What is moral panic?

 

This further represented the threat and increased public concern. With Leah Betts, the parents’ constant campaigning resulted in a clamp down on drug related offences raising the issue further. It was an awakening of attention to new legislation when the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act 1990 was created. A spoke in the wheel still existed for drug use and something had to be done. Getting the attention of opinion makers was key to social change. Within this, another panic about popular culture was raised and now guidance on certain lyrics of songs and CD’s became recognised practice in the music and film industry.

Bans and law suits related to the film industry have been held accountable for further criminal acts most significantly recognised in the USA but also observed in the UK. School violence has caused a number of moral panics, which appear to increase in intensity as new instances comes to light. Twelve students and a teacher were killed, accompanied by the suicide of the two teenage killers. This stirred up a great national blame game in which guns played a small part and the blame was on the killers. Why? Following shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton 1999, the public concerns were increased because of the statement

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“… There’s no end to the blame game. But the best way to prevent future casualties is to hold today’s killers responsible for what they and they alone have done. ” (Tartaro, The New Gun Week, May 10th, 1999) The public, especially those closest to the victims, need closure through apprehension, trial and punishment of the killers. But they committed suicide and left this panic open to free fuel for thought and anger. From this, several enquiries into the marketing of ‘violent entertainment to children’ were instigated (Jenkins, 1992).

There were associations made between ‘cultural pollution’ and ‘youth culture’. According to Jenkins (1992) the term ‘cultural pollution’ immediately presumed an agreement in society, that popular culture was ‘a worthless irritant responsible for various social harms’ (Brownback, 2001). In this definition popular culture is therefore not the panic itself but a vehicle for risk and blaming in society. It was after this event that President Clinton introduced legislation for background checks on the sales of explosives and holding parents liable for crimes with guns.

The link of moral panics and our understanding of criminality are best portrayed here. From this a statement was made suggesting family breakdown as a major issue and thus passing the blame to the individual institutions that shape societal values. This statement suggested; “There is something wrong with our society. I think a lot of it has to do with a return to traditional morals and values. Youngsters are not getting the kinds of moral and religious training they once got at home” (Speech by Senator George Vionovich in Lowy, 1999).

One account from Paducah, Kentucky, leading to great public awareness and moral outcry portrayed these links. In 1997, 14-year-old Michael Carneal shot three classmates and told investigators that he was inspired by the 1995 film “The Basketball Diaries” (Lubbock, 1997). A scene in this film contains detail where a teenager sits dreaming about bursting through a door and ‘blasting’ annoying classmates and their ‘sadistic’ teacher away with a pump action shotgun. Makers of this movie and creators of video games subsequent to the attack faced a $33 million lawsuit.

The hype increased, public concern mounted and as soon as law enforcement took part the coverage decreased and soon died out. So when the events of Littleton took place, the moral panic was seen as an escalation but the question remained: What had really changed in between? This movie and others such as Childs Play III have been cited as triggers to violent behaviour. A case brought to the attention of public in the UK was the tragic killing of Jamie Bulger in 1993 and introduced a new class of moral panics labelled “child killers” (Sands, 1998).

Valier (2002) in a recent review article showed how emotive labelling could create such consensus amongst the public and subsequently portray malevolence through mediated knowledge. Jamie Bulger’s killers were labelled as ‘Dead men walking’ and ‘faceless killers’ on news that they would be released with new identities. The moral panic of two ten-year-old boys killing a young child was labelled horrific and on a wider scale was seen as “the brutality of Britain” (Thompson, 1998, p95).

This case was considered as giving rise to moral panic as mass media played on the fears of all parents using such headlines, as ‘it could have been my boy on the railway line’. The moral panic from media representations revived the fear of so called ‘video nasties’. In the Bulger case, the youths had reported watching the film “Childs Play III” and there were horrific similarities in the Bulger murder and scenes of this film. The copycat behaviour is long standing but as with moral panics they appear to decrease and come to limelight when another incident occurs.

The media caused such frenzy on this case that despite the killers being ten years old they were looked at from a more punitive perspective. This contributed to a growing fear of juvenile crime and our understanding of youth crime was a focus of moving forward. Now there is a lot of work done with children and the law is mow much harsher in the sentences placed upon youth today. The path of the panic can be seen as following two routes – the panic may die out and become forgotten or it can have longstanding effects and implications for social policy and legislation.

An example of the latter was the introduction of the Sex Offenders Act (1997) and the National Sex Offender Register. This was a response to growing concern of paedophiles in the UK and panic over child sex offences (Sands, 1998). From these particular examples, and it must be stressed that these are naming only a few, it is evident that the amplification of panic is through a lot of mediated knowledge and works to either create or justify what we already know about crime and criminality.

Cohen (1972) discusses the foundations of research knowledge, and as in this essay, is linked to the structure of experienced panics in the past. So what’s left? It’s the actual crime statistics that people tend to forget about. As much as these panics are brought to limelight how much does this correlate with crime statistics and are we creating control for the so-called out-groups who may be labelled as perpetrators of crime? So far we have identified that a concern is raised, levels of hostility increase and result in widespread and substantial agreement or consensus.

The next stage brings in the idea that there are more people involved in criminal behaviour than actual statistics show and this forms the stage of disproportionality (Goode et al, 1994). As members of a society we may at times appear naive and within this it is important that despite media looking to attract attention, there is still a lack of understanding of crime. So there is a reliance on other sources of information, and as social learning theories of crime suggest, imitation of other papers occurs in order to have coverage positively reinforced.

The problems faced by law enforcement agencies is that fear in people will increase despite the facts and figures of crime because other aspects are at play within this network including media, family and school, ‘cultures’ – the rise and fall, but most predominantly the existence of social inequalities that make it easy to label the perpetrator and essentially identify the ‘folk devils’ in our society. It is also important to question that moral panics may exist but how far can this impact law enforcement and in cases such as the school shootings and Jamie Bulger’s murder, is the use of ‘video nasties’ a scapegoat?

To conclude, our perceptions of crime and criminality are very distorted by the media and we do tend to follow consensus but at the same time panics can be positive in creating a change in legislation and making the world a safer place to live. The Stephen Lawrence murder and the Victoria Climbie Enquiry are examples of our selective outlook to crime and also how moral panics are threats to society but seem to push aside threats to authorities. When the crime is specific, such as to race, it will impact a smaller proportion of society and this is influential in our understanding and how we shift the perceived threat of criminal behaviour.

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