Serious organised crime: communications evidence review

Review of messaging around serious organised crime and toolkit for communicators to reduce demand, victimisation and fear.

4. Perceptions

While perceptions of organised crime in Scotland are not the subject of regular polling or study, on the basis of the information available it is clear that the popular view has not kept pace with the new challenges facing law enforcement, and that while the array of threats from serious organised crime is complex and rapidly changing, the public awareness of them is substantially less so.

It is also important to remember that many perceptions of organised crime are coloured by the deep-seated associations created and reinforced by fictional representations and the mass media. If a crime does not fit this existing framework of cunning, trafficking and violence [178] , then the public may struggle to conceive of it as organised crime, despite much broader definitions being accepted and used by Government and law enforcement.

The term 'organised crime' itself therefore presents difficulties – what the public and to some degree the media mean when they discuss or are asked about it will not be the same as what the enforcement establishment means. The requirement for the phrase to be used in a media campaign at all should therefore not be treated as a given, and where it will simply present a further awareness hurdle (see Chapter 5 - Attitudes and Behaviours) it may be more effective to simply broaden understanding of the crime type itself and the risks and harm associated with it, rather than to first explain its status for the law enforcement community as an "organised crime." It is possible that the same could be said for other very general terms such as "cybercrime" or "fraud", which describe very little of the specific offending and which refer instead to a whole family of disparate crime types.

4.1 Awareness of 'Organised Crime'

The most recent broad benchmark of organised crime awareness was provided by a 2013 poll commissioned by the Scottish Government, which investigated various attitudes and associations.

The key finding of the survey was that the Scottish public overwhelmingly associated organised crime with drugs and drug dealing. Fewer than 20% of respondents associated any other specific criminal behaviour with organised crime, while offences including cybercrime, fraud and sexual exploitation of children did not feature at all.

Such data could be taken to mean that the public simply do not associate particular crime types with organised gangs, rather than that they are unaware of the risk at all. However, a more recent data set supports the interpretation that many types of organised crime are simply not a major public concern.

Ipsos MORI/Scottish Government Social Research, 2013 [179]
Ipsos MORI/Scottish Government Social Research, 2013

In April 2016, Police Scotland launched "Your View Counts", a 12-month public survey designed to inform future Policing priorities. The preliminary results echo the 2013 Scottish Government study, with drugs high in the public's priorities and many other crimes of concern to a small fraction of respondents. For instance, only 3.2% listed cybercrime as a national policing concern, with even fewer considering it a local problem.

Other areas of organised crime, for instance counterfeiting and fraud, were not mentioned at all, unless they were reported under the general heading of "serious organised crime" (an association which the 2013 study indicates is unlikely). [180] The extent to which these concerns are driven by actual risk of victimisation, or simply by the established areas of interest of the news media, is an area that could be further investigated.

Those perceived as at risk of becoming a victim of organised crime were generally vulnerable in some way, whether by age, income, identity or drug use. Only 12% of respondents named "individuals generally", and 9% "society as a whole", as most affected by organised crime.

Ipsos MORI/Scottish Government Social Research, 2013 [181]
Ipsos MORI/Scottish Government Social Research, 2013

The Police Scotland data further reinforces the finding that the majority of people view serious organised crime as happening elsewhere to their immediate surroundings. It shows that while one in ten people are concerned about serious organised crime generally on a national level, only one in 45 see it as a local concern. Concerns about cybercrime, the exploitation of children and national security are all seen as being a national problem more than a local one. The 2013 Scottish Government data, while not directly comparable in the questions it asked and the methodology, showed the same trend, with 84% of respondents thinking that organised crime was a very serious or fairly serious problem in Scotland as a whole, but only 27% holding the same view of it in their neighbourhood.

