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  The Agony and the Ecstasy: Drugs, Media and Morality

    Karim Murji

        Chapter 5 of The Control of Drugs and Drug Users: Reason or Reaction? edited by Ross Coomber.
        ©Harwood Academic Publishers 1998. ISBN 90-5702-042-4

Human life is bounded by two chasms: fanaticism on one side, absolute scepticism on the other.
—Milan Kundera

This chapter is about the media and drugs.[1] Its inclusion in a book about the control of drugs and drug users presumes that there is a link between these things and the media. But what is that link? The dominant, conventional approach has seen the media as a key force in the demonisation and marginalisation of drug users, as presenting lurid, hysterical images and as a provider of an un-critical platform from which politicians and other moral entrepreneurs are able to launch and wage drug 'wars'.[2] The media is thus seen to comprehensively mis-represent drugs, their effects, typical users and sellers and indeed the whole nature of the drug market and the enforcement response to it. In many ways the media may even define what we 'see' as drugs because it concentrates on solvents, heroin, crack, ecstasy, etc. In contrast, alcohol and tobacco are rarely spoken of as drugs, thereby conditioning public attitudes about the 'drug problem' and what the response to it should be. Furthermore, media coverage is not just misleading it can also actually be harmful because it is implicated in the triggering of drug scares and moral panics which lead to 'kneejerk' drug crackdowns and punitive responses.
    Followers of this broad line of argument see their task as being to 'debunk' media misrepresentations, sometimes by recourse to the proposition that media reaction constitutes a moral panic, and to insert in their place a 'true' picture of drugs. This type of approach has been commonly employed in various radical or critical approaches to deviance and the mass media. In terms of media studies it fits within the continuum of 'effects' theories (related terms are the 'mass market' or hypodermic models). Generally, these concentrate on the production and deployment of media messages and, it is assumed, that these have real consequences or effects. Because of its 'media-centricity', the role of the audience is often left largely unexamined. In contrast an alternative approach in media studies has stressed the ability of audiences to filter, interpret, de-construct and even re-construct media messages into something that can be very different from any intention that the producers may have had (Morley, 1995). This is the 'laissez faire' or commercial model—it has been much less prominent with regard to drugs. It has however been used implicitly in studies of drug prevention (for a review see Dorn & Murji, 1992) which suggest that prevention messages and campaigns are resisted by the audience, or may even increase audience interest in experimenting with the very drugs that they are being warned about and against. Both models are problematic in various ways, not least in over-stating the power of either the media or of individual consumers. Further exploration of the ways in which media messages about drugs are interpreted by all kinds of different people would be of interest.
    However, my primary aim in this chapter is to take issue with the conventional and familiar debunking approach. I do not seek to simply adopt an empiricist view that media 'effects' are difficult to demonstrate, though this is a criticism that such approaches can be weak at dealing with. Rather I will argue that the debunking method is itself problematic and that the moral panics argument in particular has become virtually discredited through over and misuse. While I will be critical of the debunking perspective it is important to state that in, broad terms, I do not demur from the view that media representations are problematic and that they may be implicated in 'panicky' responses from officialdom. For example Reinarman and Levine (1989), Bean (1993) and Reeves and Campbell (1994) have all deconstructed the media scare or panic about crack in recent years. I have also argued along similar lines, though focusing more on the racialisation of media and law enforcement discourse in the linkage between crack and 'yardies, (Murji, 1995). But while I instinctively share much of the distaste for the exaggerated form and context-less content of some media coverage of drugs, I do not want to simply engage in another 'rubbishing' of media reaction. Instead, I aim to question and take issue with the counter-reaction to media reaction in an attempt at what Giddens (1987) called the 'disruptive evaluation' of the familiar. My argument is mostly based around examples of reaction and counter-reaction in the media to the case of Leah Betts, a teenager whose death in November 1995 was commonly linked to an ecstasy tablet that she had taken. I will go on to discuss a series of problems with the ways in which the term moral panic has come to be used. Before that I will argue that one of the problems with the counter-reaction is the way that it 'mirrors' certain features of the very view that it opposes.


