In his influential book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’ Stanley Cohen (1972) argued that a ‘moral panic’ emerges when a particular social issue is suddenly constructed by the media and those in authority as a threat to well-established norms and values. Cohen’s main focus was on the tensions that emerged in the early 1960s between the two youth subcultures mods and rockers. Stuart Hall and his colleagues drew on Cohen’s work in order to explore the prevalence of moral panics in 1970s, particularly in relation to how ‘mugging’ came to be constructed as crime primarily carried out by black Britons (1981). Hall argued that moral panics are ideological because they do not try to identify and examine the underlying causes of social and economic problems, but
Project(…) and displac(e) them onto the identified social group (‘folk devils’). That is to say, the moral panic crystallizes popular fear and anxieties which have a real basis and by providing them with a simple, concrete identifiable … social object seek to resolve them (1978: 3).
More recently, other scholars have explored how moral panics have been constructed in relation to social issues such as the Aids pandemic, video games, rave culture and asylum seekers. In contrast to previous moral panics, negative depictions of asylum seekers and other migrants have a long history and remain dominant in media and political discourse that is framed by the categories of race and ethnicity. Hall (1978) traces this long history of racism back to the late 1500s when the black population were blamed for food shortages and Elizabeth I demanded that they be expelled from Britain in order to prevent a famine. In the early 20th century, Robert Tressell also explored how migrants were used as scapegoats for social and economic problems by the press in his novel about class conflict, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’:
The papers they (the ‘natives’) read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the foreign merchandise imported into the country, the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds, cunningly sown in their minds, a bitter undiscriminating hatred of the foreigner (1993/1914: 23).
Those of us who study contemporary debates about race and immigration understand that little has changed. We continue to be informed by the media and politicians that migrants erode national identity, commit crime, and take housing, jobs and other social goods away from the ‘indigenous’ population. The fact that many are fleeing from countries that Britain has invaded or sold weapons to including, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria is rarely mentioned. The details that dignify the lives of migrants are also excluded. That is to say, rather than telling their stories in a compassionate way, journalists often prefer to rely on a narrative that constructs migrants as an undeserving and threatening horde that needs to be controlled. Consider, for example, the recent coverage and commentary on those trying to make the extremely precarious journey across the English Channel in small boats in search of a better life. Rather than challenging this dehumanising narrative and providing safe routes that enable some of the most vulnerable people to build a new life in the UK, the government has discussed the possibility of sending them to a remote volcanic island more than 4,000 miles away from the UK known as Ascension Island.
Politicians and journalists may claim that they simply shine a light on ‘the public’s’ pre-existing anxieties but in reality, they often orchestrate them, not least because they have enabled controversial figures such as Nigel Farage to become the primary definers in relation to debates about immigration. Rarely do migrants get the opportunity to tell their own stories. On the contrary, they are being used as scapegoats for the fact that the UK’s excess death level is now the worst in Europe and the recession we face is the deepest since records began. If we care about the plight of the oppressed must draw attention to the real causes of the crisis.
Cohen, S. (1972) ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’. London: Routledge.
Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J and Roberts, B (1981), ‘The Social Production of News: Mugging and the Media’, in S. Cohen and J. Young (eds), in The Manufacture of News London: Constable.
Hall, S. Racism and reaction’, in Five Views of Multi-Cultural Britain, London: Commission on Racial Equality, pp. 23-35.
Tressell, R. (1993/1914) ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’. London: Flamingo.
Tony Shenton is a PhD Researcher at the University of Nottingham and is a social scientist with expert knowledge of cultural and sociological theory. Twitter: @shentontony