Happy-Slapping Hysteria

By london_will Last edited 166 months ago
Happy-Slapping Hysteria

London has a problem with crime. This is not the same as saying "London is suffering an epidemic of crime and it's unsafe to step outside", because that's not true. But we have got a problem.

The problem is a very serious loss of perspective. Take, for instance, "Happy Slapping" - for the uninitiated, this is a craze that involves gangs of youths slapping (or worse) innocent people in the street while one of them records the incident on a video phone. Unknown six months ago, the Guardian reported last month that it causing the police "increasing concern", with 200 incidents reported by the British Transport Police since last November. The BBC weighed in yesterday, but suggested media hype might be involved.

And then, there was last night's Tonight With Trevor McDonald Special: Mugging For Kicks, an entire half-hour of prime-time sensationalism devoted to the the phenomenon.

To be absolutely clear, no one is casting any doubt on the fact that antisocial behaviour is a genuine problem and what does appear to be a rising tide of petty violence - not just related to "Happy Slapping" - is and should be a real concern to a lot of people.

But the way the media is presently dealing with it is, if anything, confusing the issue and unnecessarily spreading alarm. It certainly isn't helping address the problem, and may even be making it worse. Last night's Tonight wasn't just cheap and alarmist - it was close to being irresponsible.

"Happy Slapping" could have been created for this sort of television; in fact it seems it was inspired by television. Sir Trevor was able to use real-life footage of attacks in progress rather than having to rely on reconstructions - such joy for the programme-makers! No wonder an entire programme was laid aside for it. There were still reconstructions, though - where would we be without them - and the full panoply of crime prgramming. The words "random", "motiveless" and "sinister" appeared within five minutes.

That's not the real sticking point, just cliched programme-making. The area for concern was Tonight's overall attitude towards the problem. "Happy slapping" (a groteque misnomer if ever there was one) is, let's be clear, an awful experience for the victim even if no permanent physical harm is done. Let's also be clear that the perpetrators - who showed no obvious remorse in the intreviews they gave to the programme, and who were happy to appear undisguised on screen - represent a real social problem.

But with this in mind, Tonight focused on the real problem: video phones and the internet. The entire programme completely ignored the social, cultural and political backdrop to the problem and fixated on the shiniest angle, the technology. Random kickings have taken place on London's streets for hundreds of years, but now somehow only classify as a News Issue because the technology exists to record and share them. In one extremely telling moment of the film, an attack in a playground was related. The commentator said, without any apparent irony, "one boy was suspended for using his mobile phone in school".

If a school child can be attacked and "using a mobile phone in school" is the only thing the perpetrators can be suspended for, something is very seriously wrong.

There is a good argument that says that the sharing of happy slapping clips over the internet fuels competition between gangs to up the stakes and carry out more violent attacks. This is true, but it is not the fault of the technology. And it is no reason to focus on the technology in such a laser-like manner that everything else about antisocial behaviour, crime and society is completely ignored.

For instance, there was a vague suggestion that this sort of behaviour was somehow understandable in the schoolyard but became shocking when it left school and happened to adults. That's badly twisted.

Also, a simple way to have limited to progress of this craze would have been to keep the Routemaster. If there were conductors on the buses, then perhaps you'd get less casual violence. But again, that wasn't even hinted at.

Most of all, though, you get a feeling of overpowering nihilist boredom coming from the perpetrators. Programmes like Jackass and Dirty Sanchez were namechecked for inspiring behaviour like this, but it's boredom that remains the root cause. These children - and they are basically children - have nothing to do and nowhere to go. And that has always been the case with petty crime and violence, video phones or no video phones, but has not stopped successive governments selling off playing fields and turning what was once public space into private property.

But politicians and business are happy simply tackling the symptoms, not the problem - Blair unveiling a vague plan to "get tough on yobs" yesterday, and the Bluewater shopping centre further criminalising the young by banning hoodies and baseball caps.

And if TV and the gutter press are happy to continue spreading baseless fear in what remains a largely safe city, the problem will just get worse as fewer people go out into the streets and participate in their neighbourhoods and stick to their cars and living rooms instead, fretting about carjacking and watching Tonight With Trevor McDonald.

Don't have nightmares.

Last Updated 13 May 2005