Moral Panics, Media Manipulation And Kneejerk Legislation – How Bad Laws Happen

mail1It’s never a good idea to pass sweeping legislation while emotions are running high – especially if it is because of coordinated and cynical campaigns that sweep facts under the carpet.

Legislation enacted in haste – based on emotion, mass hysteria and moral panics – is always flawed, heavy-handed, oppressive and ultimately ineffective. The British law books are awash with such laws, and every year there are more added to the list.

When the press, campaign groups and politicians all start fretting at the same time about something that has been around for years, don’t think this is a response to public concern. These things do not appear spontaneously. Lobby groups have friends in the media and in politics. These campaigns are carefully coordinated to create a sense of public concern, which then becomes a genuine public concern based entirely on emotive and misleading evidence.

The media control the agenda, and always have their own motivations – sometimes cynical campaigning, sometimes the pleasure of revelling in their power to manipulate, sometimes deliberate fear-mongering. it’s the media that decides how important a murder is – whether it is passingly reported on or given saturation coverage, with the public being whipped into a frenzy of somethingmustbedoneness. They will suddenly decide that something is a ‘growing problem’ or a ‘new threat’, even if statistically, things have not changed very much in years, or even decades. Even if the ‘threat’ is actually in decline. Media bodies like the BBC will report on these ‘concerns’ entirely from one side – when the laws on ‘extreme porn’ were being passed, BBC editors openly expressed surprise when they were contacted by people who opposed the law – they genuinely believed that such legislation was supported by all. After all, it’s for your own good, the greater good and to protect the vulnerable – everyone says so. And who could object to that?

This means that legislation that controls free expression and free choice – censorship laws, restrictions on sexual freedoms, the food you can eat, the vices you can engage in, the venues that can open or the dogs you can own – will not only be passed without criticism, but actually cheered through the lobbies by the people we depend on to question authority for us.

The public is easily manipulated. A determined press campaign can create a groundswell of ignorant support for an issue that no-one had given a second thought to previously. Entertainment that was considered harmless can be demonised, and the people who previously enjoyed it can be made to believe that it is now unacceptable or dangerous. Extremely rare events are reported as is they are part of an epidemic of violent crime. Statistics are manipulated, Twitter campaigns hailed as somehow representative of public opinion and outrage hyped as the norm. Most people don’t want to be outside the mainstream. If they believe that public opinion is against something, most will swing into line. And most people worry about ‘the other’. They might have enjoyed something without it affecting them, what about the effect it is having on Other People?

MPs are, by definition, power-hungry, arrogant and egotistical. No one climbs the greasy pole of politics by simply wanting to serve the public. These are ruthlessly ambitious and massively self-important people who believe that – despite no life experience or expertise in anything, by and large – they have the knowledge and the authority to pass laws on subjects that they quite literally know nothing about. Backbench MPs, eager to make a name for themselves, will be happy to back shallow and sneering media campaigns – and to front Parliamentary campaigns – in an attempt to boost their profile. At worst, it might help them cling to a marginal seat at the next election. At best, it propels them into the front benches. Conversely, no politician wants to be seen to be defending the indefensible. There are no votes in supporting pornography or raves or fatty foods or sex worker rights, as far as they are concerned. No politician is going to be praised for pointing out facts in the face of righteous fury.


Governments love control. They love to legislate. It’s their entire raison d’etre. After all, without the power to create new laws, they are simply administrators. Like the police, politicians have never met a problem that can’t be solved with even more legislation, even more micro-management of how the public live. They will ignore any evidence that the thing they seek to ban or control doesn’t cause the civil harm they say it does. Such evidence will be ‘inconclusive’ or ‘flawed’. It will either be ignored by the media, or else virulently attacked. Even if the government reluctantly agree that the research shows that there is no evidence of harm – as has been the case in more or less all recent anti-porn legislation – they will still bow to ‘common sense’, which is of course based entirely on ignorance, supposition and personal bias. ‘Common sense’ is the rule of the mob, the triumph of vague feelings over facts – yet it runs roughshod over statistics, research and historical evidence.

Conversely, genuinely flawed and deeply biased research – usually carried out by vested interest lobby groups and campaigners with dubious methodology and based on anecdotal and emotive ‘evidence’, all too often starting with a conclusion and then searching for the evidence to support it – will be accepted without question. Hysterical newspaper stories that can often be picked apart, surveys that fail to use control questions and simply accept what people say – often in response to leading and emotive questions, often carried out during media campaigns – are presented and accepted as the truth. Sometimes, ‘Rapid Evidence Assessments’ are commissioned by government from bodies with a clear and open bias – in the case of the ‘extreme porn’ laws, this was drawn up for the Ministry of Justice by anti-porn campaigners Catherine Itzin, Ann Taket and Liz Kelly. No similar assessment was requested from pro-porn groups or from independent researchers. Unsurprisingly, this REA concluded that yes, new laws were urgently needed despite no actual empirical evidence to support this need.

