Viviene Cree: When panic takes over we lose a sense of perspective

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We are in the midst of a moral panic. The continuing revelations, investigations and resignations surrounding Jimmy Savile highlight a wider social anxiety and over-reaction around children and abuse.

At times like these we need to take a step back and think a bit more dispassionately about what is actually going on. No-one wins in such times, neither the victims, the accused, the law, the media, nor the public.

Society is prone to periodic scares and panics: hooligans and hoodies, Mods and Rockers, dance crazes, Munchausen by proxy, bird flu, obesity, alcohol and drugs. The list goes on.

One recurrent theme in the scares is the focus on children and allegations of threats to, and harm done, to children. Invoke children and the ground falls from beneath all involved.

Those who are said to have harmed children are pilloried in the media and across society. Those who are meant to protect children are blamed for failing to do so. Social workers are often embroiled in these events, blamed for doing too much or too little, or accused of being the abusers.

At all these times, there is pressure on government, police and others to do something – this is often punitive and may be out of all proportion to the actual harm done. I think the actions of Newsnight’s report that implicated Lord McAlpine in child abuse and This Morning’s list of names 
of alleged paedophiles from the internet demonstrate this too.

Calling something a moral panic is not to suggest that nothing bad has happened, that no-one died of Asian flu (one or two people have) or that no children have ever been sexually abused (sadly, many have). But the response is out of all proportion to the actual threat. The University of Edinburgh is organising a series of seminars to investigate the issue of moral panics today. Academics, researchers, practitioners and members of the public will come together to debate and discuss the social anxieties that society faces.

It must be acknowledged that scares and panics can in themselves do harm. People, like Lord McAlpine, are drawn into the maelstrom. But those who have less clout will be much less able to protect themselves from the onslaught. The widely held idea that “there can be no smoke without fire” may lead to us to conclusions on the basis of little or no evidence. The eventual result can be the scapegoating of individuals and groups (such as gay men) and punitive and excessive measures of social control (legislation and policies – like the Dangerous Dogs Act, for example). 
So what is really going on here? 
Ultimately, the Jimmy Savile story is about sex and children – and so to the media this story is “sexy” as well as being abhorrent. It sells newspapers, captures the public imagination. It was ever thus, as a look at previous scares shows us.

It’s also about trust – about trust in public bodies – in the BBC, politicians, the health service, the police, social workers. We blame the public bodies who are meant to protect us, to uphold the highest standards, and in doing so, we look away from the really troubling things which are facing society today: the increasing gap between rich and poor; prisons bursting at the seams; children growing up in poverty; asylum seekers living in detention centres.

This isn’t to suggest a simple 
conspiracy theory – it is a reality of life. By focusing on, for example, human trafficking, we ignore the reality that people are trafficked because of restrictive immigration policies that mean that it is almost impossible for many to enter the UK to work legally. By focusing on Jimmy Savile, we lose sight of the millions of children across the world who die each year for lack of clean water and the tens of 
thousands of children in the UK who grow up suffering from hardship and neglect. The explosive incident will always get more attention than the duller, more complex bigger picture. And everyone loses.

• Professor Viviene Cree, is head of Social Work 
at the University of 
Edinburgh

CAUSING A STIR

n Four years ago, the boss of Edinburgh video game company Rockstar North has said critics of Grand Theft Auto IV were “the same kind of people who complained about Elvis”.

Leslie Benzies said the games were victims of the same kind of misplaced moral panic that had greeted the early days of rock ’n’ roll.

n Health chiefs predicted as many as 2000 people a week could die in the Lothians in an “absolutely worst case” swine flu scenario in 2009, while the Hewat of Edinburgh uniform store on Teviot Place sold 150 face masks in two days.

n Judges clamped down hard on looters following riots in England last year. One university student was jailed for 16 months after swiping just four bottles of alcohol.