Media and Punitive Populism

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Media and political institutions are so intertwined that criminal justice policy is increasingly degenerating into a form of crude ‘populism’ (Jewkes, 2004:77). To what extent do you agree with this statement?

To comprehend this statement and to form either a refuting or supporting conclusion, several elements need to be considered. Firstly, in order to understand the idea that criminal justice policy is degenerating into a ‘crude populism’, the term ‘populism’ needs to be defined. Secondly, an evaluation has to be made on the effect media has on society. This involves the discussion of how ‘moral panics’ are implemented and used to create fear in society that ultimately leads to a punitive populism. To assess the role political institutions have on criminal justice policy, a critical analysis will be made throughout in regards to the apparent connection it has with the media. Finally, theories that repute this view need to be considered before any fair conclusion can be formed.

Populism is the view of the people against the elites in society; and in a democratic society such as Britain populism proves to be a powerful tool used by political institutions.( Taggart, P, 2000 p.1) Crime has always been a societal issue that politicians address when trying to appeal to the public by either promising to be ‘tough on crime’ or suggesting new ways crime can be dealt with; particularly crimes that the public feel is a major issue at the time (Newburn T, 2007, p.14). Nevertheless this idea alone is not what makes criminal justice policy ‘crude’; for if the idea of a populist criminal justice policy is looked at in a liberal perspective, it appeals to the rights that democracy stands for. However, when populism becomes ‘punitive’ it is generally based on a reaction to the reporting of crime by the media. This becomes an issue because the media are generally not well-known for creating an accurate perception of crime. (Roberts, R and McMahon, W, 2007, P.31). This inaccurate perception creates a populism that, if used to determine criminal justice policy, sequentially makes it a crude populism. Nevertheless, to appreciate Jewkes’ statement, the affect media have on society and its reaction to crime needs to be clarified.

Communication within society has changed a great deal since the early 1900’s due to the advancements in technology that has subsequently resulted in the media feeling like an ‘almost ever-present element of our contemporary lives’. (T, Newburn, 2007, p.84). The media, in particular newspapers, play a pivotal role in enlightening society about crime through daily reports of ‘anti-social’ behaviour and other forms of deviance. A study conducted in 1986 indicated that 48% of people regard newspapers or magazines as their main source of information about crime and 43% for television and radio (Hough et al 1988). These statistics become troubling when taken into consideration the hyperbolic nature of news reports that are selected by journalists based on what they perceive to be ‘newsworthy’. (Chibnall 1977).The stories have to entice the reader to ensure they will purchase the newspaper on a more frequent basis. The more crime newspapers cover, the more popular it becomes (Bob Roshier 1973). If the media are only selecting stories that interest society due to the ‘dramatisation’ and ‘novelty’ it holds, then the less interesting crimes and subsequently more common crimes such as theft will not be reported (Barlow, H et al, 1995). Hence, the theory that public perception of crime is inaccurate because the only cases the audiences hear about are for entertainment purposes rather than a true reflection of crime. (Chibnall, 1977). This view is supported in the observation by Hough and Roberts (1998) who identified that society’s perception of sentencing is more lenient than it actually is in reality, particularly with burglary. In another instance, a recent over-representation by the media is ‘knife crime’,...
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