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'Moral Panic' and Moral Language in the Media

Author(s): Arnold Hunt


Source: The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), pp. 629-648
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Arnold Hunt

'Moralpanic' and moral language in the media

ABSTRACT
This article provides a comprehensive survey of the use of the term 'moral panic'
from its coinage in 1972 until the present day. It traces the evolution of the term
in academic sociology and criminology, its adoption by the media in the mid1980s and its subsequent employment in the national press. It shows how and why
the term changed its meaning, and how far its use in academic discourse affected
its use in the media.
The article traces the development of 'moral panic' in the media, where it was
first used pejoratively, then rejected for being pejorative, and finally rehabilitated
as a term of approval. It explains why the term developed as it did: how it enabled
journalists to justify the moral and social role of the media, and also to support
the reassertion of 'family values' in the early l990s.
The article concludes by considering the relationship between 'moral panic'
and moral language in general. This is a more speculaiive analysis of the term,
drawing on the work of moral philosophers and attempiing to predict how 'moral
panic' may develop in the future. 'Moral panic', I suggest, is an unsaiisfactory
form of moral language which may adversely affect the media's ability to handle
moral issues seriously.

KEYWORDS:Media; morality; moral panic

I first encountered the term 'moral panic' at a seminar in early modern


historyin 1991.As I later discovered,it had been aroundfor nearlytwenty
years and had alreadybecome firmlyestablishedin the literatureof sociology and criminology;but it was onlyjust beginning to find its way into
wider circulation.I was curious, first about its applicationto the fields of
social and culturalhistorywithwhich I wasconcerned, then about its background, its originaluse and its subsequentdevelopment.Despite the existence of a sizable body of literatureon the subject, most recently Erich
Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda'sMoral Panic: The Social Constructionof
Deviance (1994), whose useful distinctionbetween three different theories
of moralpanic ('interest-group','elite-engineered'and 'grassroots')I have
gratefullyadopted here, there is no fully detailed or satisfactoryhistoryof
the term. This articleattemptsto provideone, and to suggest, through an
Volume no. 48 Issue no. 4
Bnt. Jnl. of Socgologzy

December 1997

ISSN 0007-1315

i) London School of Economics 1997

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ArnoldHunt

630

examinationof the variousmeaningsof the term, that sociologistsneed to


be more rigorousin its use and more sensitiveto its hidden implications.
In particular,I doubtwhetherGoode and Ben-Yehudaarejustifiedin treating it as a homogeneous concept and in attemptingto constructa grand
unified theoryof moralpanic.A personalapologiaseems necessary,as I am
a historian,not a sociologist, uneasily awareof the tension between the
empiricalmethod in whichI wastrainedand the more theoreticalapproach
which I adopt here. This is intended as an interdisciplinarywork, an
encounter between two academic traditionsthat meet too seldom, to the
disadvantageof both.
While this articlewas being written,the problem of 'moralpanic' took
on a new dimension. The term has appearedoccasionallyin the national
pressfor at least ten years,but suddenlycame to prominencein 1993, as a
surveyof the broadsheetnewspapersdemonstrates.FT Profile,a computer
databasecoveringmost of the nationalpressfrom the late 1980s,listseleven
uses of the term in 1989, twelvein 1990, eight in 1991 and seventeen in
1992,but eighty-ninein 1993.This, as we shall see, has implicationsfor the
academicuse of the term,for, asJeanAitchisonhas argued,newspapersdo
not initiatelinguisticchange so much as 'push the languagealong further
in the directionin which it wasalreadygoing', and sociologistsmust therefore bear some responsibilityfor the use of 'moral panic' in the media.
(Aitchison1994:19) The media'sheightened sensitivityto moralissuesmay
be just a temporaryphase, one of a series of media debates about 'moral
decline' that have gone on since the 1960s,flaring up and quicklydying
down again. But in looking at 'moral panic' in the context of this wider
debate on public morals, this articlewill also consider the possibilitythat
the potent associationof moralitywith panic mayhave a permanenteffect
on the moral languageused by the media.
1. 'INTEREST-GROUP'
THEORY

Discussionof moral panic properlybegins with StanleyCohen's FolkDevils


andMoralPanics(1972), a classicsociologicalstudyof the Modsand Rockers
phenomenonof the mid-1960s.Cohen offered the followingdefinition of
the term:
Societies appearto be subject,everynow and then, to periods of moral
panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to
become defined as a threat to societalvalues and interests;its nature is
presented in a stylizedand stereotypicalfashion by the massmedia;the
moral barricadesare manned by editors,bishops, politiciansand other
right-thinkingpeople; sociallyaccreditedexpertspronounce their diagnoses and solutions;waysof coping are evolvedor (more often) resorted
to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and
becomes more visible. Sometimesthe object of the panic is quite novel
and at other times it is something which has been in existence long

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'Moralpanic'and morallanguagein themedia

631

enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic


passesoverand is forgotten,except in folkloreand collectivememory;at
other timesit has more seriousand long-lastingrepercussionsand might
produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the
waythe societyconceivesitself.
Severaldetailsof Cohen'sthesishaveprovedparticularlyinfluential.The
firstis the idea that everymoralpanic has its scapegoat,the 'folkdevil'onto
whom public fearsand fantasiesare projected.The moralpanic must have
an object;it must be about something. This does not mean that the folk
devil is created by the moral panic. Cohen was at pains to point out that
'despite using termssuch as "panic"and analogiesfrom the studyof mass
hysteriaand delusion'he did not mean to implythat the Modsand Rockers
would not have existed if there had been no moral panic or 'would have
gone awayif we had simplyignored them', only that turningthem into folk
devils was an inappropriatesolution to the problem. That 'problem',
however,wasnot the activitiesof the Modsand Rockers,or only in a limited
and temporarysense; the underlyingcause of the moralpanic wasthe 'culturalstrainand ambiguity'causedbysocialchange.The objectof the moral
panic wasnot so much the Modsand Rockersas the post-waraffluenceand
sexualfreedom that they represented;consequently,the Modsand Rockers
were forgottenwithin a few years,and new folk devilsemerged to replace
them. Recent writershave gone further than Cohen in emphasizingthe
arbitraryselection of folk devils. Nowadays,the term 'folk devil' is more
likely to be applied to vulnerablefigures such as unmarriedmothers or
people with AIDS,or to contestablephenomena such as the satanicabuse
of children, than to aggressivelydeviantor anti-socialgroups such as the
Mods and Rockers.One linguisticresultof this has been the conflationof
the moral panic and the folk devil. Single mothers,wroteJulie Burchillin
the MailonSunday(15 August1993), 'havetakenoverfrom "drugpushers"
(an equallyflorid, unrealisticmyth) as society'smain folk devil and moral
panic'. This implies that the moral panic is not aboutthe folk devil; the
moralpanic is the folk devil, or, to put it anotherway,the folk devilwould
not be perceivedas a problem - might not even exist at all - without the
moralpanic.
Another influentialaspect of Cohen's thesis is the argumentthat moral
panicsare generatedby the media,or by particularinterest-groups(Cohen,
following Howard Becker, calls them 'moral entrepreneurs') using the
media to publicize their concerns. An example of this approach can be
found in PhilipJenkins'srecent book IntimateEnemies:
MoralPanicsin Contemporary
GreatBritain (1992) which identified various interest-groups,
including charities,the police and social workers,who made claimsabout
the sexual and ritualabuse of childrenwhichwere then 'takenup by a sig
nificant section of the mass media and presented as factual'. Cohen,
however,laid particularstresson the media itself, as an 'especiallyimportant carrierand producerof moralpanics'.Mostcommentators,even those

