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'Menacing Youth' and 'Broken Families': A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Reporting of the 2011 English Riots in the Daily Express Using Moral Panic Theory

by Jasbinder S. Nijjar
Brunel University London

Sociological Research Online, 20 (4), 10
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3793

Received: 24 Mar 2015 | Accepted: 9 Sep 2015 | Published: 30 Nov 2015


This paper utilises moral panic theory and critical discourse analysis to examine the coverage of the 2011 English riots in the British newspaper, the Daily Express. Findings show that the Daily Express drew on two previous moral panics concerning youngsters and family life to diagnose the riots as a consequence of youth criminality and poor parenting. The newspaper identified young people as folk devils of the unrest by adopting discourses which vilified them, their behaviour and choice of clothing. Furthermore, the Daily Express exaggerated the severity of the disorder by describing it as war and mass murder to reinforce to its readers the supposed threat posed by young people to social relations. Additionally, the newspaper supported politicians who denied structural determinants as causes of the unrest and, instead, blamed micro issues including a decline in 'traditional' family life and morals and discipline among youngsters. While some suggest that folk devils are now defended by experts, the Daily Express gave column inches to expert commentators who also pinpointed young people and poor parenting as causes of the disorder. This paper proposes that future research on media coverage of social problems might, in addition to exploring whether the reporting of an issue identifies new anxieties and concerns, examine the extent to which media institutions draw on and modify discourses concerning previous and familiar social anxieties in order to interpret and frame a social problem.

Keywords: Critical Discourse Analysis, Daily Express, Moral Panics, Parenting, Youth, 2011 English Riots


1.1 This study attempts to build upon past and present moral panic analyses by conducting a critical discourse analysis (CDA) on the coverage of the 2011 English riots in the British newspaper, the Daily Express. The underlying premise of this task is twofold: 1) to investigate if, how and to what extent the newspaper considered the unrest a violation of moral boundaries and a signal of social and moral decline in contemporary Britain and 2) to outline some of the themes and concepts which emerge from the explanation of the riots provided by the Daily Express and explore their link to wider social, political, cultural and moral values.

1.2 The 2011 English riots began in Tottenham, North London on 6 August. They developed two days after the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan, a British-born African-Caribbean male resident. Over the following three days, disorder spread to other parts of London and England (Bridges 2012). For Cohen (1972), two of the signs of a moral panic are media institutions and socio-political actors diagnosing an episode or event as a violation of moral boundaries. Indeed, sections of the national press identified criminality, poor parenting, and a lack of moral restraint among British youths as causes of the disorder. While some left-leaning newspapers later worked with academic institutions to establish more prudent explanations for the disturbances (namely, the joint research conducted by the London School of Economics (LSE) and The Guardian newspaper), Bristow (2013), Fuchs (2012), Jones (2012) and Phillips, Frost and Singleton (2012) all highlight how media institutions left (BBC, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror) and right (Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Sun) of the political spectrum initially dismissed the episode as a consequence of single parenthood and correspondingly a crisis in family life, a lack of morals among young people and other factors which reduced 'complex social problems to supposed individual failing and behavioural traits' (Jones 2012: xx).

1.3 Political elites similarly blamed the unrest on the breakdown of traditional family structures; lack of work ethic among young people and a desire for consumer goods (Newburn 2012). As will be elaborated on below, British Prime Minister David Cameron adopted a micro outlook on the riots by focusing on the behavioural traits of those involved in the disturbances (Bennett 2013). Comparably, former Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke writing in The Guardian newspaper claimed that the rioters came from a 'feral underclass'. For Newburn (2012), Clarke's use of the term 'feral underclass' implied that among society, exists a class of people who are out of control, function with a belief that they have the right to take whatever they please and exist on the periphery of mainstream society in all ways except for materialistic desires.

1.4 With the media and political elites offering diagnoses on social issues and problems identified as some of the key ingredients for a moral panic (Cohen 1972;Hall et al. 1978; Critcher 2003); initial reading suggests that the 'public and media response to the…rioting in August 2011 could easily be framed as 'moral panics'' (Casey 2013: 1.2). In what follows, I attempt to assess the extent to which the coverage of the riots in the Daily Express resembled a moral panic by conducting a CDA on the newspaper's reporting of the episode. I highlight how the Daily Express identified young people as the main protagonists of the unrest, described the nature of their involvement as apocalyptic, condemned their individual behavioural traits and explained their behaviour as partly the outcome of a crisis in standards of parenting. As such, I argue that although the riots had a novel set of dynamics in terms of their geographical scope, coordination through social media and mobile phone technology and the response to them by the police and courts (see Lewis et al. 2011; Bridges 2012), the Daily Express drew on a set of discourses that were similar to those of two previous and well-known moral panics over youth and parenting to diagnose the riots as a consequence of youth criminality and poor parenting/family life.

