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Donson, Fiona, Chesters, Graeme and Welsh, Ian 2004. Rebels with a cause, folk devils without a

panic: press jingoism, policing tactics and anti-capitalist protests in London and Prague. Internet

Journal of Criminology file Publishers page: http://www.internetjournalofcriminology.com/Donson...


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Internet Journal of Criminology (IJC) © 2004 Rebels with a Cause, Folk Devils without a Panic: Press jingoism, policing tactics and anti-capitalist protest in London and Prague Fiona Donson, Graeme Chesters, Ian Welsh and Andrew Tickle1 “Their aim is clear. They want a violent and bloody conflagration on the streets. They want to … cause anarchy.” (The Daily Telegraph 18.02.01) Abstract This paper examines whether anti-capitalist political activists are (mis)constructed as ‘folk devils’, through an examination of media coverage in the UK and Czech Republic.

The construction, of such protestors, as violent criminals and dangerous ‘anarchists’ has, it is argued, influenced their treatment at protests by public authorities in London and Prague. The paper also offers, in juxtaposition to this representation of the current anti-capitalism movement, a discussion of the accounts of activists themselves. In particular it examines the activists’ own perceptions of their engagement in the global social movement against capitalism. The paper is based on evidence drawn from the preliminary findings of interdisciplinary research into global social movements, and in particular the protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Prague in September 20001.

1 Dr Fiona Donson was Lecturer in Law at Cardiff University and now works in the NGO sector in Cambodia. Her works include Legal Intimidation (Free Association, London, 2000).

Dr Graeme Chesters is Senior Research Fellow at Edge Hill College of H.E. His works include Complexity and Social Movements: Protest at the Edge of Chaos (London, Routledge, forthcoming with Ian Welsh) Dr Ian Welsh is Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. His works include Mobilising Modernity: The Nuclear Moment (London, Routledge 2000).

Dr Andrew Tickle was Lecturer in Environmental Policy and Management at Birkbeck College and now works for the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

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Introduction This paper argues that we are currently witnessing the development of a new type of folk devil thus engaging with Martin’s (2002) call for the consideration of social movements to include notions of culture, subcultures and deviance. This claim is advanced through a consideration of the construction of the protest activities of social movement activists and other citizens associated with the anti-capitalist movement as a deviant group and the consequences which flow from that construction. We argue that, in the context of such activism, the idea of the folk devil has been significantly altered from the traditional understanding that sits alongside the criminological account of moral panics. The paper examines the way in which anti-capitalist activists are constructed as a new class of folk devil through the media portrayal of protests and the associated political and expert comment. In this process prominent politicians and senior police officers identify activists as ‘violent’, ‘mindless thugs’2, views widely reproduced in print and broadcast media. The reasons for, and results of, this construction are varied but it is argued that primary amongst these is the ability to trivialise and dismiss activists through a rejection of their behaviour as simply destructive and dangerous. This then facilitates a silencing of these alternative voices in terms of both wider debates on the pros and cons of citizens rights to protest within neo-liberal capitalist democracy and wider contested issues of social and economic justice.

After outlining these significant shifts in the contemporary anatomy of the ‘folk devil’ and the importance of ‘moral panics’, the paper moves on to briefly considers how the participants in these actions understand their own involvement in the protests. Activists’ engagement in, and understanding of, their actions allows them to construct their own complex knowledge of their participation in political action, as well as offering the potential for some to engage in a process of ‘feedback’ that is disruptive of folk devil imagery and ideas.

–  –  –

The traditional account of folk devils and moral panics The classical criminological account uses the notion of ‘deviance amplification’ (Wilkins

1964) to approach the folk devil as a class of people or group that become constructed, as ‘the personification of evil’ (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994) within society. Once a group is successfully identified as a folk devil the associated identity dominates the public sphere producing a primary focus on negative characteristic through media coverage and expert commentary (Cohen 1972).

The result is that someone falling within the folk devil category is understood to have few redeeming characteristics - their identity is fixed in clear and simplistic terms. As

Goode and Ben-Yehuda state:

Once a category has been identified in the media as consisting of troublemakers, the supposed havoc-wrecking behaviour of its members reported to the public, and their supposed stereotypical features litanized, the process of creating the folk devil is complete; from then on all mention of representatives of the new category revolves around their central, and exclusively negative features. (1994:29) The folk devil is considered as ‘evil’ and deviant. Their behaviour is harmful to the social order and understood simply as being criminal and/or destructive to the interests of society. They are therefore selfish and dangerous, engaging in actions that do not require any deeper understanding merely the application of appropriate sanctions. As a result, society becomes interested merely in preventing them engaging in their dangerous behaviour. The forces of the state can then be mobilised to stop them – through institutional responses such as enacting legislation, strong-arm policing tactics and prosecution.

The construction of ‘folk devils’ in one dimensional terms such as ‘harmful’ and ‘evil’ effectively precludes more complex explanations of the actions and behaviour of those involved by defining them as ‘outsiders’ to the established, ordered social system. They cannot then be understood as potentially or actually accepted or respectable members of

–  –  –

society. In the context of the construction of political activists as folk devils this has a particularly significant effect, which we explore below.

