Friday, 16 July 2010

How Raoul Moat became another stick with which to beat the so-called "underclass"

Nine days after his death, the media and politicians continue to obsess over Raoul Moat.

For a full week, Moat held Britain's rapt attention. From the attack on his ex-girlfriend and her new lover and the shooting of a police man to his stand-off with police and ultimate suicide (with a surreal intervention from Paul Gascoigne), it certainly made good copy.

The media lapped it up.The Sun branded him "The Psycho Commando," comparing him to Rambo in First Blood. The mythos of this "self-pitying monster" and "gun-spree hulk" who could "live wild for weeks" soon built up;
He would have no trouble catching his food, whether it is fish or rabbits. He would have no bother gutting fish and skinning rabbits and cooking them over a camp fire. He's not a stupid man. He can use a compass and is good at map-reading. He used to say he loved the solitude and quiet of the countryside.

He is very single-minded and when he gets something into his head he sticks with it.
Led by the Sun, the other tabloids followed the same line, building towards a Hollywood-style stand-off with the police and creating a cult hero for others to emulate. As Charlie Brooker put it, they turned a masochistic, mentally unstable child abuser into "a sort of nihilistic pin-up."

Johann Hari was one of those quick to point out the potentially deadly consequences of this sensationalism;
The media has been lasciviously describing every blood-flecked cranny of the shooting incident in Northumbria this week, while blankly ignoring the most important question – did we help to pull the trigger? Every time there is a massacre by a mentally ill person, like Derrick Bird's last month, journalists are warned by psychologists that, if we are not very careful in our reporting, we will spur copycat attacks by more mentally ill people. We ignored their warnings. We reported the case in precisely the way they said was most risky. Are we now seeing the result?


Dr [Park] Dietz [one of America's leading forensic psychiatrists] believes – based on his long experience interviewing mass murderers – that he understands the process at work here. "Mass murderers are almost always depressed to the point of suicide, and angrily blame others for their problems," he tells me. "You've got to imagine this small number of people sitting at home, with guns on their laps and a list of people they hate in their minds. They feel willing to die. When they watch the coverage of a mass murder, one or two will say – 'That guy is just like me! That's the solution to my problem.'... They will say this quite openly to you when you interview them. It's a conscious process ... The massacre seems to offer them both an escape from their unbearable pain, and an opportunity to punish the people they blame for their plight."

Suddenly, they are shown a path where their problems won't be trivial and squalid and pointless. No: they'll be the talk of the entire country. They'll be stars.

The way we report these cases can make that man more likely to charge out of his house to kill, or less. The psychologists say that currently we are adopting the most dangerous tactics possible. We put the killer's face everywhere. We depict him exactly as he wanted, broadcasting his videos and reading out his missives. We make his story famous. We present killing as its logical culmination. We soak him in glamour: look at the endless descriptions of Moat as "having a hulking physique" and being "a notorious hard man". We present the killer as larger than life, rather than the truth: that these people are smaller than life, leading pitiful, hate-filled existences.
But, after doing this, the media (with politicians at their back) are quick to condemn when people begin to support the mythic folk hero that they created.

Flowers were left by sympathetic members of the public at the scene of his death. A Facebook page sprang up titled "RIP RAOUL MOAT YOU LEGEND." The Sun, which built up his legend in the first place, declared the page "sick" and "confronted" its creator, no doubt pleased to find that - as an "unemployed single mum" - she was everything they despised.

Not to be outdone, the Daily Mail, "unmasked" the woman behind the "twisted online shrine" before leading into a comment piece by David Wilson which declared the page to be "A howl of rage from a bitter and deluded underclass."

Yes, that's right. It's not enough for the woman who created this page to fit one of the stereotypes that the Mail, Sun, and the rest of the gutter press love to hate. She has now, by fiat, been declared representative of the entire "underclass." "In the twisted mindset of his noisy supporters," Wilson writes, "he has been transformed into a modern anti-establishment hero, with the police cast in the role of the vicious enemy of the people."

This leaves out the identity of who exactly "transformed" Moat. In the words of Phil at A Very Public Sociologist;
How the hunt for Moat was framed during his week on the run was crucial for him going viral as a glamorous outlaw. We found out Moat had sent a long letter to the police that said "The public need not fear me but the police should as I won't stop till I'm dead." This was a serous media management faux pas because it allowed the portrayal of Moat to assume a folky aspect. Rather than being a manhunt for a dangerous killer, coverage of the operation degenerated into a Smokey and the Bandit-style farce.
Whilst Wilson talks about "twisted mindsets" and "a graphic insight into an amorality that exists in our midst," the reality is that "it was only a matter of time before the half-sympathetic media profiles of Moat elicited support from some quarters."

It's true that a fair amount of this support has come from more deprived sections of society. But Wilson writes as though support for murderers is an incurable symptom of the underclass.

For him, they're all just "deranged elements," with "the infantile sense of victimhood; the hysterical abuse of the police; the grotesque belief that masculine greatness lies in thuggery; the portrayal of a killer as a crusader against injustice; and the pretense that democratic Britain is some kind of paramilitary totalitarian regime."

Phil, on the other hand, notes that "for the people who joined the Facebook tribute pages and left flowers outside Moat's house, the sentiments expressed in his letters and recordings condense a confused but widespread consciousness common among the more deprived sections of our class."

Rather than support for him because of his crimes, it's "a barely coherent sense of dislocation, frustration, and despair that impotently kicks against 'official' society." That is why "It doesn't matter that Moat killed someone" - "he had been abandoned by society and left to rot like so many others, and for a brief moment he was the lightning rod for lumpen anger and defiance."

But that is why these people are "the dangerous class that keep politicians awake at night, repulse the arbiters of good taste, and earn the ire of ever-so-superior middle class columnists" like Wilson.

He treats "the increasing prevalence of anti-police attitudes among the underclass, where the local constabulary is regarded not as protector but as the oppressor" as a cause rather than a symptom. Thus, the problem is just that "people now seem desperate to wallow in the kind of shallow, tear-soaked sentimentality that they see on TV soaps, devoid of all genuine emotion."

As with stories of "lazy" British workers, what we see here is a shallow hypocrisy.

The Mail is all to happy to acknowledge working class grievances when they can use them to justify their anti-immigrant and anti-multiculturalism agenda.

But, in the absence of such other scapegoats, and with the same people latching onto the folk-hero mythos that they engineered, such grievances become a stick with which to beat those at the bottom of the pile. The "great white backlash" becomes "an amorality that exists in our midst."

Yes, it is perverse to sympathise with Raoul Moat. He was not a hero, but a deeply disturbed individual who committed horrendous acts of murder.

But it is important to remember that people aren't sympathising with Moat - they're sympathising with the myth created by the media coverage of him. As Phil concludes, they may be "an unwelcome reminder of the social refuse British capitalism produces generation after generation," but "that this strata exists without prospects or hope is the real perversion, not some daft commentary on the internet."