From beer to austerity, familiar scenes of panic on the streets

Founding fathers of 'moral panic' thesis discuss its modern manifestations. Matthew Reisz writes

December 23, 2010

Two years ago, David Cameron - then leader of the Conservative opposition - argued in the Daily Mail that a recent trial had offered "a verdict on our broken society".

He was writing about the case of Karen Matthews, a mother who, along with an accomplice, faked the kidnapping of her own daughter, Shannon.

Ms Matthews was convicted on various charges and jailed for eight years, but during the police hunt for the nine-year-old and the subsequent trial, much was made of the depressed conditions on the estate in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire where the family lived.

The case had revealed "an estate where decency fights a losing battle against degradation and despair", Mr Cameron wrote, where "children whose toys are discarded drink bottles; whose role models are criminals, liars and layabouts; whose innocence is lost before their first milk tooth".

The prime minister's words are a classic example of the rhetoric of "moral panic" first analysed by Stan Cohen, now emeritus professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, in his celebrated book about the teenage Mods and Rockers phenomenon, Moral Panics and Folk Devils (1972).

Similar themes were explored by the criminologist Jock Young, distinguished professor of criminal justice at the City University of New York, in books such as The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use (1971).

A three-day conference at Brunel University on Moral Panics in the Contemporary World, held earlier this month, brought together these founding fathers with younger researchers who have extended the theory of moral panic, applied it to new examples, drawn out its political subtexts and considered how far it illuminates today's challenges.

Speakers explored the successive waves of anxiety generated by asylum seekers, "boy racers", "crack babies", "feral children", genetically modified food, "happy slapping" and "video nasties". International examples ranged from ritual abuse in West Africa to the "Dirty War" in Argentina. There have even been a few "panics" directed at more privileged groups such as "helicopter parents" and gas-guzzling SUV drivers, the conference heard.

Something for everyone

Professor Young explained how his early work on gangs had revealed that moral panics offer a wide range of emotional satisfactions: "The kids enjoyed the fighting, the police enjoyed beating them up, the magistrates and media enjoyed twitching with indignation - and Joe Public enjoyed feeling outraged," he said.

He also noted how teenage pregnancy became a problem only when the middle classes delayed child-bearing and working-class women were "pathologised for not having changed".

However, not all efforts to create moral panics prove successful.

Matthew David, lecturer in sociology of culture and research methods at Brunel, explored the attempts "to label file-sharers as pirates and to associate piracy with all manifestations of evil: from child pornography, people-smuggling and drug dealing to student plagiarism and international terrorism".

Another participant in the debate, Claire Meehan, a research student at the University of Ulster, suggested that "sensationalist reporting, at times unintentionally glamorising drug use, has encouraged risky behaviours".

And Chas Critcher, visiting professor in media and communications at Swansea University, compared responses to the gin craze of early 18th-century London with more recent furores about Britons' binge drinking.

While the former developed into a fully fledged moral panic, the latter has never really got off the ground, since "mostly ordinary young Britons, many of them middle-class students...were hard to demonise except in the abstract and even harder to take effective action against", he said.

The potential for moral panic over the recent wave of student unrest was not directly addressed by the debate, although the scenes of violence and vandalism carried out by a small minority of demonstrators will undoubtedly provide rich material for future discussion.

Perhaps closest to home was a study on "the moral necessity of austerity" by Matt Clement, a visiting lecturer and PhD student at the University of the West of England.

"There has been an immense moral panic generated about the size of the national debt," he said, "and, consequently, the necessity of the imposition of a range of measures to reduce public-sector services and welfare spending."

Not least of these is the 40 per cent reduction in public funding for higher education, including an 80 per cent cut to the teaching grant.

Very similar arguments were used by the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey in 1976 when pushing through his own austerity package, Mr Clement said. He later admitted it had been unnecessary.

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