The difference between local and national attitudes can perhaps be attributed to the different drivers of those attitudes - perceptions of local crime are more likely to be created by personal experience and to be more positive than perceptions of national crime, which are more likely to be driven by reported experiences and information taken from the media. [182]

Ipsos MORI/Scottish Government Social Research, 2013 [183]
Ipsos MORI/Scottish Government Social Research, 2013

4.2 Perceptions of Specific Organised Crime Types

Some key elements of public perceptions of certain types of serious organised crime are outlined below.

4.2.1 Drugs and New Psychoactive Substances

Attitudes to drugs fluctuate over time and are driven by political and cultural trends in Scotland as well as developments elsewhere. Scottish Government policy on addressing problem drug use has traditionally involved various combinations of education, enforcement and treatment, with recent health policies placing an emphasis on recovery from drug dependency. [184] The response to the relatively new problem of NPS has drawn on a similar three-pronged approach.

While there has now been a general shift in the tone of media statements about crime, away from war or conflict analogies ('blitz', 'war', 'smashing') and towards a more nuanced representation of the work of law enforcement and their role in the community, there is scant data on what, if any, impact this has had on the public's view of drug dealers themselves. As we have seen, those who use drugs are increasingly likely to purchase them online, possibly from abroad. This relatively rapid change in the dynamic of the dealer-user relationship, if it continues, has the potential to fundamentally alter the impact of drug dealing. We could speculate that, with gangs profiting less from controlling certain physical regions of customers, and instead competing for business in huge online dark markets, their focus may turn to the trading networks and their online reputation rather than violent conflict. [185] While speculative, it is possible that the primary manifestation of problem drug misuse in Scottish communities may increasingly come from its users rather than its trade.

Regardless of the eventual impact of online drug dealing, the majority of people in Scotland are relatively sympathetic to drugs users and believe that drug dependence is an illness, that people with a history of drug dependence are too often demonised in the media, and that we have a responsibility to care for people who are dependent on drugs. [186]

Public attitudes to heroin use are less sympathetic, with more people believing that most people who end up addicted to heroin 'have only themselves to blame' than the reverse. People tend to be fairly evenly divided into which they consider the most effective approach, between the three options of education, enforcement and treatment, and the majority support prosecution of those found in possession of heroin. [187]

Public attitudes to cannabis, Scotland's most widely-used drug and one of the few that can be produced in the country, have fluctuated over the past 15 years. A 2009 study showed that the public had become less supportive of the legalisation of cannabis over the course of the preceding 8 years, perhaps driven in part by its reclassification as a Class B drug and extensive debate both in politics and the media about the dangers of stronger strains of 'skunk'. [188] However, this data preceded the recent trend of decriminalisation, either wholesale or in the form of limited medicinal legalisation, that has taken place in the United States, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Portugal and several other countries in the early years of this decade. [189] There is some evidence that during this period Scottish public opinion has again reversed, and the majority (58%) now supports controlled legalisation. [190]

Regardless of the type of drug, and representing one of the few aspects of drug misuse which appears to attract relative agreement amongst the overwhelming majority of the population, 80% of Scottish people believe that 'the only real way of helping drug addicts is to get them to stop using drugs altogether'. [191]

4.2.2 Cybercrime

"To grasp even the very basics of cyber security in its rich variety, one must be prepared to learn countless new idioms that are being constantly added to or amended. Otherwise you can listen to a conversation that in basic vocabulary and syntax structure is unmistakably English, but is nonetheless completely meaningless to those unschooled in the arcane language"

– Misha Glenny, "Darkmarket", 2011 [192]

Most internet users are well aware of the threat of cybercrime. However, one survey of European countries showed that while over 70% of individuals had heard or seen information about cybercrime in the past year, only 7% felt 'very well informed', and over half reported feeling 'not at all informed' or 'not very well informed'. [193] The extent to which this exposure to messages then translates to meaningful behaviour change is often dictated by an assessment of risk and reward on the part of the user.

