McRobbie, A and Thornton, S. (1995) 'Rethinking "moral panic" for multi-- mediated social worlds', in British Journal of Sociology, Vol 46, No 4: 559 - 574.
According to the Abstract, the classic work on moral panics needs to be revised, given the expansion of the media, and access to various kinds of media by the very Folk Devils who are being labelled.
The concept of moral panic has entered popular and journalistic discourse. It has also taken on commercial properties, where controversy is used to market particular trends. Finally, it is a way of building readership for the press and television -- 'Moral panics, once the unintended outcome of journalistic practice, seem to have become a goal' (560). They had become a standard response rather than an unusual one, and are constructed 'on a daily basis' (560). The old models therefore need renewing to take account of 'the labyrinthine web of determining relations which now exist between social groups and the media, "reality" and representation' (560).
The theory was originally developed from labelling theory, via the work of Becker, S. Cohen and Young. The idea was to show how the police worked in conjunction with the media to amplify deviance, and this drew attention for the first time to the ideological role of the media. In social policy terms, the approach warned against the view that deviants were morally deficient, and that repressive policies would not have unintended consequences. S.Cohen in particular has done much to introduce a certain complexity into this theory, for example by showing how media coverage was received rather critically [among the critics to have simplified the theory, it is surely possible to include Stuart Hall and the CCCS alumni -- Cohen's introduction to the new edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics is really critical of CCCS work].
Pearson (Hooligans: A History of Respectable Fears) has done much to show how the activities of young people have always been subject to strong moral comment, especially 'the immorality of young people, the absence of parental control, the problem of too much free time leading to crime, and the threat which deviant behaviour poses to national identity and labour discipline' (561 - 2). This helps to generalise the whole approach and leads to an idea that complaints and the response to them provide 'a normative and consensual language for understanding the turbulence of social change and discontinuity' (562), providing a kind of ideological cohesion [one might almost suggest a latent function] for these moral campaigns.
Stuart Hall and the CCCS approach is best developed in Policing the Crisis... [see file]. This located the moral panic into the more general framework of hegemony, so that 'moral panic then becomes an envoy for dominant ideology' (562). This argument is better seen, however, as 'a work of classic neo-- Marxist scholarship than a sociology of deviance' (563). Waddington, for example has suggested that there is little evidence for the major contention in the piece. [My own contention is that the book was written mostly to address Althusserian critiques of Gramsci rather than to focus on the specific issue of mugging as a moral panic].
Watney (in Policing Desire, 1987) examines sexual practices to see how these are managed in official discourses. It is not only that particular sexual 'deviants' are seen as the subject of moral panic, but that sexual activity in general is subject to regulation and control. In this more general sense, the mass media are constantly involved in '"substitutions, displacements, repetitions and signifying absences"' (McRobbie and Thornton page 563 - 4, quoting Watney). [This position involves the full 'linguistic turn' towards a poststructuralist view that there can be no reality outside of discursive activity -- this leads to a criticism of 'Moral panic theory... [which]... is always obliged in the final instance to refer and contrast "representation" to the arbitration of "the real", and is hence unable to develop a full theory concerning the operations of ideology within all representational systems'-- McRobbie and Thornton, page 564, quoting Watney]. It is heterosexual activity, as well as more 'deviant' forms which is policed as well -- moral panics are merely a 'local intensification or "the site of the current front"' (564). What the media really do is constantly manage 'representation, discourse and the "other"' in very general terms (564).
Much has changed in Britain since the 1960s, which leads us to question the supposed monolithic reaction of the authorities to cultural challenge. We now need an account of 'a plurality of reactions, each with their different constituencies, effectivities and modes of discourse' (564). In particular, the reactions of youth itself have been excluded in the classical analysis. More recent studies, such as Thornton 1995, have discovered that youth has its own cultural agenda, which includes being seen as radical and a form of social challenge -- 'Moral panic can therefore be seen as a culmination and fulfilment of youth cultural agendas' (565). Disapproval authenticates youth cultures, and media comment helps to disseminate them. This is well known now by the commercial interests involved in youth culture as well 'Moral panics are one of the few marketing strategies... they amount to a "priceless PR campaign"' (565). One example is the predicted controversy over Acid House and Ecstasy. 'This moral panic was incited by a couple of culture industries' (566).
