Moral Panics

Matthew Wood

Moral panics have been described as a condition, episode, person or group of persons which emerge to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests (Cohen, 1972, p.9). They often occur during times when society has been unable to adapt to significant change and when such change leads to a fear of a loss of control within the normal social structure. This was evident during the 1960s when society experienced such modernising trends as the so called 'sexual revolution'. When events, such as those found in the 1960's, occur there is a concern that moral standards are in decline and entire generations can sometimes be accused of undermining society's moral structure.

Moral panics can occur both as novel events, or events which have been in existence within society for a long time and have suddenly become an issue of importance and concern. Many panics result in official change and have serious and long-lasting repercussions, as was the case following the panic concerning so called 'video nasties', which led to the Video Recording Act of 1984 introducing the regulation of videos via the British Board of Film Classification. The debates concerning the issue centred upon the lack of parental control in monitoring children's viewing and the dangers posed by certain programmes and films to young people (Lusted, 1991, p.14). The concern of 'video nasties' reappeared in the 1990's following the murder of the toddler James Bulger by two juveniles. The case was related to the violent film 'Child's Play 3', which the offenders had previously watched. The case and the implications made against the film resulted in further regulations being enacted in 1994.

The example of such 'video nasties' illustrates a further characteristic of moral panics, highlighting the fact that they are often based on insubstantial evidence. As Lusted points out there is 'considerable difficulty in establishing causal connections between television violence and violent behaviour' (Lusted, 1991, p.14). The issue of television violence reflects the broader concerns of the nature of society and its apparent collapse. The underlying causes of many moral panics have little, if anything, to do with the subject or event with which they focus their concern. As Furedi argues, children have in the past killed other children, yet the death of James Bulger provoked a reaction previously never seen before by the British public. Despite the fact that such killings remain extremely rare the story, largely due to its portrayal by the media, led to the view that all children were now at risk from one another, and that access to certain films could produce child murderers (Furedi, 1994, p.3). The dangers posed by moral panics are continuously exaggerated and distorted by the media with the result that public concern is heightened. They often present reasons and scapegoats for the occurrence of certain events in order to divert attention from more real and greater problems found within society.

However, moral panics are not a new phenomenon and the actions of certain segments of society, most notably youths, have often been seen as immoral and threatening to the accepted norms and patterns found within our culture. During the 1950s and 1960's there was widespread concern over the influence of rock 'n' roll music with fears that it led to promiscuity and anti-social behaviour. The 'drug culture' of the 1960s led to far-reaching anxiety, and it was widely believed that an entire generation would become 'crazed' addicts. The issue of drugs and music in the 1960s led to the persecution of many pop stars who were perceived as having a highly corrupting influence upon the youth of the day and, as will be discussed later in the essay, this aspect of moral panics can be related to the present day issue of the use of 'ecstasy'. In the 1970s the image of the black mugger became a target of those wishing to instil concern in the minds of the public, a panic which was to lead to a great deal of prejudice and racism at every level of society and a fear which, to a large extent, remains today.

Yet, as Furedi illustrates it would be wrong to view today's obsession with moral panics as simply being part of the historical pattern of such panics, and there are a number of differences between those found in society today and those found in the past (Furedi, 1994, p.2). In the 1990s such issues are not confined to isolated and distinct targets such as the black mugger, the drug addict or the promiscuous teenager but can cover a whole range of individuals, so essentially no one in society may feel completely safe from possible persecution as a result of a future panic.

A recent moral panic has been concerned with bullying in schools, and the issue has been widely publicised by the media following a number of parents removing their children from schools as a result of bullying. The mass media would have us believe that the issue of bullying is of grave concern to the future well being of our society and that children are lacking in the moral values with which our culture is based upon. Whilst bullying is, without question an unpleasant and unnecessary occurrence, the recent publicity it has received has, taken what has in the past been considered a familiar aspect of growing up and treated the issue as a possible moral panic and cause for future concern. Bullying has always been present in our society and although in an ideal world it would not exist, through the media's portrayal of the issue we have been led to believe that it is of far greater danger to all children than could ever have previously been thought possible.