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ArnoldHunt

632

withinthe media, have tended to agree.As the Financial


Timescommented
on 13 March1993:
That the Britishmedia exercisea uniquelydecisive
influence on national
politicallife has been notablydemonstratedin recent days:in
no other
country would what has been termed the 'moral panic'
over juvenile
crime have providedthe basisof such a concerted
campaignthat led to
almostinstantaction on the part of the government.
While this wasa causeof alarmto some writers,otherswere
ebratethe powerof the pressto initiatea moralpanic on aninclined to celissue of public
importance.'Name an issue',wrote MartinJacquesin the Sunday
Timeson
7 March1993,
and it is more than likelythat the newspapershave been
responsiblefor
making it happen: the moral panic over the state of society,
policy . . . the royalfamily. . . It is no exaggerationto saythat economic
withoutthe
pressnone of these issueswouldhaveacquiredthe
importancetheyhave.
Perhapsthe most far-reachingaspect of Cohen's thesis,
however,is the
remarkthat 'the processesby which moralpanicsand folk
devilsare generateddo not date'. This has encouragedhistoriansto
transportthe concept
of moral panic into other periods. Rob Sindall,for
example, employsthe
termas 'a useful analyticaltool' in his studyof street
violence in the nineteenthcentury, on the assumptionthat 'Cohen's model is
... applicable
overtime', the only preconditionfor a moralpanic being
the existenceof a
massmedia capableof transmittingit. (Sindall1990:29)
Historiansof the
seventeenthcenturyhave been particularlyreceptiveto the term,
perhaps
encouragedby the fact that a work of seventeenth-century
history, Kai
Erikson's
Wayward
Purztans(1966), wasone of Cohen'sown sourcesfor the
studyof deviance.DavidUnderdowndescribesthe Puritan
reformationof
Dorchester
in the 1620sas 'pursuedwith an intensityborderingon
a state
of"moralpanic"',with Puritanpreachersand magistratesin
the role of
moralentrepreneurs.Moralpanics, he suggests,are
timeless:'smalltowns
aresmalltownsin any time and place', and Dorchesterin
the 1620sis comparable
to Brightonin the 1960s. (Underdown1985:52,
Underdown
1992:
x)
John Morrillarguesthatin the 1650sthe gentrywere
'caughtin a "moral
panic"'
which,as in Cohen'smodel, wasmedia{Iriven,fuelled by 'the
rapid
growth
of newspapersand pamphlets at a time of political
uncertainty'
(Morrill
1993:370-1). ChristinaLarnerpoints out thatwitch-hunts
in early
modern
Scotland tended to occur at moments of political tension,
often
accompanying
the transitionto a new regime, as in the late 1650s:
'The
absence
of a machineryfor lawand order . . . seems to have
engendered
an
anxiety
among the ruling classesamountingto a "moralpanic".'
(Larner
1981:
198-9; see also Larner1984:64) Similarly,J.C. Davisargues
that in
periods
of history
when moral boundaries are undergoing wholesale
reappraisal or
revision,as,for instance,in the wakeof a revolution. . . moral
uncertainty

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'Moralpanic' and morallanguage in the media

633

can lead to great anxiety or 'moral panic' and to the demand for a
reassertionor redefinitionof moral boundaries.
In the 1650s, he believes, there was a moral panic about antinomianand
libertinesects such as the Ranters,generatedby a varietyof interest-groups
includingprintersand publishers,royalistjournalists,and conservativesectariansusing the image of the Ranter'to police the sects' own boundaries,
to induce conformity'.(Davis1986:96-8)
Davis'sworkexposes one of the weaknessesof the 'interest-group'theory
of moralpanic:a tendencyto concentrateon deep-seatedculturalcauses'religiousanxieties',a 'sense of dislocation',a fear of sexual inversionand
a 'preoccupationwith order and disorder', to quote some of the explanations that Davisoffers - and to neglect local and particularcauses.As a
result, moral panics can appearstrangelydivorcedfrom reality.An article
in the Independent
in May 1994 assumes that moral panics occur spontaneouslyand have no connection with real events:
We are in the grip of a moralpanicaboutcrimeon television.Quitewhen
it started,or who wasresponsible,nobody can be sure, but a classicpanic
it most definitely is. Like some medieval plague, it springs from every
sewerin a spontaneousoverflow,reachesfeverpitch, then mercifullysubsides . . . The essentialelements of the moral panic are now all in place.
No obvious beginning, no single individual responsible ... And, of
course, most important,no evidence at all to supportthe case.
In interpreting Cohen, Davis makes the revealing assumption that Folk
Devilsand MoralPanicsis not about real deviance, or about real activities
subsequentlyclassifiedas deviant,but about 'the manufactureof the chimaeraof the existence of those activities';and this providesthe theoretical
basisfor his controversialargumentthat the Rantersnever reallyexisted.
While this is a misreadingof Cohen's work, certain passagesin the book,
such as the remarkthat the situation'could take on a mythical,chimerical
meaning' (1980: 171), could easilylend themselvesto such a misreading.
Cohen has recognizedthe problemand acknowledges,in the preface to
the 1980 edition of FolkDevilsandMoralPanics,that the book is guiltyof 'a
certain timelessness,an unveiling of a set of consequencesinsulatedfrom
historyand politics'.Some historianshavealso begun to growuneasyabout
the indiscriminateuse of the term:JohnSpringhall,for example, hesitates
to describe the campaignagainst 'horrorcomics' in the 1950sas a 'moral
panic', on the grounds that 'assigningeach successive"crisis"to the inclusive categoryof "moralpanic"risksdisregardingparticularfeaturesof historical context, new technology, or social anxiety' (Springhall 1994).
Others, however,continue to present moral panic as historicallytimeless.
The most extreme statement of this view can be found in the preface to
Goode and Ben-Yehuda'sbook, in which the 'fearsand concerns' underlyingmoralpanicsare said to be 'partand parcelof the human condition',
an expressionof human frailty.We are all subjectto them; all societies are

