Moral panics or just panic?

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Saturday 29 October, Royal College of Art, London


Earlier this year, the media itself became the focus of a media-fuelled ‘moral panic’.  The vocal political and media crusade against the News of the World quickly turned from an understandable disgust at the hacking of murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone into a seemingly out-of-control firestorm.  What started with revelations about less-than-savoury tabloid excesses soon threatened to engulf the whole of journalism and became the focus of animated activity for everyone from left-wing anti-corporate activists to usually moribund parliamentary sub-committees. Scalps are still being gleefully taken in a feeding-frenzy that has resulted in the closure of one of Britain’s oldest newspapers and the demise of top executives.

For all the fury, it seems unlikely that what drove the Twitterstorm, parliamentary hyper-activity and general hysteria about Hackgate was simply the sudden discovery of ‘evil tabloid hacks’.  After all, British public life has lurched from one such high-profile scandal to another in recent years, focusing on promiscuous celebrities, expenses-claiming MPs, greedy bankers and now scurrilous tabloid hacks working for Murdoch’s evil empire. Taking a sceptical view, the cultural script always seems to read: shocking revelation, followed by shrill denunciations of wrong-doers by an array of scandal-mongers; then fleeting but intense bursts of moral outrage, the search for ever more shocking revelations and new wrong-doers and demands that ‘something must be done’.  One scandal emerges as quickly as the old one subsides. So is there something more fundamental driving this process?

These episodes in some ways seem similar to traditional ‘moral panics’, whether over crime, youth, drugs or sexual freedom, each considered a threat to the moral fibre of society at that particular time. Critics noted how these panics focused irrationally on ‘folk devils’, from teenagers to immigrants, expressing a deeper anxiety about challenges to traditional norms and values. Today’s panics, however, appear to have a different character. Contemporary ‘folk devils’ could literally be anybody, from any social group. The unpredictable, free-floating dynamic can attach itself to a wide variety of events or personas. In some ways today’s ‘panics’ seem to act as a substitute for morality itself, an outlet for the expression of moral fury. The discovery of scandal allows for the exercising of something that is increasingly rare – moral certainty itself, or at least the playing out of a fantasy about Good taking a stand against Bad. All sections of society seem to be animated by the latest scandal, with each exposure of terrible wrongdoing seeming to rally new layers of hand-wringing activitists and certainly expressing an urgent and real feeling of anger about something, anything. But does anything good come of all this? And if such bouts of fury reveal a deeper moral malaise, what can be done to address it?

David Aaronovitch

columnist, The Times; author, Voodoo Histories; chair, Index on Censorship

Brendan O’Neill
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays

Jenni Russell
columnist and broadcaster; writer, Evening Standard, Sunday Times and Guardian; 2011 winner of Orwell Prize for Political Journalism

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive