What are 'moral panics'?

Hayley Burns

If we do not take steps to preserve the purity of blood, the Jew will destroy civilisation by poisoning us all. (Hitler, 1938)

Surely if the human race is under threat, it is entirely reasonable to segregate AIDS victims, otherwise the whole of mankind could be engulfed. (The Daily Star, 2 December 1988)

Although an extreme illustration, the above quotes serve to set up the creation of a 'moral panic'. Just as Hitler's 'facts' were unfounded, so too were The Daily Star and what resulted from both incidents was, in effect, the persecution of two minority groups within society. Hitler's quote stemmed from the use of propaganda, and although it would be fair to say that the essence of what is termed 'propaganda' does not exist in such a force today, it is nevertheless evident that what was quoted from The Daily Star is tantamount to propaganda. Throughout history, the mass media industry has been utilised as a tool to appeal to the public at large, particularly in the field of politics, where people in a position of power can tempt society into believing what they want them to believe. As Eldridge describes "The media, wittingly or unwittingly, reproduce the definitions of the powerful." [Eldridge 1997: 65] This document will examine not only the essence and origin of the term 'moral panic' but the very important nature of the media's involvement in the whole process of creating a 'moral panic'.

It was Stanley Cohen, in his work, Folk Devils and Moral Panics. (1987) who first coined the term 'moral panics'. He defined the concept as a sporadic episode which, as it occurs, subjects society to bouts of moral panic, or in other terms, worry about the values and principles which society upholds which may be in jeopardy. He describes its characteristics as "a condition, episode, person or group of persons [who] become defined as a threat to societal values and interests." [Cohen, 1987: 9] Cohen goes on to discuss the way in which the mass media fashions these episodes, or stylises them, amplifying the nature of the facts and consequently turning them into a national issue, when the matter could have been contained on a local level.

Cohen's study originated from his interest in the youth culture and its perceived potential threat to social order. Throughout each era, a group has emerged who 'fits' the criteria, such as the Teddy Boys, Mods and Rockers, Skinheads and Hells Angels. They all become associated with certain types of violence, which in turn also provoke public reaction and emotion, as topics in their own right. Such issues as football hooliganism, drug abuse, vandalism and political demonstrations, all struck a chord in public opinion, but the impact might not have been on such a large scale, were it not for the part the mass media play in the exposition of the facts.

Cohen's study was primarily about the Mods and Rockers of the 1960's and the treatment they received in the public eye. The main criticism was that they were seen as a threat to law and order largely through the way the mass media represented them, in the form of what Cohen calls the 'control culture'. Largely this refers to the media sensationalising an event and then calling for a punishment to be set to persecute the offenders. As Eldridge notes "In the process and as part of the dramatic element, scapegoats and folk devils are located and are woven into the narrative." [Eldridge 1997: 61] In other terms society cannot accept responsibility for its own failures and so they look to find someone who can be incriminated.

The 'amplification' which takes place through the media's work serves to appeal to the public so that they concur with ready-made opinions about the course of action to be taken, and these opinions have been found from the members of what Cohen refers to as the 'moral barricade', i.e. bishops, politicians and editors. Combined with the opinions of the 'experts' who are wheeled out to give their diagnosis, they reach an agreement about how to cope with the situation in hand, and the problem either disappears or at least deteriorates.

There are various ways in which these 'panics' are dealt with. Sometimes they aren't novel topics; they're topics which have existed in society for a considerable time but a particular event has triggered the significance. Although generally they pass as quickly as they came and are long forgotten, there are occasions when the consequences and repercussions are so long lasting and so much in the public eye that they can affect legal and social policy or as Eldridge puts it, even the way society perceives itself.

In Cohen's study the first recorded conflict of the Mods and Rockers, in Clacton on Easter Sunday 1964, set the scene for other resorts of its kind. The two groups fought with some beach huts being vandalised and some windows broken. Ninety seven people were arrested. On the Monday morning the story had been a headline in every national newspaper with such titles as "Day of Terror by Scooter Groups" (The Daily Telegraph) and "Wild Ones Invade Seaside - 97 Arrests" (Daily Mirror). Cohen's main criticism about the media's coverage of the episode is that it was subject to exaggeration and distortion of the facts. Such phrases as 'orgy', 'riot', 'siege', and 'screaming mob' were incorporated into the text, and exaggeration of the numbers involved all resulted in the perception of the event as a much more violent affair than the facts support.