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ArnoldHunt

634

wrackedby them'. The samedeterministviewof humanbehaviour,and disbelief in historicalchange, occur frequentlyin the media. The Independent
(3 December 1992) reported the view of the Education Secretary,John
Patten,that Britishsocietywasin a state of moral decline.
Historiansmight take a different perspective,however,and argue that
societyhas not become less orderlyand peaceable,thatthere havealways
been areaswhere gangs of young thugshaveflourished.If they are right,
Mr Patten and Mr Pascallmay simplybe a part of one of society'speriodic moral panics over an issue that never reallygoes away.
2. 'ELITE-ENGINEERED'
THEORY

The second theory of moral panic is describedby Goode and Ben-Yehuda


as the 'elite-engineeredmodel' and is developed at lerlgthby StuartHall
and othersin PolicingtheCnsis:Mugging,theState,andLawand Order(1978).
The authorsof PolicingtheCrisisquoted Cohen's definition of moralpanic
with approval,commenting that the panic of 1972-3, when the national
press began to use the term 'mugging'with reference to a perceivedepidemic of violent crime, fitted Cohen's definition 'in almost every detail'.
However,theirmodel of moralpanicwasdesignedto plug some of the gaps
in Cohen's use of the term: in particular,to explain where moral panics
originatedandwhytheyoccurredwhen theydid. Cohen impliedthatmoral
panics originatedin the media, in waysthat depended on establishedpatterns of crime reporting,on journalists'own perceptionsof a 'good story',
or simply on the absence of any alternativenews; in short, 'the media
created the news and imageswhich lent the cognitivebasisfor the panic'.
Hall and his co-authorsagreedthatthe mediawere 'amongthe most powerful forces in the shapingof public consciousnessabout topicaland controversialissues'.But they went on to argue that moral panics about law and
order typicallyoriginatedin statementsby membersof the police and the
judiciary,which were then amplified by the media. The media does not
'create' the news so much as 'reproduce and sustain' the dominant
interpretationsof it, and can thus be said to function, consciouslyor not,
as an instrumentof state control (Hall et al. 1978:220-2).
The two theories of moral panic differ in other ways.Cohen adopts a
studied neutralit in his discussionof moral panic, and although his own
sympathies can quite easily be inferred, they are never spelt out. He
refrains,too, from drawingfirm conclusionsaboutthe 'policyimplications'
of his work,merelycommentingthat 'differentreaderscan drawdifferent
implications'and that 'sociologistsdo not have the power to stop such
implicationsbeing made or acted upon'. The authorsof Policing the Cr7sis,
on the other hand, incorporatein their definition of a moral panic the
notion of an irrationalor unjustifiedresponse. 'Whenthe officialreaction
to a person, group of personsor seriesof eventsis out of all preportionto the
actualthreatoffered', and

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panic' and morallanguagein themedia


'Moral

635

when the media representationsuniversallystress'suddenand dramatic'


increases(in numbersinvolvedor events)and 'novelty',aboveand beyond
that which a sober, realisticappraisalcould sustain,then we believe it is
appropriateto speakof the beginningsof a maralpanic.(p. 16)
This is a much more partisan definition of moral panic, signalling an
entirely different purpose; for whereas Cohen is pessimistic about the
chances of breakingthe cycle of repeated moral panics, Hall and his coauthors regard their work as an 'intervention'in 'the struggle to change
the structuresand conditions'by which moral panics are produced (p. x).
Bylayingstresson particular'structuresand conditions',PolicingtheCnsis
also calls into question the timelessnessof moral panics, their apparently
endless recurrenceover the whole courseof history.It treatsthe succession
of moral panics between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, between the
emergence of moral panics and their incorporationinto a general panic
about law and order, as an 'exceptionalmoment' in a long-termhistorical
process. To use Marxist (more precisely, Gramscian)terminology, that
process is the 'crisis of hegemony', the breakdownof consensus which
forces the rulingclassto resortto new techniquesof exercisingcontroland
repressingdissent. This marksanother departurefrom Cohen's original
theory.Hall and his co-authorsare far stricterin defining the historicalcircumstancesunder which moral panics occur, although they share with
Cohen a sense of the inevitabilityof moralpanicsonce the appropriateconditionsare met. Theydo not go so far as to suggestthatthe 'mugging'panic
could not have occurredbefore the 1970s,but they argue that 'it makesa
greatdeal more sense' than it wouldhavedone at an earlierperiod,because
onlyby the 1970swere all the 'essentialconditions'in place. Otherleft-wing
commentatorshave also tried to give the concept of moral panic greater
historical specificity,though with slightly different emphases. Kate Marshall, for example, associatesmoral panicswith the economic recessionof
the 1980sand the need to transferthe cost of the WelfareStateonto private
families (Marshall1985).
Goode and Ben-Yehuda'saccount of the 'elite-engineered'model is that
the ruling classes'deliberatelyand consciously'createa moralpanic about
'an issue that they recognise not to be terriblyharmfulto the society as a
whole' in order to divertattentionfrom more seriousproblems.As the New
Statesmanexplained in December 1993, moral panics are 'diversionsfor
those in power who prefer that the "socialand moral community"is not
examined too closelyfor fear it is found bankrupt'.PolicingtheCrisisactually takes a less conspiratorialview of this process, pointing to 'evidence
. . . that in this period the ruling classesthemselvessubstantiallybelieved
the definition of an emergent social crisiswhich they were propagating'
(Hall et al. 1978:220). But the conspiratorialreading alertsus to the fact
that, as far as Policingthe Crisisis concerned, moral panics are political
phenomena and are generated,whether 'deliberatelyand consciously'or
not, throughpoliticalandjuridicalactivity.This is quite differentfrom the

