Moral Panics are defined as an event or an issue that goes against society’s morals, values or interests, which is then reported and exaggerated vastly in the media. However, overtime moral panics have picked up connotations of being fictitious and that all moral panics are orchestrated by media or government for political gain only. (Lemmings & Walker, 2009) In this essay, I aim to discover if we as a society go through moral panics about crime by discovering the roles the media, government and public play in creating, reacting and responding to these moral panics. I will do this by discussing Stanley Cohen’s ideas in relation to the riots between the Mods and Rockers in the 1960s, which caused him to create the term moral panics, as well as Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s explanation for how moral panics are created and why.
One of the most notable moral panics of the last one hundred years is the Mods Vs Rockers in 1964. The Mods and Rockers were two distinct groups distinguished by their style, music taste and transportation. On Easter weekend in 1964 fights and riots broke out between both the Mods and Rockers at Clacton beach, leading to a hundred arrests that weekend. This event caused an onslaught of riots between the two groups for a period of time. One of the most notable events was in Hastings on the 2nd and 3rd of August, when it was reported that around five thousand Mods and Rockers had turned up to fight. However The Times later reported that only three hundred were in fact mods and rockers and that the rest were people belonging to neither group and just wanted to cause trouble. (Grayson, 1998) Yet other media outlets across the country blamed the Mods and Rockers solely for all the violence and crimes committed that weekend. Stanley Cohen, who studied these series of events, came to the conclusion that the media exaggerated the events of Easter weekend, he felt that the amount of violence and other crimes being reported in the media did not actually match up to the records. (Cohen, 2011)
Cohen also theorised that moral panics could be seen from time to time in society because they always followed the same pattern, A “Person or group emerges, to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in stereotypical fashion by the mass media and the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops and politicians, socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnosis and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or resorted to; the condition then disappears or deteriorates.” (Cohen, 1980) At the time every newspaper in the country was bombarded with headlines about the different crimes being committed by the two groups. This led to the government discussing several ways they could control and diffuse the situation. Reginald Maudling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer offered an explanation for the behaviour, stating that young people had too much time on their hands, which caused government members to call for more investment in youth organizations and also raising fines to prices they believed young people would not be able to afford as easily. They also discussed increasing the national driving age, as most of the young people have been arriving at these events by car, however, they later decided against this. There were few reports of fights between the mods and rockers in the following year but after that all the reports died out. (Grayson, 1998)
Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009) question how moral panics materialise “Why do the public, media, law enforcement, politics and action groups in a particular society, at particular time express intense concern over a condition, phenomena, issue, behaviour or would be threat that, a sober assessment of the evidence reveals, does not merit such concern?” (p. 52) They came up with three different theories to explain the origination of a moral panic, the first being “The Grassroots Model”, which argued that no moral panic is made up by the media or other action groups without there already being a concern from the public, they argue that although these groups could influence the public, the public must resonate with an issue for them to take a real notice. (pp. 55-56) In spite of this theory, there are still many crimes that resonate with the public that don’t coin the term moral panic. For example, Jenkins (2009, p. 35) posits that child pornography, a real, very current problem, that everyone agrees is morally wrong and resonates with most of society, especially parents, does not classify as a moral panic. He explains this is because law enforcement is yet to produce a permanent solution to the problem. Child pornography doesn’t fit within Cohen’s pattern for moral panics because it doesn’t have an easy fix solution and therefore the problem is not disappearing. This explains why it has a smaller social presence than other moral panics because the media and government won’t benefit from bringing attention to crimes that don’t have an easy fix or solution, despite the public concern for the crime.
Another one of Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s theories for how moral panics occur is “The Elite Engineered”, where the tops of society like MPs, CEOs or people in high places of power orchestrate moral panics to divert attention from the real problems in society. (Goode, 2009, p. 62) Moral panics go hand in hand with political agendas, it is argued some moral panics have come from politicians making claims and proposing solutions to problems we as society don’t have any dire need for, but this will allow them to appear as though they are doing something to better our society and making changes to benefit their government.
In 2006, the media across the UK began a storm of reports claiming everyone wearing hoodies were criminals, only wearing the popular athletic attire to hide their faces from CCTV cameras. Society was bombarded with headlines like ‘BAN THE HOOD FOR GOOD’ (Matt Drake, 2008) the nation began to ban wearing hoodies around the country, from schools to major shopping centres like Bluewater in Kent. Teenagers who made up the majority of people wearing the clothing item became under attack, being looked down upon and seen as evil or threatening just by being associated with the item. David Cameron who at the time was the conservative party leader came to their defence describing the ‘hoodie problem’ as “a response to a problem, not a problem itself” and that “hoodies are more defensive than offensive.” (BBC, 2006) However, one could posit that his defence was more aimed to help his campaign for government and get the youths vote by defending them on the problem created by the media that wasn’t an actual problem; it gives him the appearance of doing something for the younger generation without having to actually do anything.
It is also disputed that these moral panics created by the elite for political gain are ways of moral regulation and social control, by creating a public concern they can create laws and changes in society that the public has been tricked into believing they wanted, because they believed the threat the media portrayed to them. Since the moral panic surrounding hoodies in 2008, hoodies have become unanimous with bad behaviour, gangs, violence and knife crime, despite their being no real evidence of this. In today’s society hoodies are still stigmatised, it has become an everyday norm to assume a teenager in a hoodie has some sort of deviant past. This is a class example of how moral panics can lead to moral regulation once the panic has passed and become an everyday norm for society. (Hier, 2016)
It is evident that as a society we do go through moral panics about crime, however, it is also evident that they have been constructed by the media, government or other action groups, this proven by the fact that not all crimes that effect or resonate with society have become moral panics. Despite “The Grassroots Model” being able to explain how society must resonate with issues for them to become moral panics, serious issues like child pornography still have less attention then teenagers wearing hoodies. This could be because the government can create a simple, easy fix to the hoodie problem, they can be seen to be doing something to help society, but a bigger problem like child pornography would take a lot of money and time to fix, and it not to say that it is not an issue the government don’t work on, it is just not reported as much in the media because it is not a news story that can quickly go through Cohens pattern for moral panics. In a world where twitter and news apps are so many peoples main source of news, and the information is available in an instance, slow ongoing stories with little development aren’t benefiting any of the groups in “The Elite Engineered” like the government and other action groups. When Cohen first wrote Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers in 1972, the crimes being labelled as moral panics could have been at random but now in today’s social media society where everyone is sharing news live as it happens, and you can see the public’s response on national level straightaway, it could be argued moral panics are more constructed to be used as a tool for social control and moral regulation. I agree that to a certain extent that we as a society go through moral panics about crime but only with action groups like media or government to guide us.