Moral Panic: Know It, Learn It, Fight It

The term moral panic is well known by those in the criminal justice and criminology field. It is a term coined by criminologist Stan Cohen in the 60s to describe public response to particular events, often sensationalised by the media. There are key ‘actors’ in a moral panic, and a predictable pattern of behaviour from those actors. In a nutshell, an event happens and the media centres in on said event with proclamations of “a problem of epidemic proportions”, “they’re everywhere” etc. From here, law enforcement and political figures feel public pressure, as there tends to be a great deal of fear among the public. This tends to lead to police hypervigilance and promises by politicians to take a “tough stance” on crime. This in turn tends to lead to more arrests of the target figure, and subsequent media attention reassures the public that the media were right, this is a problem. The act in a moral panic tends to be mostly real, but it tends to be exaggerated, and the figures presented in a stereotypical fashion. The target in a moral panic is someone/something who has been defined as “a threat to societal values and interests”. 

I know some of you probably are saying, ‘hey thanks for this impromptu criminology lesson, but what’s your freaking point?’. Well it’s this: there’s a lot of media attention surrounding certain events at present, and a lot of targeting of certain groups in society. The government seems to be ‘getting tough’ on a number of issues, in a lot of cases unnecessarily, and I for one feel we should all be aware of this phenomenon called moral panic. Cohen outlines in his paper on the subject a 7 Clusters of Social Identity, that are most often the target of moral panic. See if any of these sound familiar:

1. Young, Working Class, Violent Males

2. School Violence: Bullying and Shootings 

3. Wrong Drugs: Used By Wrong People in Wrong Places (hmm…conflict view of law, Marxism anyone?) 

4. Child Abuse, Satanic Rituals, Paedophile Registers 

5. Sex, Violence, and Blaming the Media 

6. Welfare Cheats and Single Mothers (LNP “likes”) 

7. Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Flooding Our Country, Swamping Our Services

Wow. Well done Stan. 7/7. In the past few months, all of these have been the focus of the media at some point. This paper was written in the 60s, and yet in modern Australia it’s as relevant as ever. What does that tell you about our society? 

Let’s focus on young, working class and violent males for today, otherwise I’ll be writing for days. Well we can address the new bikie laws, new requirements to prove that genuine concession status on public transport, and the proposed removal of laws that protect juvenile offenders’ identity in the media. Newman’s bikie laws are so classically moral panic, that it’s been a topic of discussion in criminology classes at UQ since last year. They border on discrimination, targeting people who ‘look like bikies’. While Newman assures that law-abiding motorcycle riders will be safe, stories are coming through that refute said statement. Really, I can only imagine it’s about creating fear and dominance over a group the government is afraid they can’t control. If you have committed a crime, it shouldn’t matter that you’re apart of a bikie gang; it’s still a crime. We don’t really need tougher laws…assault, homicide, drug offences, deprivation of liberty, rape…these are all criminal offences. But denying people bail and unfairly targeting them just because they look like a bikie, belong to a (likely non-criminal for the majority of people) gang, or hang out in a bar with some people considered bikies is an infringement on what the criminal justice system is supposed to offer 

Secondly, I would like to draw attention to Queensland’s proposition to remove the protection of juvenile offenders’ identity, a provision offered by current legislation in line with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (Beijing Rules). Under present legislation, a juvenile offender’s real and full name cannot be used in media reporting of their crime or issues surrounding the crime in general. This is a protection that is not only in line with the Beijing Rules, but also with Labelling Theory. Labelling Theory states that when a person is labelled a criminal, this label can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads the person to feel that if they are not accepted by mainstream goals and ideals, they may be accepted by criminal/deviant ones. Essentially it’s the person saying: You want me to be a criminal? I’ll show you criminal. This is particularly relevant for juvenile offenders, thus revealing their identity is arguably worse for youth crime. ‘Making an example out of them’ is not a good deterrent, it labels them and makes changes their views of themselves and society. In the Northern Territory this protection is not afforded to juvenile offenders. According to ABS Offender Statistics the youth offender rate in the NT is second only to Tasmania; it’s one of the highest in Australia. Maybe this isn’t such a great idea guys. 

Lastly, the issue that has come to my attention overnight. Transport Minister Scott Emerson has instigated a war on student fare rorting. Our university ID cards (despite having in big letters our full time status and card expiration date) are now no longer enough. Emerson wants us to have a form signed by our university that legitimises further our status as full time university students. This card is to last only 12 months. Now when you get a concession go card, it lasts as long as your concession ID. My ID card expires November 2016, and thus my go card expires at that time. Emerson is concerned about say if I defer studies or drop out of uni, that my ID and go card still state “student” even though I’m not. Fair enough, that’s not cool. But most students aren’t like that, and the majority of people with student cards are legitimate students. If we forget our concession ID and can’t present it to a transport officer, it’s a ridiculously huge fine. A friend of mine couldn’t locate her ID, was given a fine, and found it just as the transport officers left the train. No one would revoke her $300 fine.

This notion of punishing the majority to teach the minority is getting old. It’s a constant battle growing up in a society where you’re told that you are nothing but a parasite, a drain on society that needs to be stopped. Hearing the older generation make flippant comments about how spoilt, self-entitled, and self-centred you are hurts. As a teenager, it changes what you think of yourself and often makes you feel like no matter what you do, you’ll always be nothing. This frame of mind can also lead to crime (Strain Theory, look it up). A government that legitimises this discrimination is of detriment to many groups in society. Most of the young people I know are involved in charity work, university clubs and organisations, church groups and sporting teams. We care about other people, our society, and our future.

Stop discriminating, stop feeding moral panic. Because the only one it harms is our entire society….it makes a culture that targets groups and discriminates in the justice system okay. Don’t make that okay. 




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