Cohen's 'control culture' failed to deal with the problem presented to them, which is why the topic of youth culture has continued to reappear at various points in our society. The drugs abuse issue brought to the fore so many years ago has reared its head again in the form of the Leah Betts media circus episode, which resulted in several popstars being extradited from the public eye. January 16, 1995, during a radio interview, Brian Harvey, of East 17 fame, said that he enjoyed taking ecstasy and other substances. Within hours his group's songs were banned by thirteen radio stations, a DJ smashed one of their singles on air and their services were no longer required for the launch of the mid-week lottery show. Calcutt, in his article, "Ecstasy and Apostasy" notes that Harvey has been branded a modern day heretic. Not only was he made to retract his statement, but he was sacked from his band and threatened with prosecution for incitement. It wasn't long before Paul and Janet Betts were brought in to give their ever so knowledgeable vies on the subject. The journalists adopted a 'pious' tone whilst talking to them afraid that to contradict them at all would be offensive to their plight. As one journalist, Decca Aitkenhead, summed up in her article in Independent on Sunday (January 19) "In post Leah Betts Britain, ecstasy is the equivalent of slaughtering babies".

What failed to come to the forefront of the Leah Betts debate was that she actually managed to drown herself with the excess of water intake as a result of taking the pill. Many of the facts were misconstrued or omitted from the newspaper coverage. For example, in 1986, Glasgow Social Services Director, Mary Hartnoll, was persecuted for writing a report in which she calculated that "ecstasy is a relatively safe drug. The risk of death is calculated at one in six point eight million. (The risk of dying from an ordinary dose of aspirin is greater)". Paul Betts declared her 'totally irresponsible' and told her to 'get her facts right'. They were.

In a similar fashion, the media have been involved in giving false information about several matters, including BSE, E-coli and the AIDS virus and HIV. Indeed several newspapers declared in the early 1980's that HIV could only be contracted and passed on through homosexual activity. This along with the opening statements had an increasingly damaging effect on the gay community. One of the most prominent media debates of recent times comes in the form of the murder of James Bulger. In November 1991, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables tortured and killed James. Thirty eight people saw him being dragged along the shopping centre floor, and not one of them intervened.

The debate centred around three issues, the role of the 'active citizen', absent fathers and child violence. As Ann Bradley points out in A Morality Play for All Times, in the ten years between 1982 and 1991, just ten children under the age of five were killed by strangers. The Bulger murder was not a symbol of society in 90's Britain but "the media's reaction to it was" [Bradley 1994] The case was seen to encompass every negative aspect of society which is evident in today's world. The Times described it as a "reminder of humanity's most ancient and bestial instincts" and with comments like these the advocates from the 'Back to Basics' school of thought relished the opportunity to preach to society about modern social values and the need to return to a vigilant, (nosey) network of neighbours looking out for one another. This idea was only strengthened further by the court ordered appearance of some witnesses. Bryan Appleyard in The Independent noted "people like is saw him and failed to save him. This was our own special slice of life of evil, we owned it, it belonged to us."

Along with the tirade about citizenship came the debate about absent fathers and dysfunctional families. As Bradley remembers The Daily Mail described Jon as a "classic production of a broken home" implying that many children murder on a regular basis if there's trouble at home. He adds that the 'friends' claiming to have noticed the "atmosphere of neglect in the absence of a father figure" were more likely to be academics and social workers.

The case managed to highlight a number of issues about authoritarian controls and censorship, particularly regarding the killers' alleged viewing of the horror film 'Child's Play III', involving a doll who comes to life to wreak havoc. The 'copycat' theory of films dates back to the series of 'Video Nasties' but flared up when Judge Morland attributed influence to the video: "I suspect that exposure to violent video films may in part be an explanation." What was revealed after watching the security tape and the film, was that there was little resemblance and the case purely coincidental, but it was enough to provide a springboard for the media's anti-video stance.

The Times, January 22, 1994, used the word 'alarm' to sensationalise the more accurate term 'concern', This sensationalisation in turn brought a new urgency to the debate about screen violence, The Times in its conclusion asked "What kind of urban culture allowed such material to circulate freely in the homes of young children?" and The Independent on March 20, 1994 added "We must protect young minds". As Walker points out in his article "Suffer the Little Children", "Aligning themselves with the angels, both influential newspapers left no doubt that they had sighted the devil and he was making for 'young minds'" [French 1997: 94] Once again the media, newspapers in particular, exaggerated the truth of the matter. It was never proven that the killers saw the film which caused so much commotion. Even if they had this would not have been justification to allege that the circulation of 'potentially damaging' films was happening in every household as these newspapers had suggested.