In December 1995 a number of large advertising billboards were filled with a photograph of a young woman against a black background. A single word: 'SORTED' appeared in large letters next to the photograph; below it were the words: 'Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts.' The death of Leah Betts received prolonged media coverage, from the time it occurred, through to her burial as well as over two months later when an inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. During the most intense phase of media attention The Sun gave over its front page to the story. Underneath a bold headline: 'Leah took ecstasy on her 18th Birthday' was an almost full page photograph of her lying on a hospital bed with a respirator on her face. Below it was an earlier, smaller picture of her smiling, next to which were the words: 'Don't become another Leah'. In the following two months a couple of other cases kept the subject of young people and ecstasy in the headlines. In January 1996 Helen Cousins fell into a coma after taking ecstasy and water to combat the effects of dehydration. After recovering she appealed to other young people not to take the drug which she likened to a 'dance with death' (The Independent, 13 January 1996, p. 3). A few days later another teenager, Andreas Bouzis, died in a club in south London after the ecstasy tablet that he had taken was thought to have exacerbated a congenital heart defect (The Independent, 15 January 1996).
    In the aftermath of two deaths and one temporary coma all linked to ecstasy it is hardly surprising that there was a strong emotional response from the parents of the young people concerned. The parents of Leah Betts appeared regularly in the media to warn of the dangers of ecstasy. Following her daughter's recovery Mrs Cousins said: 'I'm pleading to all young people, don't chance your life, it can happen to you. If you take ecstasy it can take your life. Nothing is worth that. Don't weaken, be strong and say, 'no'' (The Independent, 13 January 1996, p. 3). After the death of her son Mrs Bouzis said: 'Yesterday our son had a future, he had a life... Today he is dead. Families and their love are very precious. Ecstasy tablets destroy families' (The Independent, 15 January 1996, p. 3). Elements of the media treated the death of Leah Betts and the other cases as symptoms of a general social malaise. For instance the Daily Express declared that the death of Leah—a teenager from a respectable home, whose father was an ex-police officer and whose mother had worked as a drugs counsellor—revealed that drugs were present as a 'rotten core at the heart of middle England'. Other dramatic images were invoked by tabloid newspapers. The Sun spoke of how 'evil ecstasy pushers [are] cashing in on Leah's death' to promote sales of ecstasy, while the Daily Star reported its horror that I ecstasy club kids [are] still dicing with death' by continuing to take the drug despite the recent cases. Accompanying such stories were expose style articles castigating magazines that detailed the content and likely effects of different 'brands' of ecstasy. Also, and probably inevitably, the Daily Mirror urged an 'even tougher crackdown on pushers'.


The intense media reaction about ecstasy at this time—with its elements of dramatisation, exaggeration and a general sense of excitability—provoked a counter-reaction from some who sought to present an alternative view of the drug in the media. I will take two articles, one in a left wing magazine, the other in a liberal/left broad sheet newspaper to illustrate my argument about problems with counter-reaction. In the former Steve Platt (1995), then the editor of the New Statesman, declared that media reaction to the case of Leah Betts signalled that 'we are in the midst of a moral panic'. In the latter, Alix Sharkey in The Guardian examined distorted media coverage of ecstasy following the death of Leah Betts. These articles have been selected for the purposes of elaborating the argument that follows not because they are being presented as 'representative' of media coverage at this time. While there is overlap between them in the ways that both unpack and seek to debunk media coverage, I want to deal with them separately for the purposes of this paper. My aim is not simply to try to 'debunk the debunkers', though in criticising them there inevitably are some elements of this. Rather, I argue that both of them contain a series of problems, some or many of which could also be found within more academic/social scientific texts. First it is necessary to outline the case presented by Sharkey (1996). 1 will then look at the ways in which this 'mirrors' aspects of media reaction. Sharkey's main points (from which all the quotations below are taken) were that:

I have taken space to outline this argument because it strikes me as a good example of the debunking of the media and the attempt to re-contextualise the issue or problem as one of media reaction (see also Saunders, 1995). It accuses the media of selective perception (why Leah Betts, when other cases did not receive similar coverage?), the promotion of folk devil images of drugs and drug sellers ('evil pushers' and innocent victims/users), misleading, simplistic and hysterical coverage (ecstasy 'caused' the death of Leah Betts, it is 'a child killing drug') and of ignoring rational evidence (the greater risk of death from different activities).
    What is wrong with this? While Sharkey does not personally say so, the debunking approach can sometimes include a complaint about 'the media' itself, which is presented as going through periodic, inevitable and predictable phases of reaction in which crude stereotypes will be perpetuated. But, of course. the reaction that is being objected to obviously represents only some parts and sections of the media. The observation that the counter-reaction also takes place in and makes use of 'the media', which therefore can not be spoken of as an ideologically homogenous or un-differentiated whole, is certainly trite but while it remains unacknowledged the criticism will still need to be made. This is but one difficulty with the counter-reaction. It can contain an exaggerated tendency to see media coverage as hysterical and promoting an anti-drugs 'consensus' even when the existence of counter-reaction must signal, at the very least, a crack in any widespread consensus. None the less, the media's basic message, we are told, simply apes the government's already discredited and fatuous 'Just say no' policy. The likelihood that the nature of media coverage means that it can be seen as exciting interest in drug use even while it appears to be forbidding it, or that government policy, for all its simplifications, does amount to more than 'Just say no' (see Home Office, 1994; see also Pearson, 1991) are both inconveniences best left to one side. Consequently, reaction and counter-reaction can often appear to be merely different sides of the same coin, or to 'mirror' one another. Elements that are problematic in media reaction are no less problematic when they occur in counter-reaction. The mirroring of what appear to be opposite points of view has been observed before.[3] For example, in his discussion of the 'Conservatism of the Cannabis debate', Nicholas Dorn (1980) showed that both supporters and opponents of cannabis legalisation subscribed to a common 'demonic' image of other drugs such as heroin. Similarly, in a book review, Dom and Murji pointed out that drug 'warriors' and 'legalisers' display and share an equal passion in hyping up the nature (or 'horribleness' as we called it) of the drug market.[4] Once things can be seen to have got 'so bad', it enables both sides to make their case that either even more and tougher enforcement is required, or that legalisation is the only option left.


The first way in which reaction and counter-reaction mirror one another is in their view of social consensus. Media reaction assumes that there is a moral or social consensus which is under threat or breaking down. Increased drug use by young people is presented as a symptom of this decline, or as a contributory or principal cause of social decay. For the counter-reactors there is a consensus but it is one that has been manufactured by the media and other interested parties. The image presented is one of a monolithic control culture which sees the world in terms of a binary opposition of good versus evil. In this sense counter-reaction subscribes to a comforting, but simple, dualistic conception of power—a world divided into 'them' and 'us'. The object of critical analysis should then be to uncover this false consensus. What remains un-questioned is the nature and even existence of any consensus. It is simply assumed to exist, either as something to be defended or to be exposed. The contradictory and messily fragmented patterns of real life are complications that both approaches prefer not to deal with. The 'one dimensional' picture presented in media reaction which Cohen (1972) drew attention to, is replaced by an alternative, but equally one dimensional, view in counter-reaction.
    Similarly, in its concern to expose media hype, counter reaction can also end up effectively substituting one over simple message for another. Either, as the advert would have it 'Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts', or it was not ecstasy at all but death was actually caused by water intoxication, due to an excessive intake of water to combat the effects of dehydration. As the headline in The Guardian (1 February 1996) stated following the inquest verdict: 'Leah's ecstasy death caused by water. Thus media misconceptions can find their mirror image in the counter-reaction to (which is also in) the media. It can hardly be a coincidence that both types of perspective are promoted in newspapers and other media, since they make equal use of simplification and lay claim to certainty. They exemplify the 'sound bite culture' (Schlesinger & Tumber, 1994) in which complexity has little place. In this world of opposites the possibility that it was both ecstasy and water that contributed to the death of Leah Betts fail to suit the preferred framework of either side. As Dr John Henry of the National Poisons Unit indicated: 'If she had just taken the drug alone she might have survived. If she had drunk the amount of water alone she would have survived' (in The Guardian, 1 February 1996, p. 2; see also Druglink, 1996).
    Both perspectives also contain a broadly similar, strong view of media 'effects'. Either popular culture mediated through music, magazines, television, etc., is seen as promoting drug use and activities 'associated' with it. Or, on the other hand, over the top media coverage is seen as promoting a false social consensus which alienates those with experience of drugs and marginalises users. From both viewpoints the media is constructed as a powerful social force with determinate and undesirable effects.
    There are a number of other similarities. One is that both perspectives can see drug users as 'victims' at the mercy of drug sellers. For one side, young people are seemingly seduced by 'evil pushers'; alternatively, young people are seen as prey to being 'ripped off by unscrupulous dealers selling them something that is not really ecstasy. Another similarity is that both can treat the parents of the young people in the cases discussed at the outset as ciphers. Either the parents' grief can be vicariously used to promote a particular message about drugs, or the parents are virtually 'dupes' who are being used by the media to promote an ideologically loaded message. A third similarity can be seen in the view that both perspectives have about the extent of drug use. While media reaction might see increased use in terms of an 'epidemic', the counter-reaction concurs with the view that usage has increased dramatically—Sharkey for example refers to 'a million doses a week'. It is notable that there is no disputing (or debunking) of the claim itself, not even much attempt to put drug use in perspective by suggesting that, as all evidence shows, cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug. Thus there is agreement that drug use is on the increase, all that is at issue is whether the language and style of media reaction is appropriate or not.
    Both perspectives can also be seen to have an implicit conception of the 'audience' that is being addressed, constructed and re-constructed in media discourse. Eco (1979, see also Sparks, 1992) saw 'closed texts' as ones that envisage an average addressee and aim to arouse a particular response. This is more likely to be successful if the text can appeal to an existing 'common frame' of which the audience has already been 'made fond'. In the mass market place of media consumption it could be argued that both media reaction, favouring the individualising 'human interest' approach to private troubles, and counter-reaction, with its use of expose style journalism, are forms of closed texts that are accustomed to constituting their audiences in a particular frame of reference. But the common problem with effects models is revealed in the need to make allowance for the probability that audiences, because they remain regular readers and viewers, may also have got used to 'seeing' and constructing themselves within such a framework. Thus there is a dynamic and reflexive relationship or inter-play between media and audience.


The second strand of counter-reaction that I want to examine bases itself upon the view that the media's response can be classified as a moral panic. Platt's (1995) argument that media reaction to the death of Leah Betts was a moral panic is substantiated by the use of Goode and Ben-Yehuda's (1994) five criteria of a moral panic: a heightened level of concern, increased hostility towards those associated with the activity, a high level of consensus that the activity is a real and serious threat, exaggeration of the nature of threat and the volatility of moral panics. From this perspective the media and self-selected moral entrepreneurs, in cahoots with the government, are seen as conveying a simplistic anti-drugs message which ignores the fact that more and more young people are trying drugs. Hence the reality of drugs and their effects are swept under the carpet by the dominant prohibitionist mentality. Because Platt and Sharkey make similar points about media coverage I am not going to spell out the former's argument in detail. Rather I want to examine the use of the moral panics argument since its appearance in counter-reaction acts as a pillar for the debunking of the media that probably all users of the term aim to accomplish.
    Since Cohen (1972) the term moral panic has been widely used and abused, achieving the status of a sociological concept that has passed into everyday language. A moral panic has been held to be occurring in media and official reaction to street crime (Hall et al., 1978), juvenile crime (Pearson, 1983, Hay, 1995), child abuse (Jenkins, 1992), as well as alcohol, solvents and all or particular drugs (Dorn, 1983, Ives, 1986, Young, 1971, Pearson et al., 1986, Kohn, 1987, Reinarman & Levine, 1989, Parker et al., 1988, Ben-Yehuda, 1990, Coffield & Gofton, 1994). 1 now consider some of the problems that arise from the use of the model or framework of moral panics.
    Sparks points out that Cohen's use of the term was 'a modest and descriptive one'. But, while Cohen's original formulation:

usefully [drew] attention to the recurrence of themes of social anxiety and their association with rhetorics of crisis, it elides all such 'panics' under a single heading, representing them as a consequence of some (hypothetically universal, endlessly cyclical) feature of social life, namely panickyness (Sparks, 1992, p. 65).

Cohen and Hall et al. (1978) did seek to carefully contextualise and theorise the model of moral panic. But this has not always been evident in the manifold uses of the term since then. As a result, moral panic has become a throwaway phrase, a 'catch all term for anything that we don't like' (Thompson, quoted in Jenkins, 1992), and 'a value laden terminology' (Waddington, 1986) revealing as much about the view of the user as the phenomenon itself. Whenever something is described as a moral panic the intention is always pejorative, there are no instances that I know of where the user does not seem to use it dismissively against the phenomenon depicted.
    It is true that one can easily find newspapers and other media that present ecstasy and other drugs in apocalyptic terms and make use of individual and unrepresentative cases to address or represent the 'state of the nation', just as it is true that there are commentators and moral entrepreneurs who 'man the barricades' and call for more law, more punishment, etc. But this case indicates that moral panics have become common-place and everyday, rather than exceptional (McRobbie, 1994):

moral panics have become the way in which daily events are brought to the attention of the public. They are a standard response, a familiar sometimes weary, even ridiculous rhetoric rather than an exceptional emergency intervention (McRobbie & Thornton, 1995, p. 560).

For instance, at the time of writing there has been some fuss about the newly released British film Trainspotting. It has been criticised for virtually inciting people to try heroin and an insufficiently censorious view of drug-taking. In a similar way there was some controversy about the depiction of drug taking in the film Pulp Fiction for allegedly 'celebrating' drug use. Does this constitute a moral panic? The problem, it seems to me, is that to say it is (or that any one of a host of other issues are) makes little allowance for the possibility that audiences may well recognise there is more than an element of commercial hype in much of this type of coverage. The moral panic has become a 'routine means of making youth-orientated cultural products more alluring' (McRobbie & Thornton, 1995, p. 559). It has become part of a 'promotional logic' which business practice can play upon, as Cohen (1972) recognised in his discussion of the 'exploitative culture'.
    The media may be able to generate such 'moral panics' and a panoply of new folk devils almost to order—for example, new age travellers, anti-road building protestors, campaigners against live animal exports, etc. But simply identifying their presence and existence in the media is hardly the same thing as saying that whatever 'views' are presented about such groups are widely shared. After all in the case of all of the 'new' folk devils just mentioned, there has been at least sufficient public support for them to make any claims about consensus, concern, hostility and the reality of the threat questionable at the very least.[5] Not each and every instance of exaggeration of the 'threat' posed by some group or activity can be regarded as a moral panic, unless the term is now being used so loosely as to refer to all and every social anxiety, however localised, and whether it is widely shared or not.
    The un-covering of media over-reaction has been a key element of the moral panics framework. But the empirical basis on which this can be asserted is far from being as straight-forward as it may appear. Even one of the most sophisticated elaborations of a moral panic has been found wanting. Sumner and Sandberg (1990) have shown that, contrary to Hall et al.'s (1978) argument, 'mugging' was not the dominant issue in the news in 1973. Rather, their re-analysis of newspapers found that the prime news story concerned industrial relations and trade unions. Yet no one has argued that there was a moral panic about strikes. A similar argument could possibly be applied to more recent events. Around the same time as the Leah Betts case there was considerable media coverage about knives following the fatal stabbing of a head teacher outside a school in London. Despite the extensive coverage given to this incident and calls for increased police powers of stop and search, there has been no case presented that this was a moral panic about knives and young people.
    Claims about media over-reaction run into further problems. To return to the example of 'mugging' again, it has been argued that the scale of the reaction to it was not, as Hall et al. (1978) argued, disproportionate to its actual occurrence (Waddington, 1986).[6] Crucially, Waddington argues that there is no basis for identifying what the empirical criteria for a 'proportionate' response are (see also Reiner, 1988). Critics and counter-reactors asserting that the media over-reacts imply that news coverage is, or should be, governed by a quasi-actuarialism. An argument could certainly be made that media coverage of heroin, crack and ecstasy in recent years was 'out of keeping' with the actual usage of these drugs. But what is the 'right' or appropriate level of reaction? To illustrate the problem of establishing an answer to this question I will take a different example. Media coverage of HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s had many features of a moral panic when, for example, it was depicted as a 'gay plague' or as of concern to injecting drug users only (though see Watney, 1987 for a critique of moral panic theory as applied to this issue). But were those who called for more resources and attention to be given to harm reduction and prevention messages, and in the process warned about a potential 'epidemic' of HIV infection, irrespective of the actual prevalence of HIV, also engaging in a moral panic? After all, 'rational statistics' could be used to say that there are far more deaths from prostate cancer. Hence both approaches can be accused of 'sensationalism' and 'over reaction' in hyping up the problem in order to attract attention. Health educators and others involved in prevention could argue that a 'disproportional' reaction can be justified by an appeal to the 'hidden' scale of a problem or its potential as a 'future threat'. But such appeals are equally open to those who issued apocalyptic warnings about the addictive power of crack (see Bean, 1993, Murji, 1995). A more credible case could be made out for differences in the style and content of different warning messages, which would indicate that there are important political and qualitative differences between those who use terms such as 'gay plague' or a 'child killing drug' and others who want to pro mote harm reduction and safer sex and drug use messages. But, in formal terms the 'warnings' can appear similar enough to worry anyone who chooses to say that only one of these is disproportionate and an over-reaction and therefore part of a moral panic.
    A further problem with users of the moral panic argument is a tendency to see panics as actively promoted by a particular group, or at least as being a peg around which powerful groups can hang their pre-set agenda. But in this instrumentalist conception there is rarely any acknowledgment that such groups may have something to lose from moral panics too.[7] For example, following their role in the spectacular representation of drugs as a problem and continuing evidence that usage has not declined, the police are faced with two possibilities—either to 'give up' and join the drug legalisation lobby, or to campaign for even more powers, a bigger net, more resources, etc. Both options position them in a posture of defeat: the 'problem' is either insoluble, or so overwhelming that only further special powers, the limits to which can never be specified, will do (Dom et al., 1991).[8]
    Another example reveals a different problem with both the instrumentalist and disproportionality aspects of the moral panics argument. In the early 1980s there was a campaign by parents in Merseyside for more attention to be paid to the increase in heroin use by young people. Their complaint was that there was insufficient reaction by the media and the authorities. This local campaign for more action may have touched off the wider national campaign that brought publicity about heroin to areas where usage was much lower and to young people who may not have considered it before. But the parents may have felt that their (over?) reaction was necessary in order to get the authorities to respond. Hence the media and powerful groups are sometimes forced to follow rather than lead public opinion. And, as all the examples used suggest, exaggeration can be routinely used as a means of getting the media, politicians and the public to react in cases where they otherwise seem to show little interest.
    Finally there is a problem with the periodization of moral panics. To return to Platt again, we might ask if there was a moral panic about ecstasy in 1995, when did it begin and end? Clearly for Platt (1995) and Sharkey (1996) the death of Leah Betts acted as the touchstone for the onset of a moral panic. But how would this view deal with the fact that the cultural industries associated with 'Acid House' and 'rave' culture were predicting that there would be a moral panic as long ago as 1988? Or that the music press were running exposés about ecstasy at that time and asking why the tabloids were ignoring the issue? There was eventually much press attention paid to the 'rave' scene in the summer of 1988 and throughout the early 1990s (see McRobbie & Thornton, 1995) just as, well before the death of Leah Betts, there was considerable news coverage of the deaths of young people being linked to ecstasy. As the headlines 'Alarm grows over rising death toll' and 'Ravers play 'Russian roulette' with ecstasy' (The Independent, 28 December 1991, p. 5) indicate, the themes of 1995 were in many ways a replay of a well established story. How does the proponent of the moral panic explain this? Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) have the catchall answer since one of their criteria of a moral panic is that they are volatile. But, as a 'totalizing' or holistic conception of society, the media and social regulation has 'fissured' (McRobbie & Thornton, 1995), accounting for the persistence, residues and decline of moral panics requires a good deal more explanation than this (see also Watney, 1987). For all these reasons it seems to me that, to say that the media is involved in a moral panic about drugs in general or ecstasy in particular, raises a number of difficulties which are rooted in the way that moral panics and the role of the media have been theorised. These problems can not simply be dismissed in the way that Goode and BenYehuda (1994) do in response to Waddington (1986) when they argue that the popularity of the term moral panics in journalism and social science establishes its verisimilitude and utility.


