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20 May 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

How I unwittingly helped to start the Happy Slaps panic
A modern media tale: my 15 minutes of fame commenting on those 15-second videos.

by Graham Barnfield

Confession time: I was a scaremonger for ITV.

Casting an eye over some of last week's headlines - 'TV blamed for happy slaps' in the Sun, 'TV shows blamed for attack craze' on the BBC News website - I thought to myself: 'Here we go again. Another kneejerk reactionary has fallen for the theory of copycat behaviour....'

Readers of spiked will know me as an effects theory sceptic (we're not yet referred to as 'deniers', but give it time) and I am generally suspicious of the idea that young people copy the behaviour they see in films, on TV and while playing video games.

Reading those headlines, I assumed that another chump had forgotten the elementary distinction between cognitive effects, where viewers absorb information, and behavioural effects, where they allegedly copy scenes on the screen. While the first undeniably exists, there is little evidence for the second.

But I was that chump. Scanning down the stories, it turned out that I was the 'expert' jumping to this daft conclusion. And a quick self-Google revealed that I was making the same points in New Zealand, South Africa, Germany and India (1). Had I switched sides, or perhaps given an interview while binge drinking?

I'm at it again today, in the UK tabloids the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. The Mirror says I blame 'TV shows like Jackass and Dirty Sanchez' for 'fuelling the Happy Slaps fad'. The frontpage of the Express tells of a 'VICTIM OF THE NASTY SLAPPING CRAZE' - a 16-year-old girl who was reportedly beaten unconscious by a gang of teens filming the incident on their mobile phones - and cites yours truly as blaming 'TV stunt shows such as Jackass and Dirty Sanchez for the craze'.

Even deputy prime minister John Prescott has weighed in, hitting the headlines last week when he said that he had nearly been a victim of happy slapping.

I seem to have awoken in the media equivalent of a film noir nightmare. A quick call to BBC Online (headline: 'TV shows blamed for attack craze') made it clear that I didn't want Jackass banned, although it would be no tragedy if people stopped watching it. The 'Jackass to blame' BBC page was duly updated to read 'Don't ban slap attack TV shows'.

Then, after checking my bank balance to see if I really had become 'head of media' at the University of East London, as some of the reports claimed, I started solving the mystery for myself. The answers revealed by this special investigation (as Trevor McDonald might say) paint a shocking picture of contemporary media culture.

Nearly three years ago I wrote a book chapter on reality TV. Thanks to this I was quizzed for the BBC website by Brendan O'Neill (who is also deputy editor of spiked) about the similarities between Big Brother and the brutality photos taken by British and American troops in Iraq. The same article mentioned 'happy slaps' - also known as happy slapz/happy slapping - though I didn't comment on that trend directly.

Things took a strange turn when, a few weeks later, I was phoned by Laura Caveney, a producer on ITV's Tonight With Trevor McDonald. I was a little bewildered, not least because I was in Washington DC and thus in a different time zone, but I agreed to appear on the show.

The producers wanted me to watch some footage of happy slaps and give my expert response. This made me a bit apprehensive, as the Tonight programme strikes me as dividing its time between scare stories, about food processing and school discipline, and mawkish sentimentality. Nevertheless, taking the view that all publicity is good publicity I gave up a morning to be filmed watching slaps and explaining the 'disturbing new craze'.

Having no contact with teenagers, I decided to find out more via Google. There were, at the time of writing, 542 Google hits for the exact phrase 'happy slaps' and a mere six newsgroup entries. Of course, these increased at least threefold in the run-up to 'Mugging for Kicks', the Tonight with Trevor McDonald special, which came with its very own press release. Yet on the web, at least, much more time is spent discussing happy slap images than actually circulating them (see Happy Slaps: fact and fiction, by Graham Barnfield, published after I was interviewed for Tonight but before it was aired).

Most of the preparation was not necessary. Tonight, it seemed, was less interested in interviewing me than in filming me wincing as I watched footage of happy slaps on a laptop. This was difficult, as the footage continually crashed the computer, and when it did appear, it was difficult to see what was going on. Some of the images were clearly staged, and I pointed this out.

Enough Google hits allow one to circumvent the usual peer review process
At one point I was told by a producer: 'You don't seem very shocked - it's so violent, we've had to take legal advice and move Tonight past the watershed'. I mumbled something about having been a doorman in Sheffield. The director encouraged more wincing and gurning (the cameraman thought he caught me taking a sharp intake of breath) and then a rambling interview commenced. I shook hands, claimed my travel expenses, and went on my way.