To expand slightly on the opening thoughts of this examination, it is important to examine exactly what the role of the media is, and Jock Young in his essay "The Myth of the Drug Taker in the Mass Media" (Young 1981) provides an interesting explanation. His theory centres around a 'consensualist society', building on the idea that the majority of people in society share common values of reality and what is acceptable and not acceptable. Generally topics outside of their shared ideas are deemed wrong or detrimental. In the same way Young believes that the mass media shares this opinion. So it follows that its function is to reinforce the popular consciousness, although this can be regarded as a "sophisticated form of propaganda" [Eldridge 1997: 63] which plays on such emotions as discontent and insecurity without actually manipulating in the true sense of the word. Eldridge explains "Rather than manipulating in the sense of trying to get people to change their views or politics, by reinforcing what is already present in society it gives the public what it wants." [Eldridge 1997: 63]

However, it is important to note that 'moral panics' are not only created by the newspapers but on several occasions they are discussed within the papers. Eldridge quotes an example from The Guardian in 1993, "The Moral Panic and the Facts", which discusses a Conservative Party Conference: "What many feared was going to be a 'cost panic' conference over welfare expenditure turned instead into a 'moral panic' over unmarried mothers". [November 9, 1993]. Ironically the press criticised the conference for focusing on myths which had apparently already been dealt with in a Cabinet briefing paper, when they themselves are guilty of partaking in such witch hunts.

On this occasion the myths provided served as justification to take measures to introduce the "withdrawal of benefits entitlement and new restrictions on access to housing". [Eldridge 1997: 71] Cabinet members accused young women of getting pregnant merely to be entitled to a considerable amount of state benefits and suddenly there is talk of restrictions. Hypocritically The Guardian noted: "they have clearly abandoned rational policy making in favour of undiluted political prejudice". [9 November 1993]. Obviously the media's stance on 'moral panics' is ambiguous as they both use and criticise the concept.

A recent illustration of this type of conflict can be found in the story of Elian Gonzalez and the struggle his father had to allow his son to come back into his care. Elian has been placed in the middle of a fierce immigration battle since November after he was rescued from a shipwreck which killed his mother and left him the only survivor. The people on board had been trying to escape from Cuba to make a new life for themselves in America. Elian was staying in the care of relatives in Miami who believed he would be safer staying in the USA with them than return to dangerous Cuba. The media have rallied around this event and certain aspects have brought attention to the political implications. USA has been feuding with Cuba for over forty years, stemming from the Cuban Missile Crisis days. The attempt to keep Elian in America is seen to be a type of one upmanship; a victory for America over Cuba. Cuba accused America of kidnapping the boy and his father, who had joint custody of Elian, and who had no idea of his mother's attempt to flee, demanded the return of his son.

Earlier in the week of April 17, 2000 US Attorney General Janet Reno ordered a particularly unnecessary retrieval of Elian from his relative's home. Armed officers were sent in to snatch him and then deliver him to Washington where he could meet up with his father again. Once again, the media reported incidents in an exaggerated fashion. The Mirror, Monday April 24, 2000, stated that Elian was 'snatched' by 'heavily-armed' officers and 'bundled' into a vehicle. The photographs provided show two officers wrestling with a young girl and an officer armed, walking through a street set on fire. Their entire execution of this article is sensationalised and biased. Similar photographs in other tabloids show the moment Elian was taken with a debate arising about whether the officer taking him was pointing the gun at Elian.

In this tug-of-war battle, the nation has become split. There were riots on the streets of Washington and Miami as Cubans vandalised nearby cars and lit fires. Even the presidents, past and present, are divided on the subject. Bill Clinton backed the decision to take Elian whilst George Bush declared it as defying "the values of America" and "not an image a freedom-loving nation wants to show the world".

The sad truth about the information we receive from our mass media industry is that more often than not there is a hidden agenda, a bias nature which ultimately prevents the public from understanding the essence of the truth of the situation. 'Moral panics', it could be argued have been in existence even before the media came into being. For instance the basis of Arthur Miller's The Crucible , a series of witch hunts only became so strong because people became caught up in the heresy. However, the media's involvement must not be underestimated. It is society's inability to accept responsibility for its failures and problems which results in the creation of these panics and society's resistance to place blame upon itself which incriminates the 'scapegoats', those who don't fit into the normal world around themselves.

The 'moral panics' over recent years have essentially tapped into the public's fears for their safety and the safety of society in years to come. When something as tragic as the James Bulger murder is brought to our attention, it allows, however unfortunate, the powerful to enforce their ideas and rules about the government of our country. After all, as Bradley puts it, who would argue about the installment of more CCTV cameras in public areas after it was so essential to identify James' murderers and who would argue against banning violent films if it would prevent murder, because at the heart of the matter, it you were to do so, you would feel as if you had the responsibility of the death of a child on your conscience. Essentially the mass media thrives on sensation and exaggeration to boost their sales. The choice of vocabulary they incorporate and the types of photographs they show have a certain bias to them because they want society to perceive these events in a certain way. Although they claim to reinforce public opinion it is worth asking whether they are a voice for the people or a propaganda tool for the rich and powerful.

It is fitting to end the discussion with a quote from Cohen himself, who sums up why the 'moral panic' will continue to thrive in society :

More moral panics will be generated and other, as yet nameless, folk devils will be created. This is not because such developments have an inexorable inner logic, but because our society as present structured will continue to generate problems for some of its members...and then condemn whatever solution these groups find. [Cohen 1987:204]

Bibliography

April 2000