Key debates and issues concerning moral panics

2.1 While Jock Young (1971) initially coined the term 'moral panic' from his ethnography on drug use, Stanley Cohen is widely considered by those interested in moral panics to offer the classic definition of the concept. Although Cohen's (1972) definition is cited so frequently that readers are likely to skip it (Ungar 2001), it is worth reiterating his interpretation in order to clarify the theoretical base of this study if nothing else. For Cohen (1972), society periodically experiences a moral panic, defined as a condition, episode, and/or person(s) which is/are rendered a threat to morality and social values. Furthermore, the emergence of the phenomenon is followed by stereotypical and stylistic coverage by the media; moral condemnation from politicians, bishops and editors, and commentary from socially recognised experts who offer both explanations of, and solutions for the panic. Finally, methods of coping with and resolving the issue are either resorted to or reconfigured thus, resulting in the panic eventually deteriorating and disappearing.

2.2 Cohen (1972) also highlights that the subject or object of the panic which suddenly appears at the forefront of social consciousness can be new and unexpected or old and pre-existing on the periphery of social relations. Additionally, the panic can pass over relatively tamely, with its existence being acknowledged only through nostalgic reference, while at other times, it has serious and long lasting consequences which are usually signified through changes in legal and social policy and in the way society reorganises itself.

2.3 While Cohen's (1972) definition of moral panics aimed to evaluate the extent to which different social actors and institutions coalesce to advance and reinforce one another's opinions, his formulation emphasised the separate stages of an episode (Critcher 2003). As such, it risks adopting a sequential pattern which overlooks the potential relationships between different actors and institutions in the construction of a panic. Critcher (2003), however, has developed from Cohen's (1972) definition the 'processual moral panics model.' Critcher's (2003) model is important for contemporary moral panic analyses because it highlights the importance of considering the collaboration and conflict between social actors and institutions during a panic (Brown 2012). Media institutions usually offer commentary and opinion on a phenomenon while simultaneously providing an arena for debate involving politicians, experts and law enforcement authorities which, in turn, can support or challenge how the former have framed an issue.

2.4 Indeed, McRobbie and Thornton (1995) argue that the discourses around moral panics are now increasingly varied due to a proliferation of media platforms and the diversity of opinions that operate within them. By utilising communication channels such as social media, alternative digital television channels and other niche media outlets, McRobbie (1994) asserts that social actors and institutions (pressure groups, interest groups, lobbies and voluntary organisations) can present information and insight that defends those considered to be a threat to social values (folk devils) and counters any stereotypical and condemnatory representations offered of them by mainstream media. Furthermore, giving time and space to alternative views that may not coincide with their own ideological stance enables mainstream media institutions "to be seen to be doing their duty by providing 'balance' in their reporting" (McRobbie and Thornton 1995: 270). In this sense, the political and ideological stance of the Daily Express (more on this below) in relation to its reporting of the riots may compete with a diverse range of interpretations offered by actors (and institutions) not only outside the domain of the newspaper itself, but within it as well.

2.5 The defence and vilification of groups or issue(s) central to moral panics links to another debate concerning whether moral panics represent the erosion of traditional morality. Introducing the notion of 'amoral panic', Waiton (2008) argues that contemporary reactions to social problems signal the collapse of morals and the imposition of amorality as actors and institutions from the political left usually dismiss genuine social problems as moral panics created by those on the political right. Related to this, left-realist analyses (Lea and Young 1984, Young 1986) suggest that however exaggerated and distorted images of crime and deviance are, reality suggests that criminal activity has an on-going presence in society and inflicts discomfort and suffering on its victims regardless of whether its portrayal in the media is accurate or not (Muncie 2001). Ultimately, the left-realism and amoral panic critiques leads us to question how one should measure whether and to what extent political and media responses to a problematic issue are disproportionate or not. For Waddington (1986) due to a supposed inability to adequately measure what constitutes a 'proportionate' response to a problem, moral panic analyses are incapable of determining whether the level of anxiety shown towards an episode or condition is justified or not.

