MORAL PANIC: JUVENILE CRIME AND THE PROBLEM CHILDREN OF PROBLEM MOTHERS
As Hall etal. (1978) point out, a widespread ‘moral panic’ about the ‘steadily rising rate of violent crime’ has been simmering away in British society since the 1960s. The most recent outbreak of moral indignation began with a focus on car crime committed by young men, and the racing of stolen cars around council estates drew widespread media coverage in 1991.
However, media attention to juvenile crime reached unprecedented heights in February 1993 following the murder of James Bulger. Still photographs from security video cameras in the mall showed the child with two figures, who appeared to be in their early teens. A hunt began for the murderers, during which several teenage boys were arrested and then eventually released uncharged. When two 10-year-old boys finally appeared in court, a crowd of about 250 people gathered outside, many hurling missiles and abuse at the accused (Guardian, 23 February 1993).
The concern about juvenile crime that crystalized around the Bulger case can be labelled a ‘moral panic’, given the unanimity with which police, politicians, journalists and sections of the public reacted ‘out of all proportion to the actual threat’ (Hall et al. 1978:16). Initially the panic concerned juvenile crime, but later it transpired that the ‘real’, underlying problem was lone mothers. From the breaking of the news about the murder of James Bulger until several weeks after the charging of suspects, the issue of juvenile crime dominated the media. The commentary of ‘experts’ and the ‘vox pop’ of the general public saturated the press, television and radio, all discussing the ‘new’ phenomenon of serious juvenile crime. From one murder, within the background context of rising car crime, was extrapolated a major new social scourge.
Condemnation of juvenile crime was not limited to those traditionally vocal on issues of law and order; indeed, the Labour Party made much of the running in the aftermath of the Bulger murder, with Tony Blair, soon-to-be Labour Party Leader, declaring Labour policy to be ‘tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime’ (Guardian, 22 February 1993).
The gender politics of this moral panic about juvenile crime emerge in the analyses proffered by the media and by those ‘experts’ asked to explain the phenomenon. Despite Prime Minister John Major’s declaration that society should ‘condemn a little more and understand a little less’, a veritable industry of pop sociology emerged during the lifetime of the panic. Both Murray and Halsey, appearing in the Sunday Times and the Guardian respectively, along with editorials in almost every newspaper, linked the phenomenon of juvenile crime with the emergence of an underclass in British society, and this with the breakdown of the nuclear family and the increase in births outside marriage. Rising juvenile crime was presented as both the evidence and the result of a growing underclass composed primarily of never- married mothers and their children. The solution to the problem therefore (sometimes implicit, other times explicit) was simple: the reconstitution of the nuclear family and the reassertion of the power and role of the father within it (e. g. Halsey 1992, Murray 1990).