Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency
Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency

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Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency

3.6 Activity: Mugging and the media

In 1978 Stuart Hall and his co-writers (Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts) published Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, in which they argued that the growth in media coverage of crime in Britain in the early 1970s contributed to a widespread belief that there was a crisis in society, in particular to do with the sudden rise of the ‘mugger’ or street robber. The video with Professor Stuart Hall which you are now going to watch is introduced by one of Hall’s co-authors, Professor John Clarke.

Activity 9

Timing: Suggested time allocation: 40 minutes

As you watch the video, jot down, in your own words, some brief notes in response to the questions below. It might be helpful to watch the video all the way through once and to then watch each section in turn, pausing to make notes in response to the questions.

Download this video clip.Video player: The media and social disorder
Skip transcript: The media and social disorder

Transcript: The media and social disorder

Hello, I’m John Clark. And I’m here to explore the relationship between the media and a social problem, like juvenile delinquency, to see how some types of behaviour, and some types of people, come to be labelled as ‘disorderly’. The video you’re about to watch looks at the relationship between the media, the public, and what it calls ‘primary definers’ – people like the police, judges and politicians – to see how they act together to define some sorts of people and behaviour as disorderly.
The video, presented by Stuart Hall, was made in 1975 and explores some of the work that he and his colleagues did for a book called Policing the Crisis. As you watch the video, you might want to think about why a video, made in the 1970s, makes sense for social sciences now.
Twenty years is a long time for a boy of sixteen. And the fact that he’s weeping in court doesn’t suggest that he’s a hardened criminal. Well, between August 1972 and October ’73, Britain experienced a wave of muggings – ‘robberies following sudden attacks in the open,’ as they’ve been officially defined. And this mugging epidemic got widespread coverage in the press.
In this programme, we want to look at the relation between the mass media and a social problem like mugging. Now, the common sense view is that the mugging outbreak was sudden and unexpected. Muggings happened. The press reported them.
When the wave of muggings receded, the coverage decreased. So the main constraints seemed to be technical ones – getting the facts, presenting them fast and accurately, reporting the experts, expressing editorial views, and so on. In fact, we’ll try to show that the relation of the media to social problems isn’t so simple. And the main constraints aren’t technical, but social.
But first, the label itself – ‘mugging’. In law, there’s actually no such crime. And there’s no figure for it in the statistics until 1973. No actual British crime is called a mugging until August 1972.
Let’s take an example. Here are two news stories, both about someone attacked in the open – one before August 1972, one after. One difference between them is clearly the size of the coverage. That’s a front page and that’s a lead story.
Another difference is the use, but in the second story only, of the ‘mugging’ label. It’s the size of the sentence and the mugging label that has attracted the attention. And the picture of the judge lends the item weight.
Now the media tend to work with labels like that. And labels simplify. They identify. They mark things out and they focus our attention on things. ‘Teddy boy’ – ‘hell’s angel’ – ‘skinhead’.
One man’s urban terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Labels mobilise strong feelings and attitudes. They carry a lot of moral weight. They help us to make sense of things. And they give people personal qualities.
But they also help to cluster stories in the press which don’t necessarily belong together. And the more stories there are about the same kind of crime or disaster, the bigger the coverage. So labels help to create a sort of news spiral. But where, in fact, did this label – ‘mugging’ – come from?
Well, must Harlem come to Handsworth? It’s quite common in the British media to find stories about America used as a sort of early warning device. In each of his three big speeches about immigration, for example, Enoch Powell used America as the basis of a prediction and warning about Britain. And pictures and stories like the ones we’ve just seen taught us the meaning of a word like ‘mugging’.
They sensitise us to mugging even before muggings appear. They give us an image of what sort of mugger to expect – his race, his city background. We could build up a sort of identity-kit picture of him from these stories. His home is in the poor parts of the city. He’s probably black.
He’d be vicious. There’d probably be a connection with drugs. His victims would be elderly and vulnerable. He has a taste for violence, for kicks. He’s part of a larger pattern of lawlessness – the breakdown of law and order.
In this interview, Sir Robert Mark draws the attention of the interviewer to the mugging statistics which are in his report. He defines it. He also interprets the meaning of the bare figures and he points up the focusing of police activity in certain areas.
Yes, I think – it’s subdivided, I think, as between robberies in the streets against inoffensive people.
Mugging, you mean?
Mugging – well, they’re vulgarly known as muggings, but they’re really robberies. Or occasionally, I suppose, they come under the heading of thefts from the person. That’s one category. The second category, of course, is the deliberate, planned, sophisticated crime against banks and payrolls. These are two very serious problems, of course.
There were a lot last year, bank raids. How about this year?
Well, we’ve had a period of regrouping and reorganisation. And during that period, we have made a great effort to identify our targets and to direct our resources against them. And the result of this is that I think, although one must never be too optimistic, but in relation to robberies in the streets, there is an encouraging fall. And in relation to bank raids, I think it’s even more encouraging that the number of these has fallen from seven a month in the first six months of last year to rather less than three a month in the equivalent period of this year.
The media love the crime statistics because they tend to go for hard facts. And there’s no fact so hard as a number, unless it’s the percentage difference between two numbers. But the crime statistics are, indeed, notoriously hard to interpret. Here’s the graph for the general category of robbery, from the annual crime figures for the metropolitan area.
Now here’s the figure for mugging. There’s no published figure for mugging before 1972. Later, the mugging figures are projected back to 1968. Strictly speaking, the 1968 figure is for a crime which, at the time, probably wasn’t called mugging at all, and it may include mugging-type crimes which are derived from other robbery categories.
So the mugging label has played a part here too in clustering crimes under the mugging heading. Here’s a related figure for a kind of robbery which sounds rather like mugging. But there’s no figure given for ‘snatchings in the open’ after 1969.
If you look at another crime, rather like mugging, theft from the person – or snatching – well, it’s even higher in 1972 than the mugging figure. Well, this isn’t a programme about crime statistics. But it is worth remembering that the hard facts behind headlines like ‘Muggings go up 129 per cent’ aren’t as simple, or as hard, as they seem.
One can see the image of mugging there on its way from the police spokesman to the television interviewer. The image is already familiar. The mugger is callous, violent, he attacks the weak and vulnerable. He robs for kicks rather than for gain.
Naturally, certain features which fall outside this image don’t get reported. Now the general public is sensitised to mugging via this image. And they then express fears about mugging, perhaps in letters to the press. And judges who are deciding on a sentence refer to this public anxiety.
The sentences get longer. This in itself is newsworthy. It becomes a news story. And it refocuses public attention.
This is an amplification spiral. And the media don’t stand outside this spiral, they form part of it. Each aspect of the public debate about mugging passes through the media. They form the link between the definers and controllers, the public, and the news.
Stuart Hall explains how the media work with images and labels to simplify social issues and to cluster new stories together. This clustering of news about crime then creates public anxiety. In turn, politicians, police, judges, respond to this public anxiety and escalate the issue. This causes what Hall calls an ‘amplification spiral’.
The key point here is the role of the media within this spiral. The media do not stand outside the spiral. Rather, they are the critical link between the public, the news stories and the primary definers. But why might any of this be relevant today, at a time when news stories about mugging are thin on the ground?
I was recently involved in producing an updated version of Policing the Crisis. And I think that its central message remains as relevant today as it was when the book was first written. The media still play a crucial role in labelling certain sorts of behaviour and certain types of people in ways that generate public anxiety. Today’s moral panics might not be about muggers. They might be about benefit scroungers or rioters. But the media continue to play this central role in generating moral panics.
End transcript: The media and social disorder
The media and social disorder
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1. In the first section of the clip, according to Stuart Hall why do the media use labels ?