Over the past year the British public has been confronted by numerous panics concerning the food it eats. The BSE crisis, known as 'mad cow's disease', has led to substantial changes in our methods of farming cattle, and the issue created considerable concern throughout the country. Clearly there was a genuine threat to public safety, yet the media created unsubstantiated claims about the safety of our food which led to concerns over the safety of milk and other dairy produce as well as beef. Moral panics regarding food have become increasingly common and are extensively documented in articles in the national press and other forms of media.

The E.coli outbreak in Scotland, which occurred at the end of 1996, created debates regarding food safety laws and led to changes concerning the cleanliness of animals when they are slaughtered and the general hygiene standards in butcher's shops and supermarkets. Whilst E.coli is extremely dangerous the media's reporting of the incident led the public to believe that there was yet another national crisis concerning our food, and that such vulnerable groups as the elderly and the young were in extreme danger. However, despite the fact that twenty people died and many were seriously ill, the outbreak of E.coli was exaggerated extensively by the press, and many of the public failed to realise that many of the planned changes concerning food hygiene were already in place in most food shops. Whilst changes in the storing and displaying of cooked and raw meats was clearly necessary, the media's orchestration of the panic led the public to believe the issue to be a far greater problem than it actually was.

Perhaps the most publicised moral panic in the past year has been the concern over the British gun control laws. Following the Dunblane massacre in Scotland in which a number of schoolchildren and their teacher were shot dead by a lone gunman, a campaign was initiated calling into question the current restrictions on the purchasing of weapons. The incident created a national panic and concern for the safety of our children in schools, and the issue of stricter gun laws resulted in extensive amendments to the laws making the United Kingdom one of the strictest countries regarding public access to hand guns. For months following the tragedy debates were raised as to how far the government should restrict the public's use of guns, and many objections were raised by members of gun clubs throughout the country, many of whom would be unable to pursue their hobby as a direct result of the introduction of the new legislations. Whilst it was clearly necessary to amend the law, shooting enthusiasts illustrate the fact that in today's society the targets of moral panics are not always select individuals, and that the subjects of such concerns can encompass whole sectors of society. Clearly, the majority of people who possess hand guns or who partake in shooting activities are normal, responsible people who have simply fallen victim to the demands of the media and the general public in making the country a safer place and preventing such a tragedy as Dunblane from ever occurring again.

The Dunblane incident highlights the fact that many innocent people fall victim of certain moral panics once they are orchestrated by the media. This point was evident in the aftermath of the AIDS issue which was raised in the 1980's. Through the media we were led to believe that the virus posed a very real threat to the future of mankind and although it was, to a great extent, a possibility that the virus would affect our whole way of life, it must be noted that the initial scare as reported by the media was based on assumptions and insubstantial evidence. The press also publicised the fact that the virus was prominent amongst the gay community. Whilst it remains true that homosexual men are at considerable risk from the virus the media's portrayal of the issue provoked mass public resentment of homosexuals and a general belief that they were responsible for the disease due to their 'unorthodox' lifestyle.

In recent years single parent families have come under considerable attack from the media, and the newspapers in particular have pointed to the supposed decline in standards as being directly related to the issue of such families, who often have no choice but to leave children at home on their own. Like many other panics the issue being raised is not new and children have often been left alone in the past. Yet, the current concern over juvenile crime has led to a reaction against single parent families and the two concerns are now intrinsically related in the eyes of the public as a result of the media's attention to them. During the past month the concern over the affects of single parent families has again been raised and linked to the issue of the amount of time many fathers are spending with their children. The press are now not simply concerned with those families being raised by one parent, but have expanded their criticisms to those families in which the father figure is absent for any length of time. Following a report entitled 'Talking About My Generation', which was commissioned by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, both the Daily Mail and the Times published articles on the 10th April, 1997, raising concerns over the amount of time fathers spend with their children. Both articles illustrate the roles of the press in orchestrating panics, with headings such as, 'Where's daddy?'. In both articles fathers are seen to be responsible for neglecting their children and the use of language in both papers can be seen to clearly criticise men who in many circumstances are forced to sacrifice time spent with their children in order to support their families financially. The Daily Mail refers to them as 'Remote', whilst the Times considers them to be 'neglecting their children'. Clearly, the use of such negative language instils certain views in the public's conscience and it immediately creates a negative idea of modern fathers. The inclusion of official reports and figures in press articles serves to heighten public fears over issues and in a way substantiates the claims put forward by the media.

