Hannah Stirling

Media BA(hons)

03.A04. Debate

Time For Another Moral Panic…


What’s all this about a panic??

‘It is widely acknowledged that this is the age of the moral panic. Newspaper headlines continually warn of some new danger resulting from moral laxity, and television programmes echo the theme with sensational documentaries. In one sense moral panics are nothing new’ (Thompson 1998, pg1)

Recent times have presented an odd pattern of events force fed to the ever hungry public by mass media; in fact over the past year alone we the public have been shown the transparency of our culture through an intermittent bombardment of news telling tales of lies, corruption, scandal and false information by some major players of our culture; nothing new there some would say, however it is the specific nature of not only the issue being presented but more importantly how it has been presented which calls for questioning, why is our social and cultural discourse being slowly eroded by moral panics? Since 1972 when Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils & Moral Panics, first applied the phrase ‘moral panic’ to the battles of Brighton beach; the issues surrounding the mods and rockers of the 1960s, many scholars and academics have analysed how and why the panics of morality are formed within society.

In the past couple of years in British society several moral panics have emerged, Government stealing from its citizens, celebrities aren’t paying their taxes, the bank’s have lost all of our money…many carry a money related them, which is understandable due to the seemingly never-ending recession which surrounds us. However another theme has arisen, that regarding trust and transparency, the falling of morals themselves. Horse meat in our Beef Burgers, Beyonce miming at President Obama’s inauguration, Sport’s Hero Oscar Pistorious is revealed to be a murderer, obviously the severity of the panics vary, however the recurring theme of a breach of trust in what we thought was solid has become apparent. This again could be related to the recession, however one could suggest that the moral upheaval originates from general public unrest and dissatisfaction, which in turn creates social anxiety, which can erupt at any time.

Within modern society moral panics are real and are conducted for several reasons, sometimes they occur naturally and sometimes they are constructed, however they are always fuelled.

Upsetting the Equilibrium

The illusion of homogeny has allowed this civilisation to rest in a state of equilibrium, and when a panic arises, a specific group of scapegoats will emerge as the reason, the villain behind the breakdown of our homogeny. This article will attempt to gage the formula of a moral panic and apply it to a current lapse in morality, outlining how a panic works and why we need them within society.
The Cohen model outlining the discourse of a moral panic, focuses on 7 stages, they are; warning, threat, impact, inventory, rescue, remedy and recovery. If we were to apply this formula to an ongoing moral panic, for this example, The Horse Meat scandal (2013-ongoing) will be analysed, this is how it could be staged…
Warning – discovery of non-pure contents within certain supermarket chains pre-packaged foods. On the 16th January 2013 the Food Safety Authority of Ireland released information stating that they had detected beef burgers with traces of equine DNA, including one product classed as 29% horse, are being supplied to supermarkets by Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, both of which are subsidiaries of the ABP Food Group. This resulted in ten million burgers being taken off the shelves by retailers including Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and Dunnes Stores.

Threat – an ‘independent’ party becomes involved, on the 25th January the department of agriculture in Ireland reveals it has taken more than 130 samples of burgers and ingredients in the past week from the Silvercrest facility. The Food Standards Agency states tests at a Dalepak plant in North Yorkshire found no traces of meat contaminated with horse or pork DNA. However the mass food suppliers, Silvercrest, were found to have meat in its products that did not come from the list of approved suppliers and was indeed from outside of the UK and Ireland, this information came through a statement from supermarket giant Tesco who subsequently ceased business with the company.

Impact – This phase evokes action and the affects of situation become known, one example in this case took place on the 6th February, when supermarkets Tesco and Aldi take down frozen spaghetti and lasagne meals produced by French food supplier Comigel, following concerns about its Findus beef lasagne.

Inventory – where the afflicted party can assess or be privy to all damages against them, The FSA reveals a second case of “gross contamination” after samples of Findus UK beef lasagnes were found to contain up to 100% horsemeat. The products were made by Comigel. The agency says it believes “criminal activity” is to blame and orders food companies to test their beef products. Tesco and Aldi remove all ranges of ready meals produced by Comigel from their shelves.