Critical Discourse Analysis and its benefits to moral panic analyses

3.1 Moral panic theory has become somewhat disjointed from sociology (Jewkes 2011). Critcher (2009), consequently, suggests that moral panic analyses should be connected to some of the major themes in social and cultural theory such as risk theory and (critical) discourse analysis. As such, the coverage of the riots in the Daily Express is examined through a CDA framework that draws on Fairclough (1995). Fairclough (1995) suggests that a full understanding of what discourse is and how it operates requires researchers to: 1) dissect the form and function of a text through a textual analysis; 2) explore the pre-existing socio-cultural genres that are embedded in a text through a discursive analysis; 3) evaluate the potential consequence of the way in which a text has interpreted and framed an event or issue for broader social relations through a socio-cultural analysis.

3.2 A textual analysis is conducted on the Daily Express in order to investigate the words it used to construct sentences and the way sentences were then integrated and sequenced to create a narrative of the 2011 English riots (Fairclough 1995). Content analysis is a form of textual analysis (Richardson 2007) and is deployed in this study. The benefit of utilising content analysis as part of a wider methodological framework is that while traditional content analyses consider the linguistic form and content of a text as significant in itself, analyses of the kind as part of CDA encourage researchers to examine journalistic 'choice'. This involves exploring the purpose that the linguistic form and content of a text serves in relation to both what is reported and what could have been reported but is not and the consequences of those 'choices' on wider society (Richardson 2007).

3.3 Providing an analytical link between the text and its significance to social relations, a discursive analysis is conducted to outline the pre-existing social and cultural genres which the Daily Express utilised to report the 2011 English riots (Phillips and Jørgensen, 2002). The primary aim here is to highlight the 'cues' that journalists left in the texts which might influence the reader's interpretation of the episode, issue or event reported in that text (Titscher et al. 2000). Thus, it is here that the textual analysis becomes a discourse analysis as findings from the former are advanced to identify how the Daily Express interpreted and framed the 2011 English riots (Richardson 2007).

3.4 Finally, an analysis of the broader socio-cultural context in which the Daily Express reported the 2011 English riots is conducted. A socio-cultural analysis enables an examination of the extent to which economic structures, political actors, legal institutions and social and cultural values might have influenced and arranged the way in which the Daily Express reported the unrest (Fairclough 1995). Richardson (2007) suggests that when analysing discourse, researchers must ask questions such as: what does the text say about the journalist/author who produced it and the readership it was produced for? What influence can the text have on existing social relations? Will the text continue to play a role in reinforcing social inequalities and objectionable socio-political practices or can it be a catalyst for positive socio-political change? It is at this stage that the discourse analysis becomes critical.

3.5 A total of 119 news articles, editorial and guest opinion columns published in the Daily Express in relation to the unrest were analysed (see Figure 1). All of the content was obtained from newspaper archive database LexisNexis[1]. Temporal constraints rendered it unrealisable to analyse all British press reporting of the 2011 English riots. Hence, the choice to analyse the Daily Express was based on three primary reasons. Firstly, for Critcher (2008: 155), the newspaper – like its mid-market conservative competitor the Daily Mail – tends 'to be especially susceptible to moral panics.' Reporting by the Daily Express of social, racial and political issues such as immigration, youth and crime is underpinned by an editorial stance which considers society to be in a 'permanent state of moral decline' (Critcher 2008: 155). Thus, if press coverage of the 2011 English riots did reflect a moral panic, it is in the reporting of the disorder by the Daily Express that such reflection will likely have occurred. Secondly, although the Daily Express mainly attracts a lower middle class readership, the newspaper is also read by members of other social classes[2] (Richardson 2007). Thus, its views tend to reach the full spectrum of British society in the context of social class divisions rather than a specific segment. Finally, apart from sporadic mentions in analyses on newspaper reporting, it seems that studies have yet to focus exclusively and systematically on the manner in which the Daily Express report social issues and events.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Number of news articles, editorial and guest opinion columns published per day in the Daily Express on the 2011 English riots.


4.1 Four major themes arose from my analysis on the reporting of the 2011 English riots by the Daily Express. The first concerned the identification of young people as the primary participants in the disorder. The second was the framing of the riots as an apocalypse through the use of metaphors which signify war, destruction and mass death. The third related to a condemnation of the individual traits of those involved in the unrest. Here the newspaper reinforced conservative political discourse which explained the riots as a consequence of a decline in morality and behaviour and a lack of control among those involved (see Bennett 2013). The fourth was a consensus among the newspaper, its guest column writers and wider conservative political rhetoric that contemporary family and parenting structures are supposedly flawed and that Britain has seen a decline in family values.

4.2 Below I provide a critical analysis of the discourses adopted by the Daily Express in their reporting of the 2011 English riots. I outline that although the unrest lasted for four days and was the main focus of attention for the newspaper for about eight days and, thus, considerably brief compared to previous moral panics, the Daily Express nonetheless drew on the discourses of two previous moral panics over youth and parenting to diagnose the riots as a consequence of youth crime and poor parenting/family life.