Controversial laws might cause some concern amongst some MPs and Lords. Laws will be passed because we are assured they are proportional – the minimum restrictions necessary. Often, amendments are dropped with the promise that the law will be ‘looked at again’ in a few years to see if it is proportional and effective. This never happens – any re-examination of a law will be little more than select committees nodding through its extension. Similarly, we are told that the law will affect only the most extreme cases – when the ‘extreme porn’ laws were being passed, the government assured critics that it was not going to be used as a sledgehammer law, and estimated around 30 prosecutions a year. In fact, there are more than a thousand court cases each year, with the police often using the law for add-on charges or against people who have been arrested but not charged for other offences, and have had their phones or computers examined. Of course, the number of arrests is then held up as evidence that not only is the law working, but that the problem was far more widespread than originally thought. Despite widely being seen as a failure – in part because the law was so badly drafted that it has proved impossible to define a banned breed – the Dangerous Dogs Act remains in force, and the only concerns from the authorities are whether or not more breeds need to be added to the banned list, as unbanned dogs – as they inevitably will – continue to occasionally eat people.

These laws are often worded in a vague way. This is partly because the legislation is all too often rushed, partly because the people drafting it don’t really know what they are talking about and partly a deliberate attempt to cloud the offence. Many people will be blissfully ignorant that the new law even exists until they are found to have broken it. These cases will be handled by police officers who only have a vague idea about the law and so cannot take a nuanced approach to, say, interpreting whether an image is illegal or not. The police love these laws, because they hugely increase clear-up rates and successful prosecution stats. Bad laws always make the police look more effective.

They are all too often prosecuted by authorities with an agenda and defended by local lawyers who will usually have no understanding of the obscure/new law (and will often tell their clients to plead guilty to avoid harsher punishments). Judges and magistrates too will often have little understanding of the law in question. it’s the blind leading the blind. As we have seen recently, the prosecution and the police are not above withholding important evidence from the defence, even in the most serious cases when it has been requested. This happens even more in cases involving porn, where the defendant will often want to avoid getting in the newspapers and where his or her lawyer will be blissfully ignorant of the nuances of the legislation. It’s how a man very nearly found himself convicted for possessing a computer-generated clip of a CGI tiger having sex with a woman. Until – just as his trial was about to start – someone discovered that the video included the tiger actually talking, it was seen as being ‘real’. No-one had bothered turning the sound up. His original lawyer had advised him to plead guilty.

Ignorance and fear lead to more convictions, and more convictions mean ‘proof’ that the legislation is working.


Once in force and no longer controversial, things that were deliberately left out of the original legislation will be redefined as ‘loopholes’. Again, in the case of ‘extreme porn’, simulated rape images were deliberately left out of the original list of banned imagery, for sensible and practical reasons. Later, a media campaign stated that this was a ‘loophole’ rather than a proportional consideration. The legislation was expanded accordingly.

And so we get legislation creep, where slowly but surely, more and more things are legislated out of existence by amendments and extensions that no one even notices. Any protest against the original law will have long since ended, and expansions are simply nodded through.

When nothing changes after new laws are enforced – when we are no safer and violent or sexual crime does not decrease – we will be told it is because we need more, stronger laws, not because the existing laws were unnecessary. When new restrictions on, say, pornography do not have any social impact, it is never said that the laws were clearly unnecessary – simply that they didn’t go far enough. Yet everyone knows that no law can ever prevent any crime. No matter how many restrictions you put on pornography, children will still find a way to access it. No matter how much you censor horror films, someone who watches such films will still murder someone. No matter how many breeds of dogs you ban, others will still bite people. No matter how much sugar you tax, people will still get fat. No matter what the legislation, people will still take drugs.

But while these laws never protect the people who they claim to be protecting, plenty of people suffer because of them. To placate pressure groups and newspapers, livelihoods are destroyed, relationships ruined. People go to prison for breaking laws that hardly anyone even knows exist. People die as a result of knee-jerk legislation. The answer to this? More legislation.

A sensible approach to this might be to recognise that this legislation is excessive. That it hurts innocent people and fails to prevent any of the social damage that it is supposed to address. Instead, we simply see a continual clamouring for ‘something to be done’ about the latest manufactured bogeyman. This is just cynical manipulation of the public – opium for the people, if you will – in an attempt to blame all society’s problems on some outside force that can be magically legislated away and to hope that no one ever notices that it isn’t working. Everything will be fine is we just have more laws, goes the argument, and astonishingly, people not only fall for it, they actually cheer it on. Something is finally being done and everything will be better now, at least until we find something else to become hysterical about. It’s a good deflection from our real problems, hyped by a media that perhaps should look a little closer to home if they want someone to blame for social ills.

Our leaders and our journalists can’t really believe that the string of hastily conceived, knee-jerk laws that clearly don’t work in the way that they were intended are a worthwhile use of Parliamentary time. They can’t believe that the answer to social problems is more and more legislation that tinkers with existing laws, seeking to solve problems that by and large do not even exist while being so vague and complex that no one – not even the people who drafted it – seems to know what it does and doesn’t outlaw. There has to be a point where they – or we – say ‘enough is enough’, and rethink – perhaps even roll back the excessive restrictions that we have on pretty much everything that we do. A new approach seems the sensible way forward. After all, as Albert Einstein (possibly) once said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.


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