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636

ArnoldHunt

view of FolkDevils and Moral Panics that moral panics are the product of
'culturalstrain and ambiguity'.As Cohen puts it, in reviewingthe differences between his theory of moral panic and that of Policing the Crisis,the
level of explanation 'is shifted from social control agencies or culturesor vague allusionsto the "widersociety"- to the specific operation of the
state' (Cohen 1980:xxiii).
This distinction between cultural and political models of moral panic
mayseem dubious.The twocategories,afterall, are not mutuallyexclusive:
for Cohen, political agents are incorporatedin the notion of a control
culture,while for Hall and his co-authors,hegemony is as much a matter
of culturalas of political dominance. However,Cohen also suggeststhat
'casesof masshysteria,delusion and panics'might providea frameworkfor
the studyof moralpanics,implyingthat the moralpanicwasa form of collective irrationalitywhich must have deep culturalor psychologicalroots,
and for which a purely political or ideological explanationwould be inadequate. (Cohen 1980:11)This is the sort of language,unattachedto any
historicalperiod, that leads Hall et al. to reject the concept of a control
culture as 'too imprecise', preferringinstead to set moral panics in the
context of a specific moment in history and 'a specific type of political
regime' (Hall et al. 1978:195).
3. 'GRASSROOTS'
THEORY

Goode and Ben-Yehudaidentifya third theorywhich stressesthe extent of


popularparticipationin moral panics and which they term the 'grassroots
model'. Accordingto this theory, 'politiciansand the media cannot fabricate concernwherenone existedinitially',and moralpanicsmusttherefore
be founded on genuine public concern, reflected or magnified by the
media, perhaps,but arisingmore or less spontaneously.This is a 'bottom
up' rather than 'top down' theory of moral panic; the authorsof Policing
theCrisis,by contrast,are scepticalabout 'thisseeminglyspontaneouspublic
opinion' and argue that it is 'transmittedand constructedhigher up in the
chain of communication'instead of being generatedfrom below (Hall et
al. 1978:137;Goode and Ben-Yehuda1994:127).
The 'grassroots'theory resembles the work of so-called 'realist criminologists'such as TrevorJones,BrianMacleanandJockYoung,co-authors
of TheIslington CrimeSurvey(1986), who suggest that people's perceptions
of crime 'are not based on moral panic and/or a regurgitationof media
stereotypes,but bear a close relationship to the real facts about the
areasin which they live'. Realistcriminologiststend to be unhappywith
the term 'moral panic', identifying 'moral realism',rather than panic or
hysteria,in people's attitudesto crime. However,they do not simplyreject
the concept of moral panic. In their view, moral panic and moral realism
are symptoms of the same problem, signs that crime really is on the
increase.

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637

The sameforceswhich makefor the increasein crimefuel a moralpanic


about crime.Thatis, the real fear about crimeis intimatelyrelatedto the
moral hysteriaabout crime. It not only provides a rational kernel for
alarm,but its genesis lies at the same source;and the mass media serve
and exaggeratesuch public fears. (Lea and Young 1993:49, 263)
This leavesthe statusof moral panic slightlyambiguous.The line between
'fear'and 'hysteria','alarm'and 'panic',is a fine one: if it is rationalto be
alarmedabout crime,it mayalso, perhaps,be rationalto panic. One of the
most telling objections to Policing the Crzsiswas that it treated the moral
panic as an irrationalor disproportionateresponse to a situation,without
providingany 'criteriaof proportionality'to distinguishit from a rational
response (Waddington1986). The realistcriminologistssolve this problem
ratherneatlyby eliminatingthe need for any such distinction.
In shiftingthe focus of attentionawayfrom the utterancesof politicians,
journalists and other professionalsto the attitudes and opinions of the
general public, the 'grassroots'model marksa significantdeparturefrom
previoustheories of moral panic. However,it can also be seen as continuing and developingsome of the themes of Cohen's originaldefinition. Its
proponents have tended, like Cohen, to treat moral panic as a cultural
phenomenon. StuartA. Scheingold,in ThePoliticsof Law and Order(1984),
arguesthat moralpanics about street crime are rooted in a 'mythof crime
and punishment'that has little to do with the actualincidence of crimebut
is sustainedby the pervasive'culturalpresence' of violence in contemporaryAmericansociety.In a discussionof the moralpanic in Swedencaused
by a proposal to provide clean syringesto intravenousdrug users,Arthur
Gould suggests that an analysisof 'political,ideological and institutional
factors'is incomplete without reference to the 'widersocial structureand
culture' and, in particular,the sense that Swedish national identity was
under threat. Unlike Cohen, Scheingold and Gould treat moral panics as
the productof a diffusesense of crisis,not obviouslyin the interestsof any
particulargroup. As with Cohen, however,there is a timelessnessabout
their view of moral panic: they emphasizethe culturalfactorswhich make
it inevitablethat similarmoralpanicswill occur againin the future,regardless of social or politicaltrends.Scheingoldsuggeststhat there are 'cultural
constants'in Americansocietywhich favourthe development of punitive
policies on law and order (Scheingold 1984, Gould 1994).
A tentativegenealogy of moral panic, then, would depict Cohen's original theoryas the parentof twoother, mutuallyopposingtheories.One (the
'elite-engineered') theory accepts Cohen's suggestion that moral panics
serve the interestsof particulargroups,but rejectsthe idea that they have
deep-seated cultural causes; the other (the 'grassroots'theory) accepts
Cohen'sculturalinterpretationof moralpanicsbut rejectsor severelyqualifies the interest-groupexplanation.The work of David Underdown,discussed brieflyabove,illustratesthe developmentof the 'grassroots'theory
particularlyclearly. In locaiing the moral panic at the level of 'cultural

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ArnoldHunt

638

conflict'and identifyingmoralentrepreneurswho promoteit, Underdown


resemblesCohen;yet he arguesthat there waswidespreadpopularparticipation in the moralpanic, and considershimself to be assertingthe autonomy of popular culture, as opposed to historians who 'say that ...
everythingof importancein seventeenth-centuryEnglandhappened "from
the top down",with the common people alwaysobedientlyfollowing the
lead of theirbetters'(Underdown1992:x) . Likeother 'grassroots'theorists
- DavidHerman,for example, deploring the 'sneering,cynicaltone' used
by the left to denigrate'realculturalanxieties'(NewStatesman,
13 May1994)
- he defineshis own positionin oppositionto the 'elite-engineered'theory.
'MORALPANIC'IN THEMEDIA,198y1995

The evolvinguse of 'moralpanic' in the media parallelsits use in academic


discourse,though with a markedtime-lag.FolkDevilsandMoralPanicscame
out in 1972and wasreprintedin 1980;by 1984,referencesto 'moralpanic'
were startingto appearregularlyin the broadsheetnewspapers.Policingthe
Crzsis
came out in 1978and wasoften reprintedthereafter;its effect on the
media's use of 'moralpanic' is not evident before 1988. Lea and Young's
WhatIs ToBeDoneAboutLawand Order?
appearedin 1984, and Waddington's article'Muggingas a MoralPanic'in 1988;witha few exceptions,journalistsdid not followup their critiqueof the 'elite-engineered'theoryuntil
1993.It may,seemingly,take up to ten yearsfor new developmentsin sociology and criminologyto filter through to the media.
There are, of course, exceptions to this chronology.One of the earliest
newspaperarticlesto use the term, on 18June 1985,provedto be remarkablyprescientin anticipatingthingsto come. Moralpanic, DigbyAnderson
explained to the readers of TheTimes,was '1960s sociologese to refer to
publicconcernssociologistswouldpreferto brushunder the carpet'.There
was'no social scientificevidence of a moral panic' aboutAIDS,but in the
lightof attemptsto 'relativizemoral standards'and 'extend the incidence
of homosexualpractice',perhapsthere ought to be:
Should not those within Judaism, the Christianchurches, Islam and
among half-churchedbut traditionallyinclined parents, and the many
homosexualswho do not approveof homosexualproselytization,startto
be concerned?In short,whatwe need is a little moremoral panic.
Havingbegun by dismissingthe idea of moral panic, Andersonended up
byendorsing it. Over the next ten years, the use of 'moral panic' in the
nationalpresswould follow the same trajectory.
In the courseof the 1980sthe termwasappliedto a widevarietyof issues,
includingAIDS, child abuse, crowd violence at football matches, drug
addiction,juvenile crime and surrogatemothers. Moralpanic was attriS
utedeither to the media alone ('a Fleet Streetmoralpanic') or to a mood
ofpublic concern created by the media ('The public's moral panic is

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639

accompanied by a good deal of misinformation').The term was almost


alwaysused pejoratively.'Moralfervour often breeds and benefits from
moralpanic', declaredone writerin the Guardianon 12July1985. 'In conditions of such alarm,informed and sustaineddebate seems to go by the
board.' Mostof the referencesto 'moralpanic' in the mid-1980soccurred
in the Guardianor in left-wingweekliessuch as the NewStatesman
and New
Society,
but by the end of the decade the term had made its wayinto other
broadsheetnewspapersand wasbeginning to be treatedas a commonplace.
At first, quotationsfrom academicswere used to establishthe credentials
of an unfamiliarterm: "'Whatwe are witnessingis a moral panic," says
MichaelFreeman,Professorof EnglishLawat UniversityCollege,London'
(Guardian15January1985). Withina few years,journalistsfelt sufficiently
familiarwiththe termto refercasuallyto 'the inevitablemediamoralpanic'
(Independent
6 October 1988) or 'the media-saturatedspace marked"moral
panic"' ( TheTimes22 February1992).
The interpretationof moral panic underlyingmost of these newspaper
articles is neatly summed up in an extract from the Daily Telegraph
(20
March1991):
Dr Thompson does not deny the existence of occult crime . . . 'I'm not
sayingthat this sort of abusecould neverhappen,' he says.'Butso far this
bears all the signs of a classicmoral panic - a scare promoted by a particulargroup to achieve a particularend.'
The influence of the 'interest-group'theorycan also be detected in articles
whichsuggest,by meansof historicalparallels,thatmoralpanicsare eternal
or cyclicalin nature. A Guardianarticle on 30 May 1985 recounted 'the
extraordinarystory of a fourteenth century "moral panic" that swept
Europe'at the time of the BlackDeath, and an articleby RoyPorter,published in NewSociety
in December 1986, drewsimilarparallelsbetween the
present-daymoral panic about AIDS and the panic about cholera in the
nineteenth century,or plague in the sixteenth century,noting that scapegoats (Cohen's 'folk devils')were found for each epidemic.Viewingmoral
panics in historicalperspective,there was a tendency to attributethem to
culturalratherthan socialor economic causes.A book reviewin the Sunday
Timesin June 1992 declared that 'as the last years of centuries seem historicallyprone to moral panics,it should not surpriseus that the Aids epidemic has, with wearisomepredictability,been interpreted as an act of
God'.Moralpanic, agreed TheTix?zesin a leadingarticle(24 February1993),
was a pervasiveelement in 'contemporaryWestern culture' and a 'predictablefixture in fin de siecle life'.
Bythe late 1980s,however,other theoriesof moralpanic had entered the
media. The termwasincreasinglyfelt to belong to left-wingpolemic rather
than detached historicalanalysis,and there was consequentlya reluctance
to use it uncritically.Interestingly,this originatedin the left-wingmedia.
The Guardiancommented on 17 June 1988 that recent cases of football
hooliganism had provoked 'predictable responses. On the demagogic

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ArnoldHunt

right, there are callsfor such louts to be locked up for a long time . . . On
the jargon-ladenleft it's all being blamed on moral panic, MrsThatcher
and socialdeprivation'.On 28 August1989the Guardianattackedthe 'conventionalwisdom', 'widelyaccepted in Home Office and policing circles',
'that risk of crime is much lower than the public suspect . . . and that the
mass media have contributed to irrational fears, particularlyamongst
women and the elderly'.Again, this waspresentedas politicallybipartisan:
'whilstthe Right talksof "irrationalfear",much of the Left talksof "moral
panic".All of this is palpablyuntrue for inner city areasand for the more
vulnerablemembersof our society'.These two articlesare exceptional in
being up to date with the work of realistcriminologists;other newspaper
articlesof about the same date are awareof the 'elite-engineered'theory
but acceptit uncritically.An articlein the Sunday Timesattacked'thosewho
wishto whip up "moralpanics"and cut backon socialspending' (3 December 1989) and an articlein the Independentreporteda claimthat 'the police
and local authorities'had 'whippedup hysteriain relation to acid house
and are using their powersaccordingly. . . It's moral panic. They see it as
somethingwickedand they want to stop it' (24July 1990).
The suddenpopularityof 'moralpanic'in 1993waslargelydue to a single
news story:the killing of the toddlerJamesBulger in February1993, and
the arrestof twoother boyswho weresubsequentlyconvictedof his murder.
As The Timessummedit up eight months later:
When a toddler was abductedand murderedearlier this year,with suspicion fallingon two other boys,the killinginspireda moralpanic across
Britain.John Major announced a 'crusade against crime', and the
numberswho told MORItheywereworriedaboutlawand orderdoubled
within a month.
As a result of the Bulger murder, the Home Secretary,Kenneth Clarke,

announced plans for more custodial sentences for young offenders. A


statement by a group of charities, published in The Times and widely
reported in other newspapers,warned that 'in the atmosphereof "moral
panic",there is a danger that all the lessons learned in recent yearsabout
the clear link betweenjuvenile custodyand high re-offendingrateswill be
lost' (The Times3 March 1995). The Timesitself commented in a leading
article on the same day that 'Britainis in the grip of one of those moral
panicsthat afflictseverynation periodically,usuallyduringrecessions'and
thatyoung people were being castas scapegoats.This use of 'moralpanic',
based on Folk Devils and Moral Panics, was not at all unusual. Simultaneously,however,the popularityof the termwasleading some writersto
examine it more critically.
On the weekend afterJamesBulger'smurder, the Sunday Timestook a
conventionallypejorativeviewof moralpanic ('Weare in the midstof what
sociologistscall a "moralpanic",a contagiousburstof popularoutragethat
riskslosing sight of reality'),while a leading articlein the relativelyliberal
Independenton Sundaymounted a sustainedcritiqueof the term:

