This section covers media scaremongering its
causes, manifestations and effects:
Functions of media scaremongering
The causes of media scaremongering include the intention
to increase sales (eg of newspapers and advertising) and the
(mostly unwitting) presentation of alarming government/business
PR as "news".
The most easily remembered examples of the latter are political/government-related
eg WMD. But there are also strong commercial
vested interests in keeping public fear at a high level. Anxious
people make good consumers they tend to eat and drink
compulsively, need more distractions (newspapers, TV, etc)
and more external buttressing of their fragile self-image
through lifestyle products and status symbols. Insurance companies
and the whole financial services industry make billions from
our financial insecurities. The unsubtle targeting of our
fears is evident in advertisements for vehicle recovery services,
cars, alarms, security systems, mobile phones, private health
care, chewing gum, deodorant and so on. And employers benefit
if workers fear losing their jobs economically fearful
people are less likely to complain or rebel.
Of perhaps even greater concern is that fearful, insecure
populations show a tendency to elect authoritarian governments
and support "tough" draconian measures. Politicians
seem aware of this they regularly stimulate/invoke
"public fears" as justification for more freedom-eroding
legislation. The government is currently lumping together
crime, antisocial behaviour, identity theft, terrorism, etc,
to create the illusion of one big rising threat. Ministers
apparently intend to frighten the population into sacrificing
basic freedoms for the sake of "security". Multi-billion
pound contracts for the development of ID card technology,
etc, rest to a large extent on the ability of our leaders
to keep us afraid.
In a word, governments and corporations gladly reap the harvests
of high public anxiety. You would think the media has
a responsibility to apply scepticism to state/business
fearmongering, but most journalists and editors seem to thrive
on the drama of frightening "news" stories.
And, ultimately, establishment interests rather than public
interests are served by the media (who are, after all, largely
corporate-owned and who largely depend on government agencies
for access to political news/releases, etc).
Scary crime headlines
Fear can be induced in a population by constantly focusing
on the threat of crime in an exaggerated way. This has the
"advantage" (from the government point of view)
of directing fear towards "bad" individuals who
break the law, rather than the institutions which make the
The media has, for years, reported "spiralling"
crime. But the British Crime Survey (regarded as authoritative
by most criminologists) says the risk of becoming a victim
of crime is at "an historic low". Domestic burglary
and vehicle crime, for example, have more than halved over
the past decade.
Some sections of the media have focused on "rises"
in violent crime. The BBC, for instance, has provided the
"Violent crime figures rise by 12%"
"Gun crime figures show fresh rise" (21/10/04)
"Violent crime increases by 6%" (25/1/05)
"Violent offences top million mark" (21/7/05)
"Violent crime and robbery on rise" (26/1/06)
In fact, violent crime has fallen since 1995 the official
figures are clear on this (an in-depth investigation by BBC's
Panorama acknowledged the drop in violence). The above
headlines are misleading as they don't take into account changes
in recording practices (in 1998 and 2002) which have artificially
inflated violent crime figures. For example:
Certain "antisocial" behaviours
(eg minor scuffles) have been reclassified as crime, with
the effect of doubling recorded violent crime.
A violent crime with several victims
is no longer recorded as a single crime. An incident with
three victims, for instance, is now recorded as three crimes.
The artificial nature of the "increase" in violence
is confirmed by the Home Office's statisticians, who say that
"recorded violent crime has been inflated over the last
few years by changes in recording practices [
reporting by the public and increased police activity."
(Home Office Bulletin, July 2006 ).
BBC admits error
On the Ten O'Clock News (BBC1, 20/10/05), Fiona Bruce
announced that violent crime had "significantly"
increased. We complained to the BBC that this was incorrect
(the official figures showed that the "increase"
of 6% was not "significant", but was
an artificial inflation). The BBC's Editorial Complaints
Unit eventually wrote back, after an investigation, and
agreed that BBC1 news had breached editorial guidelines on
"truth and accuracy", and that there was "no
basis" for claiming a significant rise in violent crime.
Moral: don't assume the BBC bothers to research its own news.
More details of our complaint to
the BBC >
mythical Golden Age
Decades of headlines on "soaring" violence give
the impression that society is forever becoming more dangerous.
This reinforces the conservative belief that we're undergoing
a moral decline from some earlier Platonic Golden Age.
Historic researchers present a totally different picture.
Ted Robert Gurr, in Historical Trends in Violent Crimes,
writes that, in Britain, "the incidence of homicide has
fallen by a factor of at least ten to one since the thirteenth
century". He adds that the "long-term declining
trend" in such violence is a "manifestation of cultural
change in Western society". In other words, we're becoming
more civilised over time.
Manuel Eisner, in Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent
Crime, claims that "serious interpersonal violence
decreased remarkably in Europe between the mid-sixteenth and
the early twentieth centuries". The urban historian Eric
Monkkonen concurs: "Personal violence homicide
has declined in Western Europe from the high levels
of the Middle Ages. Homicide rates fell in the early modern
era and dropped even further in the nineteenth and twentieth
Another alleged symptom of moral decline is "yobbish"
behaviour. The government portrays this as a new and growing
menace. Whitehall press officers were no doubt pleased with
a recent ICM poll, for the BBC, which found that "lack
of respect" topped the list of reasons why people felt
Britain was "worse than 20 years ago". Crime and
terrorism came second and third.