Angela Sasse, Director of the Research Institute for Science of Cyber Security, has set out some of the reasons why many users often ignore such a highly publicised threat and take only limited precautions. Key of these, which can also perhaps be applied to other crime types, are the following:

  • they don't believe the threat is real
    users receive too many warnings, while at the same time observe very few actual consequences
  • even if users did believe the threat was real, they may well still ignore it
    users make a risk/reward assessment, and most users, most of the time, don't bear the cost of security problems [194]

Sometimes well-meaning security campaigns can even do harm - a 2016 report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology ( NIST) in the USA found widespread "security fatigue" in the general population. The regularity of general cybersecurity messages had left the majority of average computer users feeling overwhelmed, bombarded, and constantly on alert. Many did not see that they were personally at risk, did not feel important enough for anyone to want to take their information, nor did they know anyone who had ever been hacked. Others believed that institutions, for instance banks and online shops, should be responsible for security, and there was a sense of helplessness as to how an individual could possibly protect their data when large organisations frequently fall victim to cyberattacks. [195]

As explored further with the health campaigns discussed in Chapter 5, those faced with threats alone may become so stressed that they decide simply to abandon efforts to protect themselves, or mitigate their fear by denying the existence of the problem. [196]

Cybercrime and cybersecurity messaging must also be informed by the level of computer literacy. Over 90% of those aged 16-65 use the internet regularly, and while this figure drops drastically in the over-75s, the trend in all ages and demographics is towards increasing internet use. [197]

However, internet access alone tells only one side of the story. As many as two thirds of adults under 65 in the UK have a "poor" or worse computer skill level, with "poor" defined as the ability to use familiar applications such as email or a web browser at a basic level, for instance sorting emails into folders, but not performing more complex searches. [198] This data also does not include over 65s, who generally have a lower skill level than the 16-65 average. [199]

Therefore, any cyber-awareness campaign that fails to cater for people with only a basic understanding of computers is likely to be of use to at most around a third of the population, and may simply increase fear in the remainder.

4.2.3 Human trafficking

"Public awareness-raising on human trafficking is pivotal in order to stop complacency, educate communities on its indicators and locations, and in effect make them the new front-line in Scotland; an 'eyes and ears' against human trafficking."

'Inquiry into Human Trafficking in Scotland', Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2011

Human trafficking exists throughout Scotland. However, awareness and understanding of it have in the past been low, both among the general population and in those professions most likely to encounter it – including Police officers, health workers, solicitors and regulators.

Once victims of trafficking reach their destination, the crimes against them often unfold in private – either in flats leased for sex work, in unregulated workplaces, or in family homes. Members of the public may often be unaware that they are consumers of goods and services provided by trafficked people.

In her 2011 report, Baroness Kennedy wrote, "I am hoping that Scotland will pioneer a zero-tolerance approach to human trafficking…all underpinned by a comprehensive public awareness campaign about the true nature of this egregious human rights abuse." It was hoped that such a campaign would "improve understanding of the nature, extent and indicators of the crime." [200]

Some awareness campaigns have since taken place, for instance Police Scotland's 2013 "Reading the Signs" information leaflet, prepared alongside Crimestoppers, which contained a significant amount of practical information, but about which further information as to reach and impact is difficult to determine. [201]

4.2.4 Counterfeiting

"From Mumbai to Moscow, from Central London to the suburbs of Mexico City, counterfeiting and piracy represent a widely‐tolerated and unspoken social plague. The consequences of participating in this illicit trade are poorly understood by consumers, and the associated risks are insufficiently demonstrated by traditional authorities."

Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy, International Chamber of Commerce, November 2009

The relatively high tolerance that exists for the consumption of counterfeited or pirated goods among the general public, who often see it as a victimless crime not associated with organised criminals, is also a crucial driver both of the low risk and high reward perceived by its orchestrators. [202] [203]

A global research report by the International Chamber of Commerce established that attitudes relating to counterfeiting can be extremely challenging to shift, and that traditional messages, messengers and arguments have tended to be all but completely ineffective. [204]