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641

Moralpanic is one of those deflating phrasesused by sociologistsand


other allegedlyimpartialstudentsof human behaviourto condescend to
excitements among the general populace. The phrase usually comes
equippedwithstatisticswhichdemonstratethatalcohol consumptionwas
in fact much larger in the 1840s, or that football hooliganism actually
began in 1898. . . The doctoralmessageis calming:do not worry,we have
been here before, your concernsare an ersatzcompound manufactured
by the media, a few odd bishops, stridentvoices from the left and the
right, moralistsand nostalgistsof all kinds. (21 February1993)
Before the Bulgercase,journalistsin the right-wingpresshad occasionally
experimentedwith differenttheoriesof moralpanic.An articlein the Daily
on 3July 1987 had attempteda reworkingof the 'interest-group'
Telegraph
theory,arguingthat the moral panic about child abusewas caused 'not by
the popularpress'but by professionalsocialworkersand their politicalsut
porters,'people like the LabourMP,MissClareShort'.On 18 October1992
the SundayTimeshad made an ingeniousattemptto commandeerthe 'eliteengineered' theoryin the causeof right-wingpopulism,with the suggestion
that
the anti-smokingmovement . . . is only the latest in a long line of coercive crusadesand moral panics, by means of which upper and middle
class elites seek to impose their lifestyles and preferences upon the
workingclasses.
These are plausiblearguments,playingon fearsof left-wingor middle-class
elitism and skilfully drawing on the pejorative connotations of 'moral
panic', but as interpretationsof moral panic, they did not catch on. The
on Sundayhelped to popularizea new theory of moral panic,
Independent
similarlyanti-elitist,but now seeking to endorse moralpanic,justifyingit as
rationaland repudiatingthe pejorativeuse of the term.
This version of the 'grassroots'theory rapidly gained ground in the
broadsheetpapers.On 28 February1993, only a week afterthe Independent
on Sunday'srexamination of moral panic, the SundayTimesfollowed suit
with an articleby GregHadfieldwhich placed StuartHall in a sinisterpantheon of 'sociologists,criminologists,academicsand clerics'whom 'critics
blame for the nation'swoes': 'In 1978, in PolicingtheCrisis,he argued that
concern about mugging was a "moralpanic",based on exaggeratedevidence.' 'Bringbackthe voice of authority',pleaded MelaniePhillipsin the
Guardianon 5 March1993:
Only the ivory-towermiddle classeswith a bad dose of Utopian myopia
could delude themselvesthatjuvenile crime isn't an immenselyserious
problem . . . Realitysuggests that juvenile offending is up, not down.
Communityanxiety is understandable.The term 'moral panic' is misplaced.
A succession of similararticlesappeared in both left-wingand right-wing
papers throughout 1993, attacking 'progressive criminologists' for

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ArnoldHunt

642

'dismissing the crime epidemic and crisis in values as "moral


panic"'
(Obsgrver
19 September 1993) or complaining that alarm about
singleparent families 'has been labelled in progressivecircles as
mere "moral
panic"' (DailyTelegraph
5 November1993).
Some attempts were made to recapture the term, often
by readers
responding,throughthe letterspages, to applicationsof 'moral
panic' that
theydisagreedwith.Thus the Independent
onSunday'seditorialwasfollowed,
a week later, by a reader'sletter castigatingit for 'a
misunderstandingof
the valuableconcept of "moralpanic"' and reiterating
Cohen's theory of
folk devils:'popularconcerns' (in this case, 'widespread
concern about the
state of Britishsocietyarisingfrom the Bulgercase') was
takenup by 'politicians and the media', turned into a moral panic and
directed against
'scapegoats'.Forcedonto the defensive,the writerwaspreparedto
concede
thatmoralpanicswere an exaggeratedversionof 'popular
concerns'about
realsocial problems.ProfessorJockYoungput forwarda
similarargument
in a letter to the Guardianon 8 June 1994, in which
he attempted, not
altogethersuccessfully,to gloss over the ambiguitiesof 'moral
panic'. 'Sociologistsin Britaincoined the term', he suggested,to refer to
cases
where public reaction was completely disproporiionateto
the actual
problemfaced . . . At no pointwasit suggestedthatsuch a term
shouldbe
used to blankout and denigrategenuine fearsand concerns
aboutcrime.
These attemptsto contest and to regulate the definition of
moral panic
failedto dispel the ambiguityof the term. It was an
ambiguitywhich could
sometimescome in useful. It enabled the film censorJames
Ferman,interviewedin the Independent
(13 August 1993), to offer a sop to both liberal
andconservativereaders:'We seem to go through a wave
of moral panics
inBritain,but there's alwayssomething at the heart of
it.' It helped The
Times
(leading article, 23 May 1994) to sell the idea of a 'new
politics of
socialresponsibility'to readerswho might be suspiciousof
moralcoercion:
'Thoughit is easy for a nation to slip into moral panic
unnecessarily,the
concernwhich is felt by ordinarypeople about such issues
can no longer
beignored by those who representthem'. This
ambivalenceabout 'moral
panic'illustratesthe writer'sdoubtsabout the popular
credibilityof moral
language
- a problem neatlyencapsulatedin WilliamOddie's
description
ofthe 'backto basics'campaignas 'a kind of controlled
moralpanic' ( The
Times
20 March 1994). At other times, of course, the
ambiguitywas accidental
and simplyled to confusion,as differentmeaningsof
'moralpanic'
came
into collision. Writingin the LondonReviewof Booksin
1993, Marina
Warner
referredto incest as 'one of the dominantfocuses of moral
she
evidentlyintended to use the term in a neutral,descriptive panic';
sense, but
onereader interpreted it differently,assuming that
'moral panic' was a
pejorative
term,and accusingWarnerof condoning incest (LRB7
October
and
4 November1993).
In examining the recent and current use of the term,
several
stand
out. The first is the assumption that moral panic is a features
cultural