Perhaps if we lived longer we'd have a sense of déjà
vu over this. For example, in 1898, newspapers in England
warned of the menace of "hooligans" and of a "dramatic
increase in disorderly behaviour". The Times reported
"organised terrorism in the streets". In every decade
of the 20th century there were similar media panics.
One can go back even further in time and witness the same
sense of alarm at a perceived moral breakdown:
"What is happening to our
young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their
parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed
with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become
(Plato, 4th Century BC)
"When I was young, we were
taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present
youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint".
(Hesiod, 8th century BC)
"We live in a decaying age.
Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude
and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no
(Inscription, 6,000 year-old Egyptian tomb)
In April 1738, the press covered
a report from a British Government committee which had been
set up to "examine the causes of the present notorious
immorality and profaneness".
In the 1800s, hordes of teens
and pre-teens ran wild in American city streets, dodging authorities,
"gnawing away at the foundations of society", as
one commentator put it. In 1850, New York City recorded more
than 200 gang wars fought largely by adolescent boys.
"Juvenile delinquency has
increased at an alarming rate and is eating at the heart of
America". (US juvenile court judge, 1946)
Tony Blair's PR crusade against antisocial youth backfired
recently. During a photo-opportunity, he hosed down graffiti
and commented that older generations of his family would have
abhorred such behaviour. The Daily Mirror then reported
that Blair's grandmother was a "commie" graffiti
Blair also talked of a Golden Age when "people behaved
more respectfully to one another", but a friend of his
late grandmother, Alex Morrison, 86, said: "he is speaking
absolute rubbish. Poverty and misery were widespread and it
was a violent place as well".
The police have often acknowledged that fear of crime is
out of proportion to the risk of crime for most people in
this country. The same is no doubt true of terrorism. According
to the MIPT terrorism knowledge base, the total number
of US and UK (including Northern Ireland) fatalities caused
by terrorism in the five years after 9/11 was 74, compared
to 68 in the five years before. The corresponding totals for
Iraq are 15,763 and 12, respectively. That should put fear
of terrorism into perspective for UK and US citizens.
Unfortunately, as Michael Bond reports in New Scientist,
people base their fears more on the vividness of events than
on the probability of them reoccurring. And since television
presents very vivid coverage of any attack (or foiled attack,
rumoured attack, etc) on UK or US soil, it is "destroying
our probabilistic mapping of the world", according to
Nicholas Taleb, professor in the sciences of uncertainty at
the University of Massachusetts.
There have been several terror scares in Britain since 2001.
The Centre for Policy Studies published a report (The Use
and Abuse of Terror The construction of a false narrative
on the domestic terror threat) which investigated a few
of these, and found that despite media panic, they turned
out to be nothing. The report's authors concluded (on Channel
4's Dispatches): "We have shown that you can't
believe a word that you read in the newspapers about the terrorist
threat. We have also shown that the politicians are only too
ready to use terror as a political tool."
Winston Churchill said we must never stop proclaiming "the
great principles of freedom
Magna Carta, the Bill of
Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury
of these, in theory, place limits on state power.
Tony Blair, however, argues for a "complete change of
thinking" in our legal system he wants to remove
what he sees as outdated constraints in tackling new threats.
Echoing Blair, the head of MI5 says "the world has
changed and there needs to be a debate on whether some erosion
of [civil liberties] may be necessary to improve the chances
of our citizens not being blown apart".
These arguments imply that crazed outlaws now pose a greater
danger to society than our legal system has ever had to deal
with. But this is contradicted by historic and contemporary
evidence for each type of threat, so our alarmist leaders
conflate several dangers crime, antisocial behaviour, terrorism,
identity fraud, etc into one big apocalyptic nightmare.
Then, taking this phoney doom-scenario as a premise, they
conclude the world has changed as never before, requiring
that we sacrifice our freedoms for "security". It's
an exercise in circular reasoning that would have us pay billions
in tax to fund mechanisms removing fundamental liberties.
(Sources, respectively: Home Office Statistical
Bulletin [HOSB], containing British Crime Survey, July 2003
& July 2006; BBC Online coverage of quarterly crime figures,
2004-2006; HOSB, July 2006; Panorama BBC1, 17/4/05; Guardian,
22/4/05; HOSB, July 2006; HOSB, October 2005; Gurr, Historical
Trends in Violent Crimes, 1981; Eisner, Long-Term Historical
Trends in Violent Crime, 2003; Monkkonen, Homicide: Explaining
America's Exceptionalism, 2006; ICM poll, BBC Online, 4/9/06;
Battered Britain, Channel 4 booklet, 1995; Egyptian inscription
quoted in Buckminster Fuller's 'I Seem to be a Verb'; Fortean
Times no. 39; Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear, p75-76;
Daily Mirror, 16/1/06; MIPT figures, tkb.org; New Scientist,
19/8/06; Centre for Policy Studies/Dispatches, C4, 20/2/06;
Churchill speech, 5/3/1946; Blair speech, Labour Party conference,
2005; Eliza Manningham-Buller [MI5] speech, 1/9/05)