Nonetheless, efforts have been made to warn the public that counterfeiting is not limited to the traditional ideas of handbags or CDs. In 2014, an Anti-Illicit Trade Summit in Edinburgh heard evidence of "make-up laced with paint-stripper, boots made from dog skin and perfume containing urine", while the following year, Police warned shoppers in Glasgow of the potential serious health consequences of purchasing counterfeit medicines, which were reported to carry risk of permanent disfigurement. [205] [206]

In November 2016, the Serious Organised Crime Task Force announced that £7 million of counterfeit goods, including fake cigarettes, clothing, cosmetics and medicines, had been seized in Scotland in the preceding year. [207]

4.2.5 Fraud

The Scottish Government's Counter-Fraud Strategy simply states as its very first objective that "We will prevent fraud by raising awareness of fraud…" [208]

Fraud awareness tends to be targeted at specific types of fraud, or in the forms of warnings issued by banks or Police as and when threats arise; there have been few general fraud-focused awareness campaigns.

Fraud can sometimes be perceived as a victimless crime, with victims automatically reimbursed by banks. Attempts to reframe the issue have sparked debate. Bernard Hogan-Howe, then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, commented in 2016 that the public were being "rewarded for bad behaviour", and that refunding them for fraud losses removed any personal incentive to update anti-virus software or ensure passwords were kept safe. [209] This led to a backlash in some quarters, with commentators suggesting that such comments amounted to 'victim-blaming', and that if banks were no longer required to refund customers then the incentive for them to improve their own security systems would be lessened. [210]

Regardless of these arguments, current practices do mask the full extent of fraud from the public awareness. Banks have been found to hide to some degree the true scale of fraud perpetrated against their customers, in particularly cyber-fraud. Adrian Leppard, commissioner of City of London Police, estimated that only one in five cybercrimes are reported and of those, only another one in five provokes a proper response from law enforcement agencies. He believed that low reporting rates were a direct result of banks writing off cyber fraud, a process which in effect simply spreads the cost of the fraud across the customer base. [211] [212]

This position was supported by comments made by Richard Clayton, a researcher in security economics at the University of Cambridge, who in a statement to the Treasury Select Committee estimated that banks obscured as much of half of the true scale of fraud against their customers. [213]

4.2.6 Firearms and Terrorism

In general, gun ownership is not an issue of significant media or political focus in Scotland, and while a significant number of guns exist in legal ownership, the proportion of crimes committed with them is low (see ' Threats').

The most recent public awareness campaign involving firearms was the 'Guns Off Our Streets' campaign, launched in October 2016 by the National Crime Agency and National Counter Terrorism Policing. The campaign was aimed at encouraging anonymous reports of criminally-owned firearms to Crimestoppers, in part to tackle access to guns by organised criminals, and in part to reduce the risk of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists planning a Paris-style shooting. [214]

4.3 Trust and Responsibility

Faith in the justice system is crucial to keeping crime levels low and providing the public with the confidence to report crime when it happens. [215] By many measures this confidence has consistently risen in recent years and the majority of adults are very or fairly confident in, for instance, the provision of access to the legal system, its effectiveness at bringing people to justice, and support for victims and witnesses.

At the same time, self-reported knowledge of the workings of the criminal justice system as a whole is low, with 61% saying they do not know very much about it and 15% saying they know nothing at all. [216] Media statements themselves are less well received - a 2010 study in England and Wales found that the majority of respondents felt that government officials and the media do not present statistics honestly. [217]

Similarly, while an encouraging 80% of people state that they would report someone who they suspected of being involved in organised crime, and 88% of people believe the police has a role in tackling organised crime in general, it is clear from the data outlined above that many would not recognise most organised crimes when they saw them, or do not believe that the crimes themselves should be policing priorities. [218] As such, despite this general willingness to help and to involve the authorities, the potential for this goodwill to be realised into actual reports of crime is hampered by a lack of workable knowledge.