The implicit or explicit use of reason as a key motif of counter-reaction raises a final set of problems. The play upon and with rationality takes two main forms. It is most evident in the appeal to rational statistics as well as the writing style and tone that is adopted. The statistics of death—the much smaller probability of death linked to ecstasy against the known deaths caused by less publicised activities—are used to highlight the media's emphasis on the former at the expense of the latter to reinforce the view that media coverage is ideologically loaded. The argument that the media constructs particular cases and deaths as exceptional and newsworthy while ignoring many others is plausible. It is certainly possible to find other cases that have not received as much coverage as that of Leah Betts. But, in the appeal to rational statistics the unstated implication in counter-reaction is that a moral calculus governs news coverage, or should do so. Yet the extent or amount of media reaction to death probably rarely corresponds simply to the numbers involved. As Kettle indicates, news coverage of a disaster is likely to emphasise 'six Brits' over '60 Frogs, and 600 more remote aliens' (cited in Walter et al., 1995, p. 587). Pointing out the far greater number of deaths due to tobacco, alcohol, car accidents, etc., achieves the rhetorical effect of exposing media partiality. But it also glosses over the unexamined assumption that the ordinary and commonplace are the stuff of everyday news. While the question of how 'the news' is constructed is an important one, it is still the case that:

The deaths boldly headlined and portrayed by the news media are extraordinary deaths. That is why they are so eminently story-worthy as news. They are also types of deaths which, unlike the majority of deaths, occur in a public place' (Walter et al., 1995, p. 595).

