The UK’s most violent crimes are going viral on YouTube

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It’s an incongruous introduction for YouTube videos with titles like ‘Triple Stabbing And A Dog in Peckham Gang Attack’ and ‘Armed Robber Chased By Civilians Given 10 Years’. There are hundreds more clips like these on Scarcity Studios, a Birmingham-based YouTube channel which is the UK’s fastest growing ‘true crime’ news hub and an example of how independent creators are filling the void left by the collapse of local news coverage.

The Peckham video is a perfect example of Scarcity’s method. Over the course of four minutes, the viewer is given a run through of the events on the February 26, 2020 that saw two young men and a dog attacked in south east London after a funeral wake.

The narrator outlines the facts of the case in a soft Brummie accent, giving confirmed details, as well as some freshly sourced footage from the aftermath of the crime, which have been supplied exclusively to the channel, with any graphic details carefully omitted.

At one point, he takes umbrage with the Daily Express’ inaccurate coverage of the incident and its needless “sensationalism”. The video ends with a justification of the narrator’s own decision to cover the case. Gang violence, he says, isn’t going anywhere in south London and there is little to be gained by ignoring it.

It’s something that Scarcity Studios could never be accused of doing. Over the last 18 months the channel has become a bonafide phenomenon of its kind, with over 121,000 YouTube subscribers and a considerable Instagram and Twitter presence, with each video routinely garnering hundreds of thousands of views.

Despite being a one man operation, its output is prolific, with multiple, slickly edited videos and mini documentaries a week, covering some of the most harrowing crimes from around the country, from teen killings in the Midlands to the demise of notorious Yorkshire drug trafficking rings. The comments sections reveal a young loyal and appreciative audience; gold dust for any media organisation, whatever the size. Many write that Scarcity is their most trusted news source, a reliable one stop shop for all the most dramatic local news that doesn’t get appropriate attention elsewhere, in more traditional media outlets.

It seems like a very modern solution to the gradually intensifying decline of the country’s local press. It’s no secret that the last few decades have witnessed a drastic emaciation in the number of regional newspapers that served as a vital resource for the areas they operated in. In 2018 the BBC reported that over 200 local papers in the UK have closed since 2005, with the number of regional journalists halved to 6,500. Of the publications that do remain, 80 per cent are owned by just six companies.

The social effects have been dramatic. In areas that once had robust coverage of the issues that impacted daily life, a vacuum has opened, only to be filled with the spread of unverified rumours and social media bile. For some, like the steadfastly independent Scarcity, it has offered an inadvertent opportunity.

The creator of the channel, who goes by ‘Scarcity’ as he wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitive and often political nature of his content, started posting videos in 2013. Back then, it was a primarily music focussed platform covering local artists in Birmingham; kids from the city’s estates that might not otherwise have had the platform to exhibit their work. “[There’s] lots of people like that, all around the country, that might have the talent but not the means or even the discipline to do something about it”, Scarcity says. Some of them, he goes on to explain, have since gone to prison or drawn further into life at the harshest end of the inner city.

“I grew up in that environment and [got into] all sorts of trouble when I was younger,” says Scarcity, who now focuses almost exclusively on the most extreme, often violent stories. “In 2016, I was caught up in a lifestyle that nearly saw me in prison myself. It’s part of what motivated me to start doing what I’m doing now. How and why people get drawn in and make the choices they make, as well as the things that they don’t have any choice over at all”.

It was the murder of 16-year-old Christine Edkins, killed in a random knife attack by paranoid schizophrenic on a Birmingham bus in 2013 that first brought these thoughts to bear. It was a story that shook the city and led to Scarcity considering the impact of cuts to mental health services and the chain of failures that led to Edkins death.

Out of that case came an awareness that the channel could be used for something other than just music, after a tribute video he posted gained hundreds of thousands of views. Despite his lack of formal journalism training, Scarcity is keen to stress a long fascination with the mechanics of news production, both how it gets made and who the finished product is pitched to. One of his first stories was that of a friend who was shot on his mum’s doorstep in Lee Bank, a troubled inner city ward in his home city, which attracted minimal coverage.

Then, a few months later, the victim’s brother was caught with a firearm in a McDonalds. Almost at a stroke, an entire family had been impacted by what reporters from the more traditional media world would elide under the banner of ‘youth violence’, if they ever stopped to cover it at all. It was a chain of events that led to Scarcity thinking that “something else needs to be said about all this. It was because of how I handled that and the other early videos that people started to come to me, families and other people directly caught up in it”.

He now estimates that around 70 per cent of his videos are the result of tips or people reaching out to cover a particular case- people that trust his ability to tell their stories with fairness. There’s also the question of authenticity, which feels particularly acute when it comes to coverage of the current spike in youth violence, where reporting can often feel trapped in the perspective of the horrified middle class outsider peering in, without much in the way of first-hand insight. “[Even the] BBC have acknowledged they have a problem engaging with youth audiences on this”, as Scarcity puts it. “There’s maybe an understanding that the newspapers or whoever are going to twist things you say, to the point that the whole message is changed. These topics have to be treated with the respect they deserve and by people who might have a slightly better perspective than a middle class journalist.”

In 2017, Labour MP Vicky Foxcroft highlighted the damaging effects of irresponsible media reporting on youth violence, that ‘glamorised’ rise in fatalities, while others lasered in on the rise of drill music as somehow providing a ready made explanation for the spike in violence; a link that Scarcity does well to consistently debunk in his videos.

Yet there’s also evidence that some of the worst and most egregiously ghoulish coverage is present in the unregulated shadow world of social media. Crime equals views, clicks and subscribers for the amateur journalist just as much as the cynical tabloid hack. It’s something that Scarcity is also well aware of and an ethical problem he tries his best to tackle head on. He tells me how his channel’s growth has spawned a legion of less scrupulous imitators, who think little, if anything, of spreading sensational, deliberately misleading content into the news feeds of their young subscribers. He mentions one example, of a video purporting to show the Harlesden rapper Nines being attacked by long time rival C Biz, after the former was genuinely involved in a stabbing last summer. “They knew what they were doing and just left it up. If you see it has 250,000 views then they just aren’t going to bother are they? The truth isn’t as important to some people.”

Directly or not, the rise of true crime citizen journalism can offer legitimate causes for concern. “The fact of the matter is that every journalist whether professional or not, should be using reporting guidelines when covering these things,” says Anne Luce, a specialist in the ethics of suicide and violent crime reporting at Bournemouth University. “It’s about recognising the impact of that reporting in the public sphere. When we talk about social media, there are still some guidelines that should be followed and they all say there shouldn’t be anything sensational.”

Scarcity freely admits to having made mistakes along the way. “I’m pretty new to it all and I’m still learning [but there] have been some ground rules I’ve set myself,” he says. “I never use graphic footage or show any actual violence. I think the stories can speak for themselves and I do honestly think it’s important that someone is covering this stuff in a relatively non judgemental way”.

Despite the rapid growth, the channel hasn’t been a money spinner, despite the recent addition of sponsorship from a Birmingham car repair service. For the first year, Scarcity would edit and upload a video every morning before work as a sound engineer, a gruelling process that he says separated him from his would-be rivals. There is also a growing recognition of his work by major outlets that have swooped down to try and tap him up as a fixer, something he says doesn’t really interest him. Recently, he has even tried to incorporate on-the-scene reporting and is approaching a major new project at the behest of a notorious London crime family.

Whatever squeamishness can be levelled at the channel, it’s clearly filling some gap in the market. People, young and old, want to consume the news they feel impacts their lives directly, however grisly or macabre it may be. There are endless handwringing conversations about the lack of diversity in journalism and the chilling effect it has on the type of work that forms the debate around issues of national importance.

Scarcity Studios might not be everyone’s idea of what a journalist should look or sound like, but it’s impossible to doubt his sincerity, or the loyalty that his work inspires. “One of the best things is when people from the streets come up to me and tell me that they appreciate it. [It’s not something] that ever gets old”, he says. “It’s about connecting at the end of the day. Surely that’s what journalism is?”

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