Tonight's press release for 'Mugging for Kicks' generated instant media interest. The Manchester Evening News (MEN) called me for comment after two youths were convicted of setting fire to a man at a bus stop and recording it on their mobile phones. I expressed sympathy for the badly burned victim, but later found that I was on the frontpage of the MEN website, blaming TV for such incidents.

My eventual appearance on Tonight - which aired on 12 May - was mercifully brief. I was on for 90 seconds, where I said that 'happy slapping has become a shortcut in the eyes of the slappers to fame and notoriety, among the people who see the images circulated on the web or sent to them via their mobile phones' (all said in a Leicester accent less polished than Gary Lineker's). The pisstaking text messages flew in (you know who you are), and a few people commented on how much the whole thing reminded them of the Brass Eye paedophile special - though at least that was a spoof.

My 15 seconds of fame brought various spin-offs. Radio programmes, including BBC London's John Gaunt Show and LBC's morning phone-in, had me on to confirm the hypothesis that antisocial behaviour is out of control. Gaunt in particular seemed bemused that I didn't think society was going to hell in a handbasket quite as fast as he did. I argued that the category antisocial behaviour was out of control, expanding its empire to include even legal activities and everyday occurrences. When the researcher for BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine Show quizzed me about happy slapping, I said it was a non-story.

The argument about happy slaps involves a difficult balancing act. I want to say that it's not worth getting worked up about this 'crime wave', as it isn't occurring on an epidemic scale and there are plenty of anti-assault laws to deal with it. Do I blame 'the media' for happy slapping? No, they just give expression to existing exhibitionist trends in society.

For the record, I think that Big Brother, Jackass, Dirty Sanchez and happy slapping all try to fill the same void, based on the breakdown of communal solidarities and a widespread indulgence of private anguish. When interviewed, the trick is not to concede an inch to the panic while noting that happy slaps, insofar as they exist, do symbolise a degraded culture where private humiliation is routinely made public. The line between Celebrity Wrestling (ITV1, formerly Saturday prime time) and happy slapping is not as well drawn as the makers of Tonight seem to think.

It seems that it is not on for kids to circulate violent images, but it's okay for reputable broadcasters to do so. Apparently respectable journalism outlets cover happy slaps for salacious ends, effectively doing what the kids do, by passing these images around for titillation and in order to provoke outrage (although they are doing it for an audience of millions rather than gangs of four or five).

One problem is that my observations don't soundbite very well. Still, my actual views on such matters have been on the public record for some time, including on BBC Online and spiked. Maybe I should start texting journalists a 15-second video of me pointing this out, perhaps while punching myself in the face to make the point more effectively.

Given time, later interviews with radio broadcasters and French TV allowed me to set the record straight and refine the argument further. These days, I start by stressing that turning happy slaps into a moral panic will encourage more interest in the wretched practice.

There's no point moaning that the media stitched me up. I'm a big boy (as the Tonight footage showed). Yet for me, the whole experience raised interesting questions about peer review and expertise. My early comments that show up on Google were punditry and not, at the time, the product of any research. My main area of expertise is in 1930s documentary representation and the cultural policy that went with it (2). This helps me to explain why reality TV and the documentary tradition are not the same thing. (In passing, it's worth noting that 1930s policymakers did not spend their careers in an endless froth about antisocial behaviour, as Craig O'Malley showed on spiked - see The rise in crime.)

In a superficial intellectual culture, enough Google hits allow one to circumvent the usual peer review process in academia and reach out to a wide media audience. Accidental search engine positioning has provided me with a reputation as a world expert in happy slaps. In turn, journalists and production assistants uncritically reproduce my words of wisdom, even forcing MTV, makers of Jackass, to deny responsibility for various assaults. I have even been lined up with John Prescott in his war on hooded tops and baseball caps. And on it goes.

To stop the rot, journalists and programme makers need to dig deeper. Until they start researching and writing stories without relying entirely on internet search engines, we should take their reports with a pinch of salt.

Graham Barnfield is not head of media at the University of East London. Earlier versions of this article appeared on his weblog here.

(1) New Zealand: TV shows blamed for happy slappers, One News, 12 May 2005; South Africa: 'Happy slapping' trend hits the street, IOL, 12 May 2005; India: 'TV shows trigger 'happy slapping' craze in Britain', Sify News, 12 May 2005

(2) See Reversal of Fortune: Culture and the Crisis, Yesterday and Today, by Graham Barnfield, Sheffield Hallam Working Paper, 2004

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