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The inhumanity of branding people

By Bill Calcutt - posted Thursday, 9 April 2009

The digital age has provided consumers with access to virtually unlimited information and commentary on events as they unfold around the world. Prolific new information sources now challenge the relevance, influence and longer-term viability of the traditional media. Climate change, disasters, conflicts, terrorism, global financial crisis and crime all vie for the consumer's attention.

Struggling to be heard above the clamoring voices, the traditional media has increasingly resorted to sensationalist and alarmist coverage intended to engage (some may say manipulate) the community at an emotional and reactive level.

This approach is most clearly illustrated by the media's blatant exploitation of the law and order issue to engender fear, alarm and disgust in the community. Increasingly lurid reports of unconstrained and indiscriminate violence, intimidation and revenge, are used to create a sense of danger and imminent crisis, ultimately forcing authorities to act. A particularly distasteful example is the frenzy that often accompanies the public identification of convicted criminals living in local communities, with overtones of vigilantes and public hangings.


One of the more deceptive strategies employed by the media (and occasionally by authorities) is to "sex up" individuals or events by linking them with a broader category of criminal activity (or "brand") that is already widely recognised within the community. The association with an established criminal brand provides an alarming and threatening context that magnifies the seriousness and importance of reported individuals or events.

Over the last four decades the process of (often indiscriminately) linking-labeling individuals and incidents has progressed through a variety of criminal brands including "the mafia", the underworld, organised crime networks, ethnic gangs and pedophile rings, to the current focus on outlaw motor cycle gangs.

The common characteristic of all of these brands is that they simplistically stereotype the target groups as homogenous hierarchical organisations whose members are universally bound by a commitment to conspiracy, criminality, violence and secrecy (and often by a particular ethnicity). These groups are portrayed as posing a unique threat to the fabric and good order of society because they appear to be above the law and able to successfully conduct criminal activities with immunity.

The fundamental problem with the use of information in this way is that it invariably involves a gross distortion and/or selective representation of the facts; lacks any sort of balance or sense of perspective; and often reflects a complete disregard for the rights of individuals. Moreover, where authorities are coerced to respond (in the face of overwhelming pressure from a strident media and a fearful community) there is significant potential for a disproportionate over-reaction that may prove to be ultimately counter-productive in effectively addressing a real problem.

Confronted by a relentless law and order media campaign and the spectre of open conflict between outlaw "bikie" gangs, New South Wales (NSW) authorities have responded with what could well prove to be unsustainable draconian laws. Initial public statements concerning the "essential" NSW anti-gang legislation suggest that the police and the courts may be given extended powers to:

  • act preemptively on the basis of suspicion (in the absence of hard evidence of criminality);
  • establish guilt by association (gang membership becomes a crime); 
  • refuse access to bail; and 
  • admit secretly-obtained information as evidence that can not be publicly scrutinised.

Having withstood various official attempts over many years to compromise basic human rights and erode the inviolate protection of habeus corpus, it is highly improbable that such exceptional legislation will be able to be sustained over the longer term. The validity of such legislation will invariably be examined dispassionately, away from a vociferous media and concerned authorities desperate to reassure an alarmed community that they are in control.

Part of the psychology that appears to underpin this sort of tough and confrontational "war on..." response is the simplistic notion that uncompromising enforcement can prevail over systemic lawlessness by members of socially alienated anti-establishment sub-cultures. Inevitably criminologists and police professionals will demonstrate that only a combination of effective and judicious law enforcement and broader socially inclusive policies will be successful in the longer term in diminishing the level of criminal activity within our communities.


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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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