Friday, September 21, 2007

A young mixed race boy's face is printed large in the local paper, Brighton's Evening Argus. Before I see it, I've passed the billboards on Lewes Road villifying the city's 'worst teen'. The boy is 14. The paper names him, prints his photo, his address and names his friends.

The front page spells out the boy's 'life of crime'. Magistrates warn he's on his way to prison. A local policeman is quoted as saying he's one of the most problematic young people in the city.

I didn't see the paper until a neighbour brought it round last night. I couldn't bring myself to buy a paper that sold itself on the back of a teenager's sorrow. Yes. And utter desperation.

But I read it. I talked to my neighbours. I talked to my children. We were unanimous in our view that this is one of the most unforgiveable things to have done to this boy. He is still a child. Our children know him. We know what kind of life he has had and it's a life you wouldn't wish on anyone.

What justification is there to name a child of this age, to publish his photo and address? The law has always been that a child cannot be identified, so a special order must have been made by magistrates allowing the Argus to do so. Magistrates who should have known better, who also will have known about this boy's background.

How dare they do this? Has our society become so rotten, so utterly skewed, that drug dealers - KNOWN TO THE POLICE - can operate freely in my street, Lewes Road, the seafront and sell various illegal substances from a flat near my home to teenagers but this boy is publically shamed? That off licences throughout the city can sell spirits to teenagers without ID, but it's this boy who's shamed?

That's not even to mention the many other criminal activities that adults commit daily in this city.....the fencing, the conning, the pimping, assaults, the backhanders, the abuse of children......but the Argus, police and magistrates choose to villify a young, mixed race boy. Why? Because he's an easy target and there's NO-ONE to defend him and they know that.

When I was writing my dissertation on the underground press years ago, one of the books I used for research was a brilliant analysis of how society responds to outsiders - "Folk Devils and Moral Panics" is written by Stanley Cohen and was first published by Harper Collins in 1973 but has been revised three times. The most recent edition by Routledge in 2002 includes new material by Cohen on the demonisation of young offenders and asylum seekers.

Cohen's way into this was a study of mods and rockers and understanding how the media helps create a 'moral panic' and consequently inhibits rational debate. It is essential reading, perhaps even more important now that we are overwhelmed with media and ill-informed comment and are drifting inexorably to the right.

Our local moral panic has inhibited rational debate - there was none on that Argus front page or on the paper's website. The story is utterly one sided, which is also unforgiveable. But it has also inhibited any sense of moral responsibility for this boy, any sense of kindness, simple human concern about how things were allowed to get this bad for him.......we should all be ashamed.

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