Mainstream media constructions The mainstream mass media often plays a key role in establishing a group as devils.

News stories are often led by press releases issued by governments and police forces in a manner which sets the media agenda, particularly where the folk devil is either a person or group that challenges perceptions of the established order of society. The mass media frequently reports on events and behaviour, in a way that, arguably, initiates, reinforces and embeds large sections of the general public’s suspicions and fears (Chomsky and Herman, 1988). Arguably, media concerns with circulation figures and market share reinforces this state centric tendency to portray folk devils through stories that shock and engage the public. Cohen’s (1972) classic account of moral panics and folk devils points out the media have particular views about which stories can be understood as being


‘It is not that instruction manuals exist telling newsmen that certain subjects (drugs, sex, violence) will appeal to the public or that certain groups (youths, immigrants) should be continually exposed to scrutiny.

Rather, there are built-in factors, ranging from the individual newsman’s intuitive hunch about what constitutes a ‘good story’, through precepts such as ‘give the public what it wants’ to structured ideological biases, which predispose the media to make certain events into news.’ (1972:45) Evaluating the role of the media in this context, Cohen identifies three central elements exaggeration, prediction and symbolisation. Thus, events are distorted when exaggerated i.e. in terms of the numbers who take part in the event and the type of damage or violence that occurs. This is emphasised further by the type of language used in reporting the incidents - thus words such as ‘riot’, ‘siege’ and ‘orgy of destruction’ were frequently used in the reporting of events surrounding clashes between Mods and Rockers in the English seaside resort of Clacton in the 1960’s. The media also predict that the initial incident will be followed by more events that become yet more violent and destructive.

–  –  –

The final part of the process involves symbolic interpretation, which sees basic symbols

turned into negative indicators of deviancy:

‘There appear to be three processes in such symbolization: a word (Mod) becomes symbolic of a certain status (delinquent or deviant); objects (hairstyles, clothing) symbolize the word; the objects themselves become symbolic of the status (and the emotions attached to the status).’ (Cohen, 1972:134) So the media have a strong tendency to report those stories they regard as being ‘newsworthy’, in a way that simplifies the events by focussing on the more sensational and negative aspects. This approach to reporting intensifies as the folk devil persona develops, precluding more sophisticated in depth coverage. The inclusion of elite expert voices offering informed commentary can compound such simplification, or even amplify it in, the absence of voices from within the ranks of those identified as folk devils. Such amplification is particularly notable when the experts concerned originate within institutions associated with the generation of official press releases and policy documents.

When media coverage and expert interpretation develop in ways that create a widespread sense of fear in society, or a key constituency within it, this fuels expectations that firm action will be taken against the folk devil. Clearly, where folk devil behaviour is identified as criminal a strong state response appears necessary and as a result public opinion may be manoeuvred into a position tolerant of measures inimical to wider rights and freedoms. The emphasis of the state is limited to stopping the problem, not resolving deeper issues of interests and rights (Donson 2000).

The identification of a group as folk devils offers an opportunity for vested interests to engage in ‘ideological exploitation’ (Thompson 1998:39) within which the exploiter ‘gains’ from their ability to denounce the folk devil via a particular type of deviance.

Such gains can be both


political goals and more immediate practical considerations including more resources and greater powers for the police, increased newspaper sales, and the reinforcement of normative concepts of authority and discipline

–  –  –

that favour elected politicians. For example, Amanda Webster, Deputy Sherrif of Lancashire, stated that.because direct action has increased: ‘…so the will to stamp out extreme protest has intensified’, producing an ‘effective lobby... to curb the Movement’. The inclusion of animal rights and similar protests within the Terrorism Act 2000 was part of a ‘backlash against extreme protest’ adding that ‘Similar draconian legislation will not be far behind’ (Webster 2002).

Moral Panics

When considering the contexts within which previous analysis of the moral panic/folk devil construction has been undertaken it becomes apparent that we may be dealing with a different type of constructed deviance in this study. Traditionally, criminological and sociological discussion of the folk devil relates to the construction of deviancy (McRobbie 1994) within the context of an associated moral panic. Yet the very idea of a moral panic has some important elements that are significant for analysis of the construction of politically engaged activists as deviants.

Since Cohen’s initial (1972) formulation, the moral panic has centred upon political issues that have at their core a strong moral dimension conducive to heated debate around acceptable behaviour within society. The danger threatens something that is fundamental to society and therefore poses a serious threat to the very order of things. Thus, we find moral panics arising in relation to, members of ethnic minorities (Hall et.al. 1978), drug use, raves, single mothers, dangerous dogs (Thompson 1998), and ‘out of control youths’ (McKay 1998).

The classic construction of the moral panic (Cohen 1972), was thus underpinned by a politics of anxiety theory. This approach understands a panic as serving to reassert the dominance of an established value system, particularly at a time of perceived anxiety and crisis. In this way, the folk devil provides a necessary external threat which the majority can rally against. The typical folk devil is therefore someone on the edge of or even

–  –  –

outside of society – for example teenage single mothers, travellers or asylum seekers.

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