Newspapers often point to the decline of public standards in their reporting and orchestration of moral panics, and they continually compare and relate issues to the supposed 'good old days', indicating that in the past such things would not have occurred. This in a sense leads to an on going concern that our society is in decline, and has created a permanent panic which has led to the public being continuously aware of the belief that society no longer holds such past values as important. As Tracey Lauder argues, 'Today's moralistic commentators and politicians like to give the impression that things were much better in the past' (Lauder, 1993, p.2). Yet, it can be argued that even in the past there were incidents of child crime and 'remote fathers', and the media fails to recognise that many of the issues of concern are not unique to the 1990s.

Newspapers are particularly responsible for orchestrating panics in the way they interpret and report certain issues, and often they actively encourage social concerns by declaring that something should be done to change society. They encourage us to try to make sense of events that have occurred which threaten our values or social structure, and following the reporting of the initial events they discuss their implications in great length. This was evident in the reporting of the Dunblane incident which led to discussions of gun control and the violent nature of society in general.

The media, and in particular the national newspapers, will form stereotypes and symbols concerning particular incidents. As a result we associate certain groups, such as ravers and new age travellers, with particular stereotypical activities such as drug use, whilst words and places such as Dunblane take on an almost symbolic power, with which we immediately identify particular issues of concern. The media act in establishing certain concepts of deviance, and have the ability to create and instil particular attitudes towards certain groups within society. This has been evident in the public outcry regarding the use of the drug ecstasy amongst the youth of today.

A moral panic was created following the death of the eighteen year old Leah Betts from the drug ecstasy in November 1995, and the case demonstrates several aspects of moral panics which are created and substantiated by the media. The use of ecstasy within our society has become headline news once again as a result of the comments made by Brian Harvey a member of the pop group East 17. Harvey was criticised for publicly declaring that he enjoyed taking the drug and following his comments there was widespread concern over the influence of pop stars on the youth of today.

Ecstasy is a relatively new drug and its exact effects, both short and long term, are at present unclear. Current research into the drug has indicated that continued use may lead to feelings of depression and anxiety, and may have extremely harmful effects on the brain leading to health problems in later life, yet at present there is no conclusive evidence as to the full effect the drug has on the body. Certainly the drug can kill even if an individual has only taken it once, yet the media, has reported the use of ecstasy to be highly dangerous, and have over exaggerated its known danger.

As with fears raised during the 1960s over the effects of various drugs, the use of ecstasy amongst the youth of today has created widespread panic that members of society will become crazed addicts. Certainly its use poses a threat to the accepted norms, and those in established positions see the use of the drug and its supposed relation to rave culture as a definite threat.

The public perception of the drug has been formed as a direct result of the death of Leah Betts, and the ardent campaigning of her parents Paul and Janet Betts for greater awareness of the dangers of the drug. Yet, due to the nature of the reporting of the event, and the actions of the Betts' it has become impossible to comment on the use of ecstasy in any way which may contradict their beliefs and as Calcutt and Davenport argue to do so is 'to insult their dead daughter's memory' (Calcutt & Davenport, 1997, p.1). Relatives of those who have died of the drug, particularly the Betts, are treated as saintly figures and their comments are deemed as correct simply because of their daughter's death. As Decca Aitkenhead commented, 'In post-Leah Betts Britain, ecstasy is the equivalent of slaughtering babies' (Cited in Calcutt & Davenport, 1997, p.1). Certainly just as 'Dunblane' has symbolic power concerning debates about gun control, the name Leah Betts is intrinsically related to the issue of ecstasy.