Rescue – in this case government comment, this is the stage where outside assistance can start to appear more public, on the 8th February Prime minister David Cameron labels the scandal a “very shocking story” and says “it’s completely unacceptable”. Meanwhile, Aldi confirms two of its ready meal ranges were found to contain up to 100% horsemeat. The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, says legal action over the scandal will be mounted in Europe. Thus beginning the scapegoatism, in this case the, foreign meat suppliers.

Remedy – in this case meaning the image of complete control and take over by federal organisations, this is presented to the public in a highly mediated way as to ensure to the panicked public that action has and will be taken. On the 12th February, the FSA raids an abattoir in West Yorkshire and a meat plant in Wales under suspicion of passing off horsemeat as beef. The FSA and police officers enter the Peter Boddy slaughterhouse in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, and Farmbox Meats in Llandre in Aberystwyth, west Wales. Production is suspended pending the outcome of investigations into claims.

Recovery – this is where the former state of equilibrium can once again be attained, however as this scandal is still ongoing at the time of this study, no final recovery can be pin-pointed, although one line of events can be filed under recovery for this particular panic. On the 14th February three men are arrested in Aberystwyth and Todmorden, following FSA inspections. At Farmbox Meats, the owner Dafydd Raw-Rees, 64, and a 42-year-old man are arrested and a 63-year-old man is arrested in West Yorkshire. Police arrest the men after it emerges a significant amount of horsemeat containing bute could have been entering the food chain for some time. Authorities in Britain and France try to trace the carcasses of six horses contaminated with bute that were slaughtered in a UK abattoir and may have entered the human food chain across the Channel. The drug, potentially harmful to human health, was detected in eight horses out of 206 tested by the FSA in the first week of this month. Two were intercepted and destroyed before leaving the slaughterhouse but the other six were sent to France, where horse meat is commonly eaten.

All of these moral panic stages were highly scandalised by the media, prompting a moral panic to ensue and one prominent element of this case is the source of the deviance, specifically, foreign meat. Although a large amount of coverage was ensued by the media on the supermarkets who sold the contaminated meat within the UK, more so was the scandalisation that we had been eating non-British meat, which caused massive panic amongst the public and media. Another element of this panic is the deception felt by the public, More so perhaps than the fact the meat was foreign when it was advertised as being British, was the idea of not knowing what we are eating, it could be argued that mass public were more concerned by the notion of what else don’t we know about? Especially as UK regulations stipulate that all ingredients and contents of the produce we consume must be labeled on the packaging, the idea of being deceived by this element of life in which we had trust suddenly being cast out as a lie is the truly troubling panic of this case.

Who is to Blame for the Blame?

The truth of the matter is that moral panics and fear mongering are all around us, they are an integral part of the controlled state which we live in. Mass media plays a lead role in the construction and staging of these moral panics, whilst the public submit to the outrage and hysteria until the whole thing blows over, sometimes with social legislative change, sometimes not, and we all await the time for another moral panic.
Goode & Ben-Yehuda give an example of the reason for moral panics, which they argue erupt frequently in modern society, they suggest that moral panics assist in the strengthening of a civilisation’s moral fibre and help to reassert boundaries of moral behaviour within that society.

‘In fact, it is entirely likely that moral panics serve as a mechanism for simultaneously strengthening and redrawing society’s moral boundaries – that line between morality and immorality, just where one leaves the territory of good and enters that of evil’ (Goode, Yehuda 1994, pg52)

Another element of the reasoning for a moral panic is what Cohen refers to as the ‘social control culture’, a mechanism whereby high power organisations such as the general press and government attempt to cage what they view as deviance, some may argue non-conformity, by creating or allowing a moral panic to develop. Cohen suggests that,
‘Sensitization is merely one mechanism involved in the amplification of deviance. Although the official agents of social control were just as susceptible as the public to this mechanism and, in fact, by their own actions also magnified the deviance.’ (Cohen 1972, pg66)
There may be several reason behind the need for moral panics, some which rely on the public’s need for reinstating boundaries and some which reflect a nation controlled by it media and fuelled by its morality. The only certain thing surrounding this topic is the consistency of moral panics, their ability to arise from any number of situations, and the undeniable force of mass media’s ability to fuel fear.

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