Identifying young people as the folk devils of the disorder

5.1 Media reporting of the 2011 English riots seemed to collectively and primarily demonise youth for their involvement in the unrest (Cavanagh and Dennis 2012) despite older age groups participating in the disorder (Lewis et al. 2011). Headlines such as 'Rioters post gloating video of man beaten for trying to stop youths starting fires' (The Times, 10 August 2011) and 'The young thugs with fire in their eyes and nothing but destruction on their minds' (The Daily Mirror, 10 August 2011) are examples of a discourse which operated across newspaper reports of the disturbances that identified young people as the folk devils (Cohen 1972) of the 2011 English riots. Indeed, as Cavanagh and Dennis (2012: 379) explain, the press seemed to explain the disturbances as 'the work of a 'mob', construing them as 'pure criminality' rather than a response to circumstances, and locating them around notions of 'feral youth''.

5.2 The Daily Express reinforced this broader identification by the press that the 2011 English riots were a supposed consequence of youth lawlessness by also pinpointing 'hooded' young people as the folk devils of the disorder and associating them with acts of criminality. While direct references to the participants' ages were made, it was the newspaper's consistent use of terminology such as 'youth(s)', 'young' and 'children' which emphasised the juvenility of those involved in the unrest. For example, on 9 August 2011, the Daily Express reported that 'gangs of youths went on the rampage' (Cunningham 2011: 4, emphasis added). Furthermore, upon determining them as the chief protagonists, the newspaper consistently described young people as 'thugs', 'yobs' and 'looters'. Thus, this synthesis of notions of youth and criminality seems to resemble what Hall et al. (1978: 223) term 'convergence', that is 'when two or more activities are linked in the process of signification so as to implicitly or explicitly draw parallels between them.' Hall et al. (1978) deployed the notion of convergence as part of an analysis which identified the linking of 'blackness' with 'mugging'. Here, it seems that two broader social and criminal, but nonetheless separate, categories – young people and crime – are fused by the Daily Express to diagnose the unrest as an outcome of a single phenomenon - youth criminality.

5.3 According to Teo (2000), constant use of a specific set of words is referred to as 'over-lexicalisation'. Teo (2000) defines over-lexicalisation as the repetitive utilisation of terms which become engrained as part of the fabric of news discourse. This, in turn, results in a sense of over-emphasis on the way actors in a news story are illustrated. Hence, the repetition of the above lexical item ('youth') coupled with the use of synonymy (such as 'young' and 'children') as well as the repeat use of words that signify criminality seems to suggest a pragmatic encoding of ideology (Fowler et al. 1979) by the Daily Express into their reporting of the disorder which operates to associate young people with notions of criminality and disorder.

5.4 The Daily Express also seemed to reinforce the unrest as a consequence of the actions of youngsters at the margins of mainstream society by making regular references to clothing such as facial coverings and hooded sweatshirts – or 'hoodies'. On 10 August 2011, the newspaper reported that 'young men and women… [appeared]… menacing with their hoods pulled up and masks over their faces' (Flanagan and Dawar 2011: 6, emphasis added). The Daily Express has a history of attempting to transform neutral words and garments into symbols of crime and deviance. For instance, the newspaper played a role in exacerbating socio-political anxiety in the 1960s over the Mods and Rockers by adopting an inflammatory tone to describe young people, their behaviour and styles of clothing: headlines such as 'YOUNGSTERS BEAT UP TOWN – 97 LEATHER JACKET ARRESTS' being an example (Cohen 1972). Recently, the 'hoodie' has been crucial in media discourses attempting to construct a more sinister set of folk devils than those of previous generations. As Mayr and Machin (2012) highlight, the 'hoodie' symbolises a breed of youngsters who are mysterious, faceless and detached from mainstream society and, thus, more reluctant to comply with efforts of social and moral reform than previous generations. Hence, in their reporting of the 2011 English riots, the Daily Express (and other media institutions) seemingly continued a decades old tradition of adopting a set of discourses which positioned the castigation of youngsters and their choice of clothing at the forefront of the news agenda and interpreted the unrest as an outcome of a supposedly longstanding and familiar problem of youth criminality.