'Who do you think has a role in tackling organised crime in Scotland?', Ipsos MORI/Scottish Government Social Research, 2013 [219]

    Have you been personally affected by organised crime in the last three years?
  Total Yes No
Police 88% 77% 90% *
Scottish Government 38% 40% 38%
Local communities 19% 23% 19%
Everyone 15% 24% * 15%
Councils 11% 7% 11%

*Statistically significant difference

4.4 Fear and Victimisation

Fear is seen by the public as the main impact of organised crime in Scotland, and a general reduction in the fear of crime is a key component of the Scottish Government's crime strategy. [220] Just as an awareness of the existence of an issue does not necessarily equate to a practical knowledge, fear of crime is disconnected in many ways from the day-to-day statistical likelihood of victimisation.

Ipsos MORI/Scottish Government Social Research, 2013 [221]
Ipsos MORI/Scottish Government Social Research, 2013

There is little further evidence of "fear of organised crime"; however, the general fear of crime provides illustrative evidence as to the difference between perception and reality.

"Fear of crime" for the purposes of government surveys is often measured by gauging the degree to which an individual would feel safe walking alone in their local area after dark. [222] The number of people who would feel safe in this environment has risen by an average of one percentage point every year since 2008-09. However, 26% of people (35% of women and 14% of men) still do not feel safe to varying degrees, despite the actual risk of being a victim of violent crime being less than 3%, and the risk of being the victim of a serious assault 0.1%. [223]

These averages also hide the fact that for most of the population, the risk is even lower. Over 85% experienced no crime at all in the year 2014/15, a number that is increasing year-on-year. [224] One in ten adults experienced one crime in the course of the year, which accounts for around 42% of total crime recorded. The remaining majority of crime is therefore experienced by a small subset of the population - less than 5% of us experience almost 60% of all crime. Furthermore, it is estimated that the 0.6% of the adult population who were the victim of five or more crimes in the year experienced 17% of all the nation's crime. [225]

This statistical background illustrates clearly the disconnect between risk and fear. The Scottish Government suggests a wide range of interlinking factors that influence fear levels, including: "visible and accessible policing, personal experience of crime and contact with justice agencies, perceptions of personal risk and vulnerability, antisocial behaviour such as litter, graffiti, drunken behaviour and inconsiderate neighbours." [226] An absence of the ability to fix the perceived problem is also a potential driver. [227]

The role of the media, and by extension the public statements or awareness campaigns issued by law enforcement agencies, as a potential driver of fear themselves is less widely acknowledged, though "how to communicate with the public" is an identified gap in research. [228]

The primary role that the media plays in conveying information about crime to the public suggests that it may have at least a contributory role in producing and sustaining fear. [229] A 2007 study indicated that information from newspapers and television plays a far greater role than other sources, including personal experience and the experience of acquaintances, in driving a false impression of increasing crime. [230]

One recent Scottish Government study also suggests that, rather than simply influencing attitudes and fears, in some cases the media may play the more complex role of reinforcing whatever beliefs a person already holds based on their personal experiences – in effect, the reader will disregard messages that do not comply with their existing perception, and use stories that do support their views to become further entrenched. The less personal experience of the justice system someone has, the more of an influence the media has on their outlook. [231]

As well as the negative effects of fear, which include a deterioration in mental health and community cohesion and which can lead to restrictive behaviour changes [232] , it has also been argued that it can play a positive role in certain circumstances. When discussing fear, we should perhaps bear in mind the potential distinction between a negative, dysfunctional worry, and a "functional fear" which motivates vigilance and appropriate precaution, and which does not reduce quality of life through either the worry or the solution. [233]

For instance, an initial concern about the safety of driving may lead an individual to wear a seatbelt; a dysfunctional fear might prevent them from ever getting in a car. Given the degree to which many awareness campaigns or statements open with a summary of the risk, ensuring that the public understand the problem before they are offered a solution, we might assume that the production of a motivating, functional fear is widely if not consciously seen as crucial to addressing the misperceptions associated with organised crime. It is when the threat is clearly explained, but no personal, workable solutions offered, that fear begins to outpace reality.


Email: Jim Hislop,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

Back to top