There are also more opportunities to respond to moral panics. Spokespersons for those who have been labelled have been able to 'diminish the demonization' (566) of stigmatised groups such as single mothers. The media are glad to receive soundbites from such spokespersons in order to demonstrate the necessary balance. Campaigning groups have emerged to support most dissenting groups. [Some groups still lack such campaigning though? Paedophiles seem to be the most obvious candidates here]. Such groups may be the only effective opposition against the consensus between Labour and Conservative. Sociologists have played their part in these debates, leading to, say, recommendations that social disorder not be amplified by excessive media reporting.
Moral panics are 'anti-intellectual', which prevents them from being used by the left wing [so have there been no left-wing moral panics? Ecological pressure groups? Nukes ? Conspiracy theories about right wing takeovers?]. It is true, however, that media coverage can lead to critical remarks, as when a Conservative campaign ( 'Back to Basics') about morality only led to criticisms of Conservative MPs and their morality.
The media now have a much more complex relationship with agents of social control and folk devils, partly driven by a new assertiveness among the labelled, and partly by commercial interests.. New 'mass, niche and micro - media need to be explored' (568). Niche magazines have certainly flourished [and what about the Web?]. The subcultural press were very effective in pointing to misrepresentation of Acid House, and various gay liberation media have helped to assert their rights [my favourite example turns on the many earnest and serious webpages about the 'BDSM community' and their high levels of morality]. However, much depends on the economic pressures which such minority groups can exert, and 'the unskilled working class' and the poor are particularly badly represented. Niche media can even generate their own moral panics, as in the rival claims advanced by the Socialist Workers Party and the British National Party (568 - 9). These moral panics 'are not necessarily hegemonic' (569) [they wouldn't be unless they were pro capitalist as well].
Even the official press now have quite different responses and stances. The Daily Mail may still pursue classic moral panics, while the Sun has quite a different stance. It can still be 'preachy and prescriptive' (569), but there is also additional pleasure for the readers in enjoying the sex scandals that it specialises in, and also in 'estimating what part of the story is true, what part exaggerated or totally invented' (569). [I think the Daily and Sunday Sport offer the best examples of this kind of pleasure ] The Guardian frequently adopts an ironic approach in borrowing tabloid style, which leads to the idea of moral panic as a form of entertainment. Moral panics are also important elements of the strategy to maintain good circulation figures. Radio and television can also demonstrate these tendencies, including attempts to promote youth and minimise moral panics -- a particular BBC2 programme set out to report rave culture rather than generate a moral panic about it (570).
The media themselves deeply influence perceptions of social reality, which prevents a critique of moral panic as spectacular and exaggerated: '[marxist] versions of "reality" would also be impregnated with the mark of media imagery' (571). There is still a close element of social identity and media usage, and the latter becomes an indication of social class or gender. Audiences are also increasingly involved in professional media productions, from Video Diaries to the ["populist ventriloquism"] of some current programmes. As another example, political strategies have become largely focused on media coverage. Overall, the ways in which social and political issues are represented 'point more to the reality of dealing with social difference than to the unity of current affairs' (572) [with a reference to a famous analysis of current affairs as a major hegemonic activity in early CCCS work].
In conclusion, the model of moral panic needs to be updated, because all the actors involved are now aware of the mechanism; because folk devils have found a media voice and can influence public debate; because commercial interests are aware that moral panics are good for marketing and promotion, especially to the young, and this greatly complicates the issue of how media messages are received. Moral panics are less monolithic, and although moral issues are still important, morality itself is now increasingly contested, as social consensus has become much more subject to diversity.
[now see Critcher on rescuing the classic idea of moral panic and critically applying it to rave]