Using hyperbole to frame the 2011 English riots as an apocalypse

7.1 Exaggerative and melodramatic language was apparent in British press coverage of the 2011 English riots. Cavanagh and Dennis (2012) highlight headlines such as 'Guerrilla warfare erupts as no one knows where mob will strike next' (The Daily Telegraph 9 August 2011) and 'Rabble without a cause: anarchy in the UK thugs' orgy of mindless violence' (The Sun 9 August 2011) as examples of the tabloid; middle-market and broadsheet newspapers adopting an editorial stance which portrayed England as a violent warzone occupied by battling police and youths. Furthermore, as Fuchs (2012: 384) explains, media and politicians also 'took up [a] social media panic discourse' which suggested that such scenes of 'warfare' and 'anarchy' were being exacerbated by the rioters' ability to mobilise and coordinate through social media and mobile phone technologies. While the Daily Express made infrequent reference to social media and instant messaging platforms, it frequently portrayed the unrest as an event of apocalyptic proportions. Reflecting Cohen's (1972) assertion that the press can overstate the severity of an issue deemed problematic to social relations, 8 August 2011 saw the newspaper claim that rioting had left 'carnage' across Britain (Westcott, Twomey and Dixon 2011: 2).

7.2 The HarperCollins (1999) dictionary defines 'carnage' as the mass slaughtering of people. In this sense, the Daily Express seems to have deployed the rhetorical strategy of 'hyperbole' in order to leave readers in no doubt about the severity of the unrest. Richardson (2007) describes hyperbole as the exaggeration of a reported episode or issue in order to achieve rhetorical effect – in this case, a sense of catastrophe and Armageddon – among newspaper readers.

7.3 Left-realists would argue that regardless of how the Daily Express described the disturbances, people still lost their homes, businesses and, in the case of three men in Birmingham and one man in West London, their lives. Furthermore, Waiton (2008) would assert that dismissing the severity of the riots means dismissing the severity of their effects on society and, thus, supporting a sense of amorality. I agree with these perspectives in so far as that criminal behaviour can inflict discomfort and suffering on its victims (to variable degrees) regardless of whether its portrayal in the media is accurate or not (Muncie 2001). In this sense, the 2011 English riots contained genuine acts of crime which inflicted discomfort on those who were impacted by them. However, the scale of death during the unrest was not large enough to warrant a discourse which conveyed mass slaughter. Hence, pointing this out does not classify those concerned with analysing media discourses and exposing their hyperbolic undertones as 'amoral.' Rather, it means acknowledging the notion that while 'reality' may also be 'impregnated with the mark of media imagery rather than somehow pure and untouched by the all-pervasive traces of contemporary communications' (McRobbie and Thornton 1995: 273), the Daily Express – and the overall press industry – nonetheless has an obligation to report issues through descriptors that least distort their severity.

7.4 One of the primary issues with moral panic analyses is their supposed inability to establish 'the comparison between the scale of the problem and the scale of response to it' (Waddington 1986: 246). For Waddington (1986), moral panics analyses lack a formula for measuring what constitutes a (dis)proportionate response to a problem. However, as Goode and Ben-Yehunda (2009: 76) argue, 'if the figures that are cited to measure the scope of the problem are grossly exaggerated, we may say that the criterion of disproportion has been met'. Of course, the Daily Express did not explicitly cite any figures to suggest that mass slaughter had taken place. Furthermore, one could argue that the term 'carnage' is commonly used in several everyday contexts and that the newspaper deployed the term in a somewhat informal manner. Nonetheless, a benefit of CDA is that it enables us to de-familiarise ourselves from everyday rhetoric and illuminate the meanings that might be concealed in or operate beneath the surface of everyday taken for granted rhetoric to determine social phenomena – in this instance, connotations of mass slaughter and genocide loaded in or underpinning rhetorical tropes used by the Daily Express to describe an episode which resulted in the death of four people.

7.5 Images and descriptions of young people and their actions that are presented by the media can, as Malik (2002: 78) mentions, 'be wholly arbitrary to the full context of the situation,' but are nonetheless 'signposted as the representative moment.' Hence, in the broader context of moral panics over youth, the discourses that are adopted by the Daily Express to convey the 2011 English riots as an episode of destruction and apocalypse operate to reinforce, and remind its readers of, the immediate threat posed by 'a known' set of folk devils while overshadowing the more complex grievances that might have initially triggered the disorder. Ultimately, if, as mentioned above, 'the hoodie' signifies a new breed of faceless and mysterious young people, then the 'carnage', 'blitz' and 'mayhem' they apparently caused during the unrest represents and confirms the danger and hazard they pose to contemporary social relations.