Hence it is at least understandable why there was a lot of coverage given to the case of Leah Betts. The revelation that other deaths did not generate as much coverage does not go beyond what is already known: that news values shape and construct what becomes the news. It does not amount to a case against the media, particularly since counter-reaction is also part of the media circle. To put the case another way, I am arguing that it is not sufficient to uncover that the media is partial, since it is difficult to know what an 'impartial' media would like.
    The second aspect of the use of reason is evident in the style adopted by the counter-reactors. Michael Keith (1992) has written about the ways in which academic writing masks its own rhetoric chiefly through the use of a dispassionate tone and style. These conventions, Keith argues, account for why writings that convey anger and emotion can be dismissed as not serious and disqualified from consideration. Though the writings I have been considering are journalistic it seems to me that they employ the same strategy and, I would contend, a close examination of other debunking texts would reveal much the same conventions commonly in play. Hysteria and emotion are taken as the hall marks of that which is to be debunked and this is best done with a 'cool', dispassionate and logical tone. Reason is, self-evidently, rational while emotion is irrational and therefore not to be trusted. Hence reasonableness marks another boundary between 'us' and the I others'. But as Sparks pointed out, reason is not the opposite of emotion: 'Rather the opposites of emotion are the 'detachment and equanimity' of a spurious objectivism and the 'sentimentality' of inauthentic responses' (Sparks 1992, p. 75).
    Rationality performs a key rhetorical role in counter reaction because it makes it possible to depict media reaction as moralistically pushing a particular agenda using emotional, even hysterical, language and images. It enables the creation of a dichotomy in which only one side is seen as engaged in rhetoric, as Sharkey (1996, p. 2) demonstrates: 'When drugs cannot be considered outside this simplistic rhetorical context, meaningful debate is impossible.' Reasonableness thus creates a space for counter-reaction to 'cloak' or suppress its own moral enterprise and rhetoric.[9] But opposing views about drugs can not be seen in terms of morality versus non-or a-morality. Paradigms of morality imbue debates about drugs, whether those views come from the most ardent 'warriors' or the most ardent libertarians (see Rouse & Johnson, 1991, Husak, 1992). Both perspectives contain moral positions in the struggle over definitions, lifestyles, etc., rather than morality being the preserve of one side only. This criticism of counter-reaction for its use of rationality is not intended to be read as a collapse into the post-modernist rejection of reason. Rather I am arguing that we need to pay more attention, as Garland (1990) has observed about punishment, to the 'sentiments and passions' that the subject of drugs can and does arouse. The use of reason, I have sought to argue, seeks to artificially disqualify emotion, even though there clearly are sentiments and passions that underlie counter-reaction too.