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According to Stuart Hall, the media uses labels to:

  • simplify things in order to make sense of complex phenomena
  • focus people’s attention on something
  • mobilise strong feelings
  • cluster stories together even if they don’t really belong together
  • create a news spiral – coverage is increased by clustering stories together

2. In the second section, ‘Crime statistics and news values’, why does Stuart Hall question the claim that crime statistics are hard facts?

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Stuart Hall casts doubt on the claim that statistics are hard facts by showing how the ways in which crime statistics are defined and interpreted can alter the data. For example, there is no published figure for muggings until 1972, although the figures for muggings are then projected back to 1968. The 1968 figure, however, represents crimes which were not previously defined as muggings and probably included crimes previously included under other robbery categories. According to Hall, this shows how the label of ‘mugging’, which is not even a crime in law, has served to cluster together crimes which may not really belong together.

3. In the third section, ‘From definers to the media’, how does Stuart Hall define an ‘amplification spiral’ and what is the role of the media within it?

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Stuart Hall describes the amplification spiral in the following way:

  • Images in the media sensitise the public to mugging.
  • The public becomes anxious and might express their fears through writing letters to the media.
  • Judges refer to this public anxiety, which is then reflected in longer sentences.
  • Longer sentences in turn become a news story which feeds public anxiety further.

The media, according to Hall, are not outside this amplification spiral but form an important part of it, because the media are the link between the primary definers (judges, police, politicians), the public and the news.

4. Finally, why does John Clarke argue that the work of Stuart Hall on ‘policing the crisis’ is still relevant today?

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John Clarke argues that the media and the primary definers play similar roles today as they did in the 1970s. The labels might change – benefit scroungers or rioters rather than muggers – but the processes of social control remain.


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