Sociologically (un)imagining the 2011 English riots

8.1 The discourse that was adopted by the Daily Express to reinforce the supposed violent nature of young people also operated, partly, through a discourse which seemed to de-contextualise the unrest. From a broader perspective, David Cameron deflected attention away from the potential socio-economic causes of the riots by condemning the individual behavioural traits of those involved in the disorder (Bennett 2013). Cameron denied that racist policing, government cuts and socio-economic difficulties played a part in igniting the unrest. Instead, he diagnosed the riots as a consequence of 'behaviour; people showing indifference to right and wrong; people with a twisted moral code; people with a complete absence of self-restraint' (Bennett 2013). Cameron's discursive strategy was aided by the Daily Express. The newspaper also seemed to interpret the unrest as a consequence of the personalities of those involved while dismissing structural determinants such as poverty, unemployment and government policy as potential casual factors. Reinforcing the condemnation offered by Cameron, the Daily Express criticised the rioters for lacking moral restraint and discipline while also questioning their mental state. For example, on 10 August 2011, the newspaper published editorials which 1) referred to the participants as 'mindless thugs' (Whittow 2011: 12) and 2) blamed the disorder on sections of society lacking 'discipline' and the moral means to distinguish between 'right and wrong' (Roycroft-Davis 2011: 12).

8.2 Referring to a report by the Ministry of Justice, Bennett (2013) highlights that 35% of those convicted for participating in the disturbances who were of a working age were claiming out-of-work benefits (compared to 12% of the English population), 42% of young people convicted received free school meals (compared to 16% of the English population) and 64% of participants resided from one of 20% of the nations most deprived areas. Furthermore, the LSE and The Guardian, as part of a joint study, interviewed some of those involved in the unrest. Their research found that frustration towards the police, government spending cuts (most notably the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance) and the shooting of Mark Duggan were significant factors in motivating people to participate in the disorder. Hence, while criminal opportunism might have played a role in escalating the riots; it was a complex cocktail of economic hardship, police racism and broader socio-political factors that were outlined by those involved as the primary causes of the unrest (Mason 2012).

8.3 In their analysis of the moral panic over black youths and 'mugging', Hall et al. (1978) argued that politicians and news media orchestrate hegemony by consciously overshadowing and invalidating the potential socio-economic factors responsible for inciting social unrest. Rather than addressing topics which have the potential to illuminate political failures i.e. unemployment, poverty and institutionalised racism, ruling politicians and newspapers collaborate by prioritising the themes and characteristics of a moral panic which allow the construction of a socio-political 'reality' that is favourable to the interests of the powerful (Hall et al. 1978). Thus, by focusing on the individual behavioural traits of those involved in the disorder, the government and the Daily Express de-contextualised the disturbances as a moral problem which could be understood in terms of the 'personal troubles', lack of values and poor moral choices made by those involved in the disturbances. Consequently, the framing of the riots by both parties as such diverted attention away from a broader socio-economic discourse which might have rendered 'public issues' developed from political incompetency liable for the unrest (Mills 1959: 8).

8.4 When the Daily Express referred to socio-economic factors, it did so to dismiss their influence as potential causes for the unrest. Although economic hardship, government policy and social inequality were regularly discussed by the newspaper, such issues were considered invalid reasons for the disorder and excuse-making tactics by the left. For example, on 8 August 2011, a column published by the Daily Express began with the headline 'Sickening violence nothing to do with poverty or racism' (McKinstry 2011: 12, emphasis added). Furthermore, subsequent text in the piece attacked left-wing commentators for entertaining the possibility of joblessness, deprivation and oppression as causal factors for the disturbances.

'… even before the violence had subsided the excuse making had started. Handwringing apologists for this thuggery bleated about poverty and deprivation in Tottenham. The rioters, they wailed, were "disenfranchised" black youths, who constantly had to endure "systematic racism"' (McKinstry 2011: 12, emphasis added).

8.5 This lack of sociological imagination on the part of the Daily Express operates not only to reinforce conservative political commentary on the disorder and contest reports that might offer alternative explanations of the unrest, but it also anthropomorphizes those considered by the newspaper to be at the margins of society. In other words, the focus by the Daily Express on the lack of morality, poor behaviour and other undesirable personality traits of the rioters serves a paradoxical function in the sense that it personifies those identified as the folk devils of the episode (youths) and provides an explanation for their actions but leaves them short of harbouring the moral attributes required to be full members of society.

The Daily Express and the youth crime and poor parenting nexus

9.1 Examining a wide range of newspapers such as The Times, The Daily Mail and The Sun, Bristow (2013) highlights how notions of 'moral collapse', 'troubled families' and criticisms concerning parenting policy and discipline permeated throughout the British press during the unrest. The Daily Express also seemed to bring to the surface a previous moral panic concerning poor parenting and family life. For example, on 11 August 2011, it published a column entitled 'The breakdown of family life has led to today's anarchy' (Pollard 2011: 12, emphasis added). Meanwhile, news articles on the same day which offered descriptions of the participants' family status were dominated by mentions of one parent – mainly mothers. For example, an article by Dixon (2011: 4) called 'I thought sons were at the gym'' highlighted a mother's supposed lack of awareness regarding the whereabouts of her sons; however, no reference to the boys' father was made, thus, implying that the youngsters came from a single parent home.

