Moral Panic Theory

Or as I like to call it Media Hype Frenzy.

Please take a moment to allow your mind to bring to its front our criminal justice system, although once I have finished you may see things differently in respect of how you see or even read things.

The concept of moral panic was introduced to us in 1972 by Englishman Stanley Cohen who studied how the media reported on the Mods versus Rockers phenomenon of the 1960’s. Prior to 1964, these two youth subcultures happily lived side-by-side. It was about the style and the music, and of course the partying. At Clacton-by-the-sea on a bank holiday in 1964 a few minor scuffles broke out, as they did in Brighton on a bank holiday later that year. The difference between Clacton and Brighton is that the media turned up at Brighton and printed exaggerated stories as to what took place. The public, especially those living in seaside resorts, were concerned. At the next bank holiday get together there were more police with less tolerance but with heavier-handed tactics. The media also succeeded in hammering a wedge between the once previous peaceful (ish) two groups. Films like Quadrophenia seem to help prop up the hype.

I am aware of similar sayings but not aware of one that says it this way ‘those that control the presses and the airwaves control the masses’. I am also aware that it has been this way for years. Wasn’t that why the BBC got dragged over hot-coals because of “the way things were done around here”.

It doesn’t make something right just because it’s been this way for many years.

Two-terms that relate to moral panic theory are ‘Folk Devils’ and ‘Deviancy Amplification’.

Folk Devils are the group focused on by the media and face over-the-top reporting.

Deviancy Amplification is where the group being targeted by the media play up more to the hype.

I believe an example of Deviancy Amplification can be seen during the sudden rise in acid attacks and robberies on Mopeds. Why or how on earth would a group of youths in say Leeds behave in exactly the same way as a group of youths in Cornwall?

That’s the problem with news it can and will never now stay local.

A quick glance at Sir Tom Moore and his incredible achievements during lockdown shows how quickly a walk in your garden can become global news. Nice to see it being utilised for such a positive reason.

In respect of our prisons and speaking as a former prisoner I’m not too enamoured about the thought of murderers, paedophiles, rapists and terrorists being released from our prisons either Mr Daily Mail reporter, but then I doubt many would have wanted me released after being sent to prison for armed robbery.

The list I mentioned is only a snapshot of those who reside in our prisons, not only is it a snapshot it doesn’t give you any other information whatsoever. There could also be a decent argument put forward that the list I’ve mentioned shouldn’t even be in a prison. Yes, they should be locked up but no one is born as anyone off of that list, they become it. I doubt very much if anyone is born a criminal either. Someone may be born with a few crossed wires and their crime becomes a consequence but they definitely weren’t born a criminal.

There are a number of professionals who criticise the theory of moral panic which can be seen from the image below and ones I’d like to answer.


Contemporary criticisms of moral panic theory are:

  • Assumes a passive audience while new media mean audiences are more active – I may have missed the point here but do we not rely on the news to keep us up-to-date in this fast moving world that we speed through.


  • Thornton (1995) – “Failed to generate a moral panic over rave culture”, either I was on Mars or the less said about this the better but it could also be said the media helped the growth of the rave scene and made it more popular through creating moral panic at the same time.


  • Exaggerate the police’s ability to control crime – ‘Panic may not be generated because the media also exaggerate the police’s ability to control crime’, Oh! come on, really? Do I need to answer this criticism of moral panic?


  • Exaggerated reporting constant and normalised – hahahahaha, just no, ain’t that the point of a moral panic being created?


  • Some concerns may be legitimate and reflect real risks e.g. paedophile/knife crime panic – Very much so. I am extremely concerned about those in our prisons so I campaign to make sure that they are not forgotten and for conditions to improve. By conditions I don’t mean the provision of a duck down duvet on a memory foam mattress. F me, it’s prison, people are in there to be punished and do not deserve luxuries. I’d be the first to admit that, however, considering most in our prisons will be released one day surely society would want them coming out with the skills, knowledge and experience to desist from crime and it is for those conditions I wish to see improved. It comes down to how you do it, not whether it is legitimate or not.

Prisons don’t cut crime by the way. Think about it. Let’s pluck a figure out the air, the media gets away with it why not me, let’s say that 50% of those in our prisons right now will re-offend.

Clearly that would mean 50% will not.

It’s been that way for a good number of years now.

So, why are our prisons still overcrowded? Because they don’t cut crime.

I’ve called this specific blog perspectives because it is my perspective that I share throughout all of my blogs that I write and this occasion is no different. I’m not asking anyone to see things from my point of view, I’m just asking that people look behind the headlines and ask themselves why they are being told what they are being told.

“We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others who wrote what men do and not what they ought” Lord Bacon.

I’ll leave you with another one of my favourite quotes:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.


Image source Accessed 01/08/2020.

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