Saturday, 5 May 2012

Name Calling - 'White Collar Crime'

When I was checking that calling this blog ‘business behaving badly’ wasn’t an unintentional rip-off of any other regular blog/journal/feature, I came across this interesting and broad ranging speech by Christopher Craige, the Director of the CDPP in Australia. It covers many interesting ideas, and is aimed at an audience who knows a thing or two about law and/or crime, but not a huge deal about corporate crime. It is therefore aiming at the same market as I am, and with the same name. I’m pretty sure he won’t mind me using the title for a blog 4 years later.

I also hope he won’t mind me disagreeing with him on one issue. He writes:

In the early 21st century I suggest we can be far more robust in adopting a language that defends and nurtures the free market system whilst saving it from its own excesses. The continued currency of the term “white collar crime” is now unhelpful in this task. Any lingering implication that there is a more benign variety of crime, arising from genteel origins of some corporate perpetrators can surely now be dismissed. Language of this kind is an impediment to retaining community confidence that we have clear-eyed legislative, regulatory, prosecutorial and judicial responses to what are in essence very serious and harmful crimes committed by people in positions of trust and advantage. It is an aggravating fact in a contemporary setting when such crimes are committed by people in the course of occupying very high positions of authority in business.

To have a problem with the term white collar crime is not unique. I didn’t want it in the title of my blog, but not for his reasons.

First, I would argue that the ‘lingering implications’ of ‘genteel’ or ‘benign’ crime are not all that strong. As the trend of developed nations is to take firmer stances towards such behaviour, the umbrella name must matter less. Relatedly, the words ‘white collar’ don’t need to mean gentility.

In fact, the reason I disagree with Craigie is part of the reason I didn’t want to use the term myself. It is vague and its parameters are unclear. David Nelken[1] devotes some time to working out what white collar crime might be. He shows very clearly why the ‘original’ definition given in 1949 by Sutherland[2] pretty hopeless. A crime committed by a ‘person of high status in the course of his occupation’ tells us so very little about what might be going on – it could be financial crime, competition law offences, manslaughter, or whatever. Some scholars have included non-criminal behaviour in ‘white collar crime’ -Sutherland among them. The definition doesn’t help us decide whether any given practice falls within the definition.

If then, the definition is vague, and we can’t apply it easily, because it’s so nebulous, then I find it hard to believe there can be much in the way of lingering connotation. Because it is at once definitive sounding and nebulous in reality, I didn’t want it in the title of my blog. I didn’t want to try and defend whatever I discussed as falling within its ‘meaning’. Instead, I’ve used my own (and Craigie’s!) title.

We could do away with the ‘white collar’ term, if we could convince everyone to rip up lots of textbooks. I don’t think we really need to. In all its cloudy fug, devoid of strict academic meaning, it does at least wave us in the general direction of a group of offences. With time, what comes under white collar crime may well crystallise. And it is useful to have a name or label for a set of offences. The set that Craigie wants to refer us to is not so easily caught within a definitional parameter like, say, sexual offences or traffic offences. If we do away with ‘white collar’ crime (or ‘corporate crime’ – which arguably isn’t a great name either) then we are just left with ‘crime’, which is more useless; or we have to think of a new name. 

Given how hard it is to define the contents of the rather flexible title ‘white collar crime’, one runs the risk of naming something into definition. For example, something like ‘elite crimes’ looks like it rules out any struggling businessman, where ‘white collar’ does not. Further, terms like ours (BBB) are equally nebulous. I only used it because it was nebulous enough that I didn’t have to compare my definition to anyone else’s!

And whatever we call it, who’s to say that lingering genteel and benign connotations would be banished – in talking about competition law it was once said it’s theft by men in nice suits[3]. If there is an element of gentility in these types of behaviours, we can’t oust it simply by using a different name!

[1] In the Oxford Handbook of Criminology. His discussion is very much fuller than mine.
[2] In a book called ‘White Collar Crime’
[3] I can’t now remember by whom. 

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