9.2 In their attempt to tie moral panic theory to a multi-mediated world, McRobbie and Thornton's (1995) claim that the vilification of folk devils has become less one-sided as suggested by classic moral panic analyses because mainstream media supposedly embraces neutral expert opinions in order to claim objectivity in their reporting. Experts who commentated on the riots through the Daily Express, however, not only framed their opinions in accordance with the newspaper's identification (and vilification) of youth as the folk devils of the episode, but also supported the notion that poor parenting and family life may have contributed to igniting the unrest. More precisely, some of the elements of the discourse over youth deviancy adopted by the Daily Express were linked back by the newspaper and its expert opinion column writers to a related debate concerning the role of parents in triggering the supposed crisis over young people in Britain.

9.3 On 15 August 2011, television personality and child psychologist Jo Frost suggested in the Daily Express that British youths are morally broken by beginning her column with the headline 'You may think they're beyond help but I can fix the teen rioters' (Frost 2011: 20, emphasis added). However, in addition to making 40 separate references to youth in her 1489 word opinion piece, the 'supernanny' made 21 references to contemporary family structures. Most of these reinforced conservative political commentaries by the likes of Kenneth Clarke and David Cameron - the former wrote in The Guardian that young people today 'lack a strong family life' (Newburn 2012) - blaming flaws in parenting and family structures as causes for the disorder and advocating punishment for the parents of those involved in the unrest. Thus, while the Daily Express provided a platform for experts to share their opinions on the riots, it seems to have given voice to commentators who strengthened and validated the views of the newspaper and the politicians it was supporting.

'As anyone who has watched my Channel 4 television programme Extreme Parenting will know, I believe in taking a strong hand with parents and children who have broken apart and failed their responsibilities…Indeed parents should be fined in cases where children break the rules and if children continue to break the rules there should be more power to send them to juvenile detention centres' (Frost 2011: 21, emphasis added).

9.4 Frost's (2011) diagnosis rendering poor parenting as a cause of the unrest was similar to a political discourse which has continuously underlined the flaws of parenting practices in the UK for the last 50 years (Gillies 2007). According to Fox Harding (1999), examples of the political obsession with improving parenting standards are the numerous policies introduced by the conservative government during the late 1980s and early 1990s. For instance, the Child Support Act 1991 harbours an underlying pre-occupation with 'parental responsibility' which, in turn, can be linked to notions of child 'safeguarding' in the Children Act 1989 and 'anti-social behaviour' in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

9.5 While Fox Harding (1999) explains that such laws define 'parental responsibility' as binding (ties between parent and child cannot be cut) and determined by biology, it is their other definitional element – 'parental liability' – that exposes the basis on which Frost suggested punishment for the rioters parents. More precisely, while conservative rhetoric has regularly expressed a pessimistic discourse lamenting the decline in parenting standards, such cynicism has usually preceded a belief that parents can regain control over their children if the state adopts a punitive approach towards the parents themselves (Fox Harding 1999).

9.6 In addition to suggesting that the parents of the rioters should be punished, the Daily Express seemed to imply that the former need to be 'trained' to raise their children. A discursive analysis from a wider context suggests that by giving a child expert a platform to share her views on how to reform family life, the newspaper seemed to support the bureaucratic and 'middle class inspired' family policies introduced by New Labour in 1998. This symbiosis in ideology between the Daily Express and New Labour should not be interpreted as a move by the former to the left of the political spectrum; rather the newspaper seemed to support the conservative traits of the latter. More precisely, although New Labour seemingly lean towards the left, commentaries in the 1990s which linked anti-social youth behaviour to a decline in parenting standards – sparked after the murder of toddler James Bulger in 1993[3] (Gillies 2007) – led the party to prolong the conservative inspired moral panic of the 1980s and 1990s regarding parenthood by detailing measures on how to improve parenting (Gillies 2005). Their consultation paper 'supporting families', for instance, argued that parenting should be approached as an occupation requiring specialised and uniform knowledge and skills rather than an intimate and unique relationship between child and parent. Thus, New Labour introduced 'parenting support', an initiative which encouraged parents to reflect on and regulate their performance through advice and training from middle class, educated, child 'experts' (Gillies 2005).

