots of glass, so when an argument gets out of hand that’s what’s used.

One of those ways is for pubs to use polycarbonate glasses on match days.

WAS IT YOUR DECISION TO LEAVE CRIMEWATCH?

Technically it was my decision in as much as I resigned, but basically the BBC made it clear they wanted to make some changes. I’d always planned to stay put until the 25th anniversary, but I didn’t really want to stay on as a lame-duck presenter knowing I was their second choice.

WERE YOU EVER THREATENED WHILE PRESENTING CRIMEWATCH?

On the contrary, I used to go to prisons quite a lot with charities trying to find employment for ex-offenders. There was never any hostility, but usually good-humoured banter. It was almost like I was working in the same industry but for a rival company.

AFTER ALL THESE YEARS ARE YOU STILL SHOCKED TO HEAR ABOUT CERTAIN CRIMINAL ACTS?

Not shocked, I get angry. I remember once getting attacked by someone who was saying, ‘How can you say the statistics are really showing crime is falling, you don’t care’. I just thought, ‘If only you knew’.

I spend half my bloody time trying to cut crime, and care about it a darn sight more than you do.

I not only care about it, I get really angry about it.

But there’s no point just being angry, you have to turn it into something constructive.

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