To say any form of comment deemed wrong by the likes of the Betts', however true, is effectively an act of sin. In April 1996, Mary Hartnoll the director of Glasgow Social Services wrote in a report that 'ecstasy is a relatively safe drug. The risk of death has been calculated at one in 6.8 million (the risk of dying from an ordinary dose of aspirin is very much greater)' (cited in Calcutt & Davenport, 1997, p.2). Hartnoll was clearly not condoning the use of the drug but was merely attempting to put what known facts we have into perspective in light of the current scare, yet she was immediately condemned by amongst others Paul Betts who said it was an irresponsible statement and that 'To come from such a prominent person, it's absolutely stupid. She should get her facts right'. Mary Hartnoll's facts are, however, correct but in today's society where moral panics are fuelled and supported by the media to such a large extent, the correct information is almost always seen to be on the side of the anti-drugs activist.

Following Brian Harvey's interview in which he declared that he enjoyed taking the drug he was publicly condemned and his group were banned from thirteen radio stations and considered unsuitable to appear on the first midweek national lottery show. He was forced to make a public apology and the extent to which he was criticised for his comments led to him being sacked by the rest of the band. Although his comments were, if nothing else, foolish in light of the present public feeling towards the use of ecstasy, he was portrayed by the media as a typical deviant who would corrupt youths across the country. Certainly East 17 have a largely teenage following and, as a result, he should have realised such a comment was unwise, yet the media declared that he would be responsible for the deaths of drugs victims as a result of his comments and was deemed a threat to youths across Britain who may be tempted to try the drug.

Public feelings concerning the issue were further intensified when Noel Gallagher, of the rock band Oasis, attempted to defend Harvey by declaring that 'drugs is like getting up and having a cup of tea in the morning' (Calcutt & Davenport, 1997, p.2). Gallagher tried to argue that whether we liked it or not, drugs were an every day part of our society and he highlighted the hypocrisy surrounding the issue in that drug use spanned all of society and was no longer an activity confined to select groups within our culture. Like Harvey he too was forced to make a form of apology following the MP Tim Rathbone's calls for him to be prosecuted, and he publicly recognised that drugs could be harmful, calling for an open debate concerning drug abuse in Britain. Surprisingly, he was supported by the Mirror newspaper who printed the headline 'Why Noel's RIGHT On Drugs'. Yet, his comments were still criticised by many sectors of the media, and clearly in the light of the on going feeling caused by this moral panic any form of sensible and clear debate concerning the dangers of drug use are impossible.

Both Harvey and Gallagher can be seen to have been hailed as deviants by the media and the situation brought to light many issues including the supposed link between the corrupting influence of pop music and drugs on the young. This issue had been raised during the 1960's, most evidently in the actions of the media and the authorities in their harassment of The Rolling Stones who were seen to be a threat to society in many ways most notably due to their use of drugs. The national press, particularly the News Of The World believed them to be responsible for the decline of morals within 1960s society and continually instilled fear into the minds of parents throughout the country. As was the case in the 1960's, both Harvey and Gallagher can be seen to have been used as scapegoats by the media in order to find answers as to why many young people are wanting to take illegal drugs.

The concern of ecstasy in Britain illustrates many aspects of moral panics and highlights the way such issues are portrayed and orchestrated by the media. Clearly, following the death of Leah Betts the use of the drug has become a prominent fear in our society and every parent is now aware that their child could fall victim to the dangers of ecstasy. Yet, as with many moral panics the truth and realities surrounding the problem remain unclear and distorted as a result of the media's orchestration of the issue. Due to the publicity generated by the Betts' and the media's commitment to their cause, however well intended, the true facts regarding the dangers of the drug have been distorted and exaggerated and have led to the public persecution of those people, such as Brian Harvey and Noel Gallagher, who have made comments opposed to their beliefs on the subject. Such people have, as is the case with so many moral panics, become 'deviants' deemed threatening to our society as a result of the media's reporting of their views and actions.


April 1997