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643

phenomenon. As The Timesput it, in a leading article on 8 August


1994:
Few now feel comfortablewith the notion of a zeitgeist or spirit of the
age. Common sense dictates, however, that moments in history are
defined in part by moods, attitudesand propensitiesfor action. Future
historiansof Britainwilllook backon the twoyearsafterthe 1992general
election as a period of moralpanic, culturaluncertaintyand politicaldisorientation.Theymayalso recordthata subtleshiftin the nationalmood
took place during 1994.
Even those who used the term pejorativelytended to accept the idea of a
'national mood', and to use phrases like 'moral panic grips the nation'
(Guardian3 June 1994) or 'the latest moral panic to sweep Britain'
( Guardian13June 1994). EvenLivingMarxism
conceded in November1994
that moral panic affected 'not only the media and a small circle of reactionaries', and 'not only those in authority',but 'society as a whole'. A
second, and related,aspectof the term'srecent use is the increasingprevalence of the 'grassroots' theory. The American conservative Charles
Murray,writingin the SundayTimeson 22 May1994 in the firstof a muchpublicizedseries of articleson the 'Britishunderclass',argued that Britain
needed to return to the traditionalvaluesof marriageand the two-parent
familyin order to ensure social stability,and claimed to detect a 'changed
public mood' on the current social crisis. The academic associationsof
'moralpanic' were now used to discreditratherthan to supportthe term.
'Mostintellectualsare still holding out: all but a handful of the academics
I met continued to dismissproblemsof risingcrime and single parenthood
as a "moralpanic".But concern was evident everywhereelse'.
Murraywas correct to suggest that 'moral panic' was on the retreat.
Writerswho used the term in a mannerconsistentwith the 'interest-group'
or 'elitesngineered' theories did so more cautiously,even apologetically.
'Though the concept of the moralpanic has been somewhatdiscreditedof
late (or at least found wanting), it still has its uses', ventureda reviewerin
the Guardianon 28 January1995. The growingrecognition of the 'grassroots' theoryled to its appearancein the DailyMailon 11 March1995,one
of the first occasions on which the term 'moral panic' had appearedin a
tabloid newspaper.Following Murray,the subject under discussionwas,
once again, the threatto the two-parentfamily.
Perhapsthe time has come when we should not be ashamedof standing
up for old-fashionedvalues, merely because of taunts that we are succumbingto a 'moralpanic'.We need, for the sake of all our children,to
foster a sense of communitywhich depends on these traditionalvalues.
The term 'moral panic' is rejected; but the phenomenon, redefined as
'standingup for old-fashionedvalues', is presented more positivelythan
ever before. Severaljournalistshad alreadystartedto use 'moralpanic' as
a term of approval:Suzanne Moore wrote that the problem of feckless

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ArnoldHunt

fathers, not single mothers, was 'whatwe should have our moral panics
about' ( Guardian
27 May1994);NickHornbywrotethaton seeing a controversialworkof art inspiredby the Bulgermurder'I found that I could participate much more directlyin the moral panic' (Indtpendent
on Sunday5
June 1994).
CONCLUSION:
THEMEDIAANDMORALLANGUAGE

Supportersof 'moralpanic' have argued that the term is everybit as relevant to the media in the l990s as it was to the relativelyunsophisticated
reporting of the Mods and Rockersin 1964 and 1965. Moralpanics have
evolvedand developed,admittedly,but the speciesis in no dangerof dying
out. Now that the termhas establisheditself in the media,professionaltheoristsof moralpanic no longer havesole controlover the wayit is used;but
its popularityacrossthe politicalspectrumand amongjournalistsas well as
academicsonly goes to show, as Goode and Ben-Yehudaremark,that the
concept is generallyagreed to be valid.The media has become more selfconsciousabout participatingin moralpanics,and it could be argued that
recent moralpanicshavebeen more self-referential,even theatricalin character, as well as being more open to criticismfrom within the media;but
the result,in the wordsof AngelaMcRobbie,is that 'the model of the moral
panic is urgentlyin need of updatingand revisingpreciselybecause of its
success'.McRobbie'sexaminationof moralpanic is a good example of the
'evolution,not extinction' school of thought. She suggeststhat we live in
an era of postmodernmoral panics,when the moral panic can no longer
proceed unchallenged and cannot, therefore, be used to justify new
measuresof social control.But she seesJamesBulger'smurderas the catalystfor a moral panic of a thoroughlyold-fashionedkind, 'wherea horrific
event givesrise to a spiralof anxietiesand leads to punitivemeasuresbeing
taken'.Forall its sophistication,postmodernjournalismtakesus full circle,
back to a theory of moral panics and folk devils hardly changed from
Cohen's originalmodel (McRobbie1994:198-219).
But there is a need for a much more searchingcritiqueof the concept.
Recent writing on moral panic incorporatesseveral highly questionable
assumptions:first,that moralpanicsare timeless,common to 'all societies'
(Goode and Ben-Yehuda1994: x) and 'subject to eternal recurrence'
(Downesand Rock 1988:96); secondly,that they are embeddedin the 'collectiveconscience' (Goode and Ben-Yehuda1994:202) as partof the 'landscape of the public imagination' (McRobbie1994:203). The presence of
these assumptionsis not particularlysurprising,as recent historiesof the
sociology of deviance have shown that the theory of moral panic has
descended from functionalismand ultimatelyfrom Durkheim (Downes
and Rock 1988:96; Summer 1994: 263). But while they can be found in
Cohen's original model of moral panic, it is in the 'grassroots'theory of
moral panic developed by the realistcriminologists,and even more in the

