Be it fear of the Jew, the Communist, or the terrorists in our midst, fear clouds people’s judgment and drives them to demand that something, anything, must be done to alleviate that fear. Fear is used by politicians in democracies round the world to win votes and indeed by journalists to sell their writings. One could be forgiven for fearing that Britain was on the verge of the apocalypse given the sensationalist media coverage of the August riots, much of which emphasised fear over analysis. Mary Riddell of the Telegraph wrote of how “the capital city of an advanced nation has reverted to a Hobbesian dystopia of chaos and brutality”. However, the looting and the subsequent response to clean up Britain’s shopping districts, both organised through social networking sites, were utterly anathema to Thomas Hobbes’ description of a frightening state of nature of “a war of every man against every man”. Such consideration though is simply less exciting and less likely to sell newspapers.
The “firebombing” of Canning Circus police station in Nottingham was heavily reported. What media outlets didn’t follow up with was the less frightening story that little damage was done, as the photograph above shows, and Nottingham’s city centre was bustling with shoppers the following day. There were, of course, very serious events breaking out across England. However, by reporting all news in sensationalist fashion with few qualifications and less explanation, fear would keep many of us in our homes and away from the “war of every man against every man” purportedly engulfing our “advanced nation”. This is not old news we should forget about. This fear will be re-activated in the campaign for the next UK general election by politicians looking for media-friendly sound-bites. Law and order will most certainly feature.
Of course we should not be surprised by this emphasis on fear over contemplation and the sound-bite over evidence. In one discussion of the causes of the riots, the BBC invited the likes of David Starkey, known for his deliberate courting of controversy and not for his sociological expertise, to give his ‘expert’ view. His explanation was that the “whites have become blacks”. He then responded to the accusation of having no empirical evidence for his claims by saying “these are times when we need plain-speaking”. On the contrary, these are times where we need evidence and considered analysis to help us disentangle the masses of misinformation such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s admission that they “may have misled journalists” into believing Mark Duggan fired on police. The News of the World phone hacking scandal has revealed little but that there exists a murky series of relationships between the media, the police, and politicians. Our right to vote may not be under threat but our right to know how we are governed and thus what we are actually voting for is in jeopardy. This is all the more so when frightening sound-bites trump analysis.
David Cameron’s comments that we are walking into a “slow-motion moral collapse” reflects and helps reproduce the panic following such events. Sensationalism produced the emergence of countless “armchair generals”, in the language of Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde. Succumbing to fear over contemplation, these “armchair generals” demanded the use of rubber bullets and water cannons, despite their limited knowledge of why such tactics are deployed. As Hugh Orde told the media, these have been deployed in Northern Ireland, the former for self-defence in life-threatening situations and the latter for dealing with massive, unmoveable crowds. Neither of these were primary features of looting which saw gangs moving swiftly from shop to shop. This didn’t stop David Cameron from very publicly announcing his personal authorisation to use both tactics. This pandered to and reproduced a climate of fear. Neither water cannons nor rubber bullets needed to be used in the end but the political drive to appear to be tough on crime and win votes was fulfilled.
More importantly, David Cameron’s claims of “moral collapse” do not reflect any empirical evidence. The Home Office’s own statistics show how violent crime in England and Wales has been in near steady decline since 1996. Despite the repeated references to youth gone wild on Britain’s streets, the Ministry of Justice reported a 9.6% drop in the number of 10-17 year olds convicted of crime between 1999 and 2009. On the surface, the evidence certainly suggests that David Cameron is exaggerating for political effect. He is using fear of moral collapse to build a reputation of being tough on crime yet this fear stops people from calmly considering the details of what is actually happening. What better way to garner support for a law and order driven agenda at the next general election than an electorate frightened of “rising crime” induced by “moral collapse”?
Many of the frightened electorate have called for harsher sentences for looters and they have got them. Judges have guidelines for minimum and maximum sentencing but they also have discretion within those parameters. Judges have responded to politicians and frightened voters with unusually long sentences as both the BBC and the Guardian have revealed. People involved in the looting are being given harsher sentences for crimes than would ordinarily be the case; 25% harsher according to the statistical analysis of the Guardian. The rule of law and equality before the law are central features of democracy. Yet here we see the application of new and unwritten rules emerging from a climate of fear and “straight-talking” instead of debate and analysis. One wonders how the imprisonment of Thomas Downey of Manchester for 16 months for taking donuts from a Krispy Kreme outlet is justifiable with reference to equality before the law. How can placing Michael Fitzpatrick, 18 in a young offender’s institution for two years and four months for drinking stolen champagne be explained with reference to codified rules of law? They can’t be. Judges in Manchester produced their own recommendations because the guidelines they are required to work under, according to the rule of law, did not cover burglary and looting in mass riots. The sentence of two young men to four years in prison for using facebook to incite a riot that never even happened was not determined according to established legal guidelines because they don’t yet exist. Paul Mendell QC, a former chairman of the Bar Association warned “the idea that the rulebook goes out of the window strikes me as inherently unjust…guidelines are not tramlines…I don’t see why [magistrates] should be told to disregard these”. However, as Communities Minister Eric Pickles told the Guardian “we cannot have people frightened in their beds, frightened in their homes”. Fear then seems enough to justify ruining two men’s lives with little consideration for the implications for two of democracy’s central tenets, the rule of law and equality before it.
The separation of powers, particularly the separation of the executive and the judiciary, are pivotal to a functioning democracy. However, many of the responses of democratically elected leading politicians to the riots have revealed serious weaknesses in their commitment to this political ideal. Menzies Campbell indicated this when he said “politicians should be neither cheering nor booing in the matter of sentencing. It is an important part of our constitutional principles that political influence is not directed at the judicial system”. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister saw fit to do just that by defending or cheering these tough sentences. He said it was good that courts were sending a “tough message”. We can leave to one side our feelings regarding the length of the sentences to ponder why the head of the executive sees fit to comment on and ultimately influence the future behaviour of the supposedly independent judiciary. The function of courts in a democracy is not to “send out tough messages” as the executive defines them but to apply the rule of law. It is only the place of the executive to endorse the decisions of the judiciary in authoritarian states where powers are not separated. David Cameron’s claim that he thinks “it’s right that we should allow the courts to make decisions about sentencing” is unlikely to be upheld if they feel under pressure from the Prime Minister to send out “tough messages” instead of applying rules.
Those who are struck by fear are less likely to ask what is going on and are instead more likely to demand ‘action’ regardless of the consequences. Fear is blinding us to look beyond the immediate and consider the future of a country under a government which can set the rule of law to one side if we are frightened. Fear is indeed the path to the dark side.