Tabloid newspapers

Scene on a dark nightclub dancefloor, with silhouettes of dancers waving their arms illuminated by beams of light

© iStockphoto.com/dwphotos

In Britain the way that tabloid newspapers have reported on music scenes has been notorious and well-documented.

During the early 1990s for example, British tabloids fuelled a national 'moral panic' about the so-called rave scene and its connections with drug-taking and public disorder. Moral panic is a term commonly used to describe the process by which youth music scenes or subcultures have become the focus of moral outrage amongst the general public, usually after they have been demonised and labelled as deviant by the mass media. Often such scenes and subcultures are subsequently subjected to control and legislation.

Initially the tabloids responded quite favourably to rave. The Sun newspaper, for example, promoted the 'acid smiley face t-shirts' that became widely associated with the scene. In 1988 however, headlines in The Sun were warning of thousands of 'drug crazed youths' and of the 'evil' of ecstasy, the drug that became associated with rave. Other tabloids ran similar stories.

This tabloid coverage was fuelled by large illegal rave events and the ecstasy-related deaths of a 16-year-old girl at Manchester's Hacienda club in 1989, an 18-year-old school girl who died at her Essex home in 1995 and a twenty-year old girl who collapsed on the dance floor of Cream in 1999. Consequently some clubs were forced to close whilst the owners of other clubs had to prove they were effectively policing activities within their club. In Liverpool the dance club Cream was searched by the police and threatened with closure unless it cleaned up its act.

There was nothing new about this kind of media reporting. There was sensationalist newspaper coverage of London street gangs in the 1890s for example, where 'hooligans' were reported as being a threat to society and evidence of a general decline in morality. British newspapers fuelled similar moral panics about jazz in the 1920s, rock 'n' roll in the 1950s and punk in the 1970s.

These moral panics have been studied by sociologists. In fact it was the sociologist Stanley Cohen who first coined the term moral panic in his book 'Folk Devils and Moral Panics' (1972). The book describes how British tabloid newspapers generated a moral panic and public outcry over the rivalry and fighting between the mods and rockers during the 1960s. Yet this newspaper coverage contributed to such fighting by generating interest in these scenes and encouraging young people who wanted to join in.

Stuart Hall and his colleagues (1978) argue that this kind of sensationalist newspaper reporting is a means of selling newspapers but also serves to detract attention away from real social problems such as high youth unemployment and to generate public support for the police and official authorities who are supposed to control the crisis and maintain public order. In other words moral panics serve the interests of the authorities who therefore encourage them.

Yet moral panics can also serve the interests of youth-oriented music scenes. In her study of the British dance music scene of the early 1990s Sarah Thornton (1995) describes how the young people involved with this deliberately tried to attract mass media attention and disapproval and generate moral panic. They did so in order to promote the scene as cool, underground and anti-establishment and thereby unite those involved with the scene and enhance their sense of difference. Positive tabloid coverage and public approval was regarded as the kiss of death for such scenes and an end to their separateness.