9.7 For Gillies (2007), the family policies of New Labour and, in this case, the expert opinion championed by the Daily Express during the 2011 English riots, reflects a discourse that working class parents are incapable of teaching their children the skills and traits required to maintain a 'civilised' society. Thus, by publishing a column which gave expert recommendations on how to be a better parent, the Daily Express, similar to New Labour, suggested that an improvement in parenting standards rests on working class parents uniformly implementing advice that is given to them by the educated middle classes (Gillies 2005). In a broader sense, the Daily Express – through its editorial stance and the experts it gave column inches to – seemingly explained the 2011 English riots as a consequence of the continuation of two interlinking social problems that have supposedly plagued Britain for generations – youth deviancy and inadequate parenting.


10.1 By deploying CDA as an analytical framework, I have argued that the Daily Express drew on a set of discourses that were similar to those of two previous and well-known moral panics over youth and parenting to diagnose the 2011 English riots as a consequence of youth criminality and poor parenting/family life. The newspaper continued with a longstanding tradition of identifying young people as the folk devils of society by adopting a set of related discourses which vilified them, their behaviour and choice of clothing (namely, the hooded sweatshirt) and interpreted the unrest as an outcome of a supposedly established and familiar problem of youth criminality.

10.2 Upon identifying youths as the folk devils of the episode, the Daily Express interpreted the 2011 English riots as an episode of destruction and apocalypse which, in turn, operated to reinforce, and remind its readers of, the supposed threat posed by young people. In relation to critics of analyses on moral panics who suggest that the theory lacks a formula for measuring what constitutes a (dis)proportionate response to a problem, I have outlined that in this particular study it was possible to compare and measure the scale of the problem with the scale of response to it. In an attempt to leave readers in no doubt about the severity of the riots and the threat posed by young people to social order and relations, the Daily Express (perhaps implicitly) inaccurately and insensitively suggested that the scale of death during the unrest was akin to the scale of death during times of war. Subsequently, in response to the left-realist and amoral panic critiques of moral panic theory, I proposed that although the unrest inflicted discomfort and tragedy on some members of society, the Daily Express and other media institutions nonetheless have an obligation to report events through language that least distorts reality.

10.3 In the broader context of the political response to the 2011 English riots, it seems that the vilification of youth by the Daily Express was part of a broader political discourse that dismissed macro factors such as poverty, unemployment and government cuts as potential causes of the unrest and, instead, blamed the episode on micro issues including a decline in 'traditional' family life and morals and discipline among youngsters. However, while some suggest that folk devils are now defended by experts as media institutions look to diversify the opinions they disseminate, the Daily Express gave column inches to experts who reinforced the newspaper's and politician's identification of young people and poor parenting as causes of the disorder. Thus, as some media institutions provide a platform for experts to share their opinions in order to claim objectivity in their reporting of an episode, others seem to recruit expert commentators who can validate the stance they have taken on a particular social problem.

10.4 Assuming that the Daily Express was the sole media institution which condemned young people and their parents during the 2011 English riots would be inaccurate. As mentioned, other media institutions, political elites and socially accredited experts, also contributed to the public's perception and understanding of the disorder. However, a CDA on the coverage of the 2011 English riots in the Daily Express has revealed how and the extent to which the newspaper was one media institution which, in their reporting of the unrest, resurfaced pre-existing social anxieties concerning young people and parenting. Thus, future research on media coverage of social problems might, in addition to exploring whether the reporting of an issue identifies new anxieties and concerns, examine the extent to which media reporting draws on and modifies discourses concerning previous and familiar social anxieties in order to interpret and frame a social problem.


I would like to thank Simon Weaver for his helpful comments on a previous version of this manuscript and Peter Wilkin for his advice during the early stages of this study. I would also like to thank Jaspreet Nijjar and the anonymous referees for their useful feedback.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


1 The terms 'riots', 'MP' (member of parliament) and 'police' were fed into LexisNexis beginning from 7th August 2011 (the first day the Daily Express covered the unrest) until the Daily Express decreased their attention on the disorder. These terms were used because they allowed the obtainment of publications which illuminate how the Daily Express introduced the disturbances to its readers and if/how the newspaper supported and reinforced the statements made, and strategies deployed, by key actors such as political elites and police.

2 22% of those who read the Daily Express work in top managerial or professional positions. 31% of readers work in supervisory, junior managerial or administrative roles. 24% of the newspaper's readers are skilled manual workers, while 21% are unskilled workers or unemployed (Richardson 2007).

3 See Hay (1995) for a detailed account of the moral panic that ensued following the death of James Bulger.


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