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645

simplified version of that theory that took root in the media, that they
become most prominent and most damaging. Colin Sumner describes
Cohen's model as a blend of Marxand Durkheim,
suggesting that we could rely on Durkheim for insights into general
societal changes/evolution and on Marx for the internal, detailed,
dynamicsof that change;an approachthatwasnot uncommon in British
sociologyin the 1960s. (Sumner 1994:263)
In the 'grassroots'theory, Marx drops out of the picture, and one is left
with a theory of moralpanic that is disengagedfrom the immediatepolitical circumstancesin which a panic occurs.There is a worryinglack of historical specificity (as in Goode and Ben-Yehuda's'eclectic approach'
applied to phenomena as diverseas the Renaissancewitch-crazeand the
American drug-panicof the 1980s) and a facile optimism (compare, for
example, McRobbie's sympathetic depiction of pressure groups with
Cohen's much harsher treatment of moral entrepreneursand Jenkins's
highly criticalaccount of the role of the NSPCCand other 'claims-makers'
in the panic over child abuse).
A further problem is that no theory of moral panic has yet provideda
satisfactoryexplanationof the relationshipbetween the media and public
opinion. McRobbiecriticizesexisting theories for assuming 'a clear distinctionbetween the worldof the media and the worldof social reality',in
other words,betweenwhat 'really'happens and what the paperssay.It is a
valid criticism,as we shall see in a moment; but one could arguejust the
reverse:that the problem with 'moral panic' is that it fails to distinguish
betweenthe mediaand socialreality,betweenwhatthe paperssayand what
the public thinks. Keith Tester has criticizedthe assumptionthat 'simply
because there wasa moralpanic in the media there must also have been a
moral panic among the viewers and readers' (Tester 1994: 85). Colin
Sumner puts it more bluntly: 'Was there actually a moral panic about
mugging?'Presscuttings,as he points out, are an unreliableguide to public
opinion, and 'it is quite conceivablethat the public statementsmade by
journalists,policemen, and politiciansdid not have much impact on the
publicat large'. (Sumner1981:282-3) The seeds of thisproblemweresown
in FolkDevilsandMoralPanics,where there is said to be 'littledoubt that the
mainstreamof reaction expressedin the mass media - putativedeviance,
punitiveness,the creation of new folk devils - entered into the public
imagery', despite Cohen's finding that some sections of the public perceived the media as having over-reacted(Cohen 1980: 70). Once again,
however, the problem is most acute in the 'grassroots'theory of moral
panic, with its assumptionthat the media reflects, though in a distorting
mirror, 'real' public fears about crime, and in the thoroughlyself-serving
versionsof this theory that have appearedin the media itself.
Testerdoubtsthe socialrealityof moralpanicbecausehe doubtswhether
the media is capableof communicatingissuesof moralsignificance.'Media
significancemeans moral insignificance.'In other words,the media is less

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646

ArnoldHunt

likelyto createmoralpanicsthan 'moralboredomand dullness'.This is an


extreme statement of the increasinglycommon view that we are experiencing a moralcrisiswhichis, in essence, a crisisof morallanguage.Among
moralphilosophers,AlasdairMacIntyrehasarguedthatmorallanguagehas
become devaluedor dislocated,and MaryMaxwellhas identified a 'moral
inertia' resulting, in part, from 'the unavailabilityof words needed to
express certain concepts . . . [or] to portraythe relationshipof responsibilityand blame in particularsituations'.(MacIntyre1981, Maxwell1991)
This sense of moral crisishelps to explain the sudden popularityof 'moral
panic' in the media. 'Moralpanic' was not only a way of diagnosing the
crisis;it also appearedto providea moralvocabularyto meet it. Interviewed
in the Guardianon 22 February1995, the right-wingjournalist Matthew
D'Anconaexplained that Britainhad
experienceda sort of moralpanic between the case ofJamie Bulgerand
the death ofJohn Smith,whichwasseeminglyalleviatedby the arrivalof
Tony Blair.You see, Blairhas a linguisticprojectwhich is to constructa
languagethat his partycan win with . . . by appropriatingsome thinking
from conservativeand liberaltraditions.
The remedyfor moralpanic, accordingto this argument,wasthe language
of citizenship, community and 'civic responsibility',of a 'moral order'
stressingduties rather than rights, 'a coherent vocabulary',as TheTimes
leader-writercalled it on 23 May1994, 'withwhich to develop these emerging ideas' of moral renewal.As part of this 'linguisticproject', the term
'moralpanic' itself had to be redefined as a form of civicconsciousness,an
expressionof public anxietyratherthan a conspiracyof elites or interestgroups.
Cohen's original set of synonyms- 'moralpanic . . . moral crusadesor
moralindignation. . . moral campaigns'- made it clearthat a moralpanic
wasa temporaryburstof moral excitement,a diversionfrom seriousmoral
discussion.Poticingthe Crzsissimilarlycontrastedmoral panic with 'sober,
realisticappraisal';and journalistsin this tradition have done the same,
stressingthe need to 'separatethe wheat of real moral concern from the
chaff of moral panic' (Michael Ignatieff in the Guardian,12 May 1981).
McRobbie'scriticismof the distinctionbetweenmoralpanic and the 'real'
world is extremelytelling here, and in this respect the 'grassroots'theory
does mark a significantadvanceon its predecessors,in its integrationof
moral panicswith the continuousprocessof moraldiscourseand practice.
Whatwe are dealingwith, as SimonWatneyobserves,is not a stringof 'discontinuous and discrete "moralpanics",but rather the mobilityof idew
logical confrontation across the entire field of public representation'
(Watney1987:42). But there are obviousdifficultiesin transplantingthe
language of 'moral panic' into this radicallydifferent context, as, for
example,when the Archbishopof Canterbury,in his sermon on EasterDay
1993, equates moral panic with the instinctivehuman response to evil.
Morality,it seems, naturallytakesthe form of panic:

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647

There is a battle in the world,and we all knowit, betweengood and evil.


It is within each one of us and it is in each society . . . Evil:it fills us with
horrorand a kind of moralpanic.
It is hardto see how this form of morallanguagecould incorporatenotions
of moral reasoningor decision-making.It makes moralityappear dangerouslyvolatile,as in PaulJohnson'spredictionthatpopulardiscontentwould
'reach a critical mass and detonate a moral explosion' (SundayTimes2
January1994), and the resultis an attitudeof moral helplessness.
Manyof the metaphorsused to describemoral behaviourreflect a preoccupationwith moral aggression,as if to echo Goode and Ben-Yehuda's
observation that the concepts of moral panic and moral crusade have
tended to overlap (1994: 19). Susie Orbach's 'new moral consensus'
15 April
requires nothing less than 'a secular moral crusade' (Gqbardian
1995);WillHutton's 'moraleconomy' involves'a call to arsnsin a worldin
which time is running short' (Hutton 1996:26). The concern with shared
moralvaluesis laudable,but by conflatingmoralitywithpanic, these writers
(both, ironically,on the politicalleft) have committedthemselvesto reproducing moralpanicsuncritically.If, in Cohen'swords,'more moralpanics
will be generated', it will be because of a moral language that admits no
other possibility.
(Date accepted:June1996)

ArnoldHunt
Trinilt College
CamEdge

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