Brendan O'Keefe: Australians History Conference Focuses On Panics And Spin

Roundup: Talking About History

Governments and the media were as complicit today in whipping up widespread public fears as they were in 18th-century England when so-called moral panics surfaced, according to an academic running a conference on the phenomenon.

University of Newcastle historian David Lemmings, one of three organisers of the two-day symposium Moral Panics: The Media and the Law, which opens today, said governments legitimated their authority with measures that set up anxiety about threats to moral and personal security.

Fear of terrorism, raised security consciousness and a premiers' meeting in Canberra yesterday to discuss anti-terrorism laws provided the elements of a modern-day moral panic, associate professor Lemmings said.

"Increasing surveillance laws and keeping people in jail for a period of time without charge; yes, of course I think that they're ratcheting up public anxiety to constitute their legitimate authority," he said.

In 18th-century England, an increasingly self-aware middle class, a burgeoning press and permanent parliamentary sessions were three ingredients in a social broth into which was thrown a liberal measure of violent crime, thus brewing up two moral panics in the 1720s and 1780s.

The middle class of the time came to define itself by comparison with the poor and desperate criminals, of whom they learned from newspapers filled with reports of robberies and assaults.

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