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This section covers media scaremongering – its causes, manifestations and effects:

• Functions of media scaremongering >
• Scary crime headlines >
• BBC admits error >
• The mythical Golden Age >
• Antisocial behaviour >
• Tony Blair's grandmother >
• Fear of terror >
• Scrapping Magna Carta >
• Official crime figures >
• BBC's misleading crime headlines >
• BBC upholds our complaint >
• Dialogue with BBC's Mark Easton >
• Media(fear)-free zones >
• Consumer-anxiety system >
• Knife crime hysteria >
• "Yob" hype – media myths on antisocial behaviour >
• Comparative risk of media-hyped threats >
• Recycled terrorism hysteria >
• Media as anxiety-inducer >
• Crime section menu >

Some examples of scaremongering media fallacies:
• "Crime is spiralling" >
• "Violence is spiralling" >
• "The risk of terrorism increased after 9/11" >
• "Welfare is a luxury we can't afford" >

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 laws.

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 following headlines:

"Violent crime figures rise by 12%" (22/7/04)
"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 […], increased 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 >

The 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 centuries."

Antisocial behaviour

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 of them?"
(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 self control".
(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 grandmother

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 vandal.

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".

Fear of terror

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."

Scrapping Magna Carta

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…". All 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,; 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)