I have argued against the conventional debunking approach to some sections of the media's coverage of drugs. The counter-reaction contains ideas or themes that are just as problematic as the views to which it is opposed. Furthermore it can be seen as relying upon a rather out-dated vocabulary about moral panics and accused of deceitfully covering up its own moral enterprise. In taking issue with the conventional reaction to media coverage I have spent more time criticising the critics than the originators. This is not intended as a defence of any of the media's reporting of drugs. It is meant to indicate that theorising about drugs and the media requires more rigour than the examples of counter-reaction that I have used here. While the sociology of the media, youth cultures and deviance has moved on (Schlesinger & Tumber, 1994; Morley, 1995; McRobbie & Thornton, 1995) the terminology of moral panics remains stuck in a time-warp that requires a model of social consensus, a monolithic media and control culture and a seemingly gullible, or at least highly suggestible, public to work.
    There are however a number of unresolved problems that require more attention than I have space to consider here. In drawing attention to equivalences between apparently contrasting perspectives, the differences between them have been under-played. I have mainly focused on the form and content of reaction and counter-reaction. But it is also worth asking where the different views are usually to be found. At some risk of overstating the case, it is probably true that drug scares and the most extreme forms of coverage are likely to be found in the mass market tabloid newspapers while the more 'reasoned' counter-reactions are to be found in broad sheet quality newspapers.[10] If these are taken as broad indicators of the sites of reaction and counter-reaction then the ways in which different sections of the media address and 'visualise' the audience is one difference that could be worthy of further exploration. A second difference is the possible presence in counter-reaction of multiple views about an issue, suggesting complexity and a degree of openness and debate, against the singular perspective that takes the form of a grand narrative adopted in reaction. A third issue is the question of weight and influence. The forces of reaction do not stand in an equal relationship to forces of counter-reaction. There are inequalities of access as well as resources (Schlesinger & Tumber, 1994). More over, the prevalence of political conservatism apparently makes it more acceptable to talk 'tough' about drugs (and crime and punishment) than to appear 'soft'. A recent example is the extensive coverage given to a Labour party shadow minister who called for a fresh look at the laws on cannabis. The response to even this modest proposal was a howl of protest by the media which eventually led the politician to apologise and retract. Hence it is more than likely that 'alternative' views get much less time and space in the media than 'mainstream' ones. In seeing similarities between reaction and counter-reaction we should be aware of de Certau's distinction between the strategies of the powerful and the tactics of the weak (in Morley, 1995).
    Of course there are times when apparent media hysteria 'drowns out' any opposition to the orthodoxy, and the media literally circumscribe the limits of what it is possible to say in public. There is also a problem that many of the questions that journalists seek answers to are not answerable in the simple terms that are expected. Hence, there is every reason to question media representations about drugs, to ask what evidence the images presented are based upon and to challenge apparently dominant ideas. However, the simple replacement of these with equally one-dimensional views is not likely to achieve much beyond a sense of satisfaction that the 'control culture' has once again been exposed. Both reaction and counter-re action need to be open to critical scrutiny. Ultimately the problem with both reaction and counter-reaction is that they construct a terrain in which each reader and viewer is invited to position her/himself as for one side and against the other. Thus there are apparently only two absolutist positions to select from, fanaticism on one side, scepticism on the other. But, as I have tried to argue, there is more than a bit of fanaticism and scepticism on both sides.


  1. I am grateful to Ross Coomber, Nigel South and, especially, Eugene McLaughlin for their comments on an earlier version. Steven Groarke, James Sheptycki and Kevin Stenson have helped to refine my thoughts on moral panics, though they have not commented on this paper directly. (back)

  2. The last point is well demonstrated by Reinarman and Levine (1989). They show how drugs came to be seen as the number one social problem in the USA, particularly in the years where politicians standing for election tried to outbid each other in how 'tough' they were going to be on drug sellers and users. (back)

  3. Another aspect of mirroring has been observed in the rationale for changing the structure of law enforcement in relation to drug trafficking. The Broome report for the Association of Chief Police Officers (extracts from which are reproduced as the Appendix in Dom et al., 1992) successfully argued for enforcement to be organised on a three tier model on the basis that it should 'mirror' the organisation of drug trafficking itself (for a critique see Dom et al., 1991). (back)

  4. This was a review of R. Clutterbuck's Terrorism, Drugs and Crime in Europe after 1992 (Routledge, 1990) that appeared in the International Journal on Drug Policy in 1992. (back)

  5. A significant change since the 1960s is that 'folk devils' and the pressure groups that represent them now produce their own newspapers and magazines, and provide spokespeople who are well versed in the ways that the media works (see McRobbie 1994, McRobbie and Thornton 1995). (back)

  6. There is a view that a moral panic is not about the 'objective' phenomenon but rather the ways in which 'social problems' are constructed (Jenkins, 1992). But even users of this approach have felt the need to compare the construction of problems with some evidence about their extent (e.g. see Reinarman & Levine, 1989). As Watney (1987, p. 41) has stated: 'Moral panic theory is always obliged in the final instance to refer and contrast 'representation' to the arbitration of 'the real', and is hence unable to develop a full theory concerning the operations of ideology within all representational systems (back)

  7. McRobbie and Thornton (1995) make a similar point by using the example of the government's ill-fated 'back to basics' campaign. (back)

  8. Nigel South has pointed out to me that there is a third option in which senior police officers seek to redefine the issue as a social problem linked to or caused by structural features such as poverty, unemployment, etc. (back)

  9. Becker (1963) saw moral enterprise as 'the creation of a new fragment of the moral constitution of society.' (back)

  10. My reservations about this are partly due to the fact that one of the most prolific proponents of drug legalisation, Dr Vernon Coleman, has written regularly for The Sun. (back)


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