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The Role of the Media in Juvenile Justice

21st January 2004

Dr Paul O'Mahony explored the influence of media on public interpretation and understanding of crime and on the construction of the societal response to it.  He argued that the media plays an important role in creating "moral panics" and generating unrealistic fears of crime, in distorting the reality of crime by selective and sensationalised reporting and in potentially creating or amplifying anti-social behaviours by glamourising them for young people.

Said Dr O'Mahony, "The various media are obsessed with finding their own unique voice but they almost all talk about the same thing in much the same way. Topics like drug abuse or juvenile crime regularly come under the spotlight and generate huge coverage and intense commentary, but then just as suddenly drop from sight.  The media, with talk radio at the forefront, can now exercise an immense, almost instantaneous influence on public opinion. Periods of intense media interest can be provoked by a single dramatic event or crime or more frequently by the coincidence of two or three similar events or crimes.  The Irish media are centred in Dublin, the one and only large city, and tend to focus on its problems.  With respect to crime, this means that the whole country is very familiar with the situation in the most crime-ridden areas and tends to take this situation to be the norm - despite the fact that in some areas the crime rates are one sixth or less of the Dublin rates."

He concluded that the Irish media have had a negative influence on the development of effective criminal justice policy, and have inhibited progressive developments in juvenile justice. "The tragedy is that it is the pattern, in Ireland, for the real work of legislative and practical reform of the criminal justice system either to be neglected in favour of the latest attention-grabbing, but essentially ephemeral, media-driven crisis or to be disrupted by token actions designed primarily to deflect the immediate political pressures exerted by or through the media.  The long needed and much vaunted reform of juvenile justice legislation embodied in the Children Act 2001 is, in my view, already in tatters. The many thousands of community and grass roots workers, who for a short while felt empowered by the system to develop a new, more positive and hopeful preventative approach, have been left bereft of resources, political support and even a meaningful organisational and legislative framework. The raising of the age of criminal responsibility to 12 from 7 has not happened and in fact most people within the various systems dealing with children have no clear idea about the current position of this vital reform, which should have been the major catalyst for change. But apart from the issue of delayed and inadequate implementation and resource starvation, the supposedly new juvenile justice system has been derailed by the familiar resort to the 'Spike Island solution'. Within months of the passing of the Act it was already effectively undermined by the government decision, made in response to the moral panic following the killing of two gardai by joy-riders, to turn part of St Patrick's Institution into a prison for 14 and 15 year olds in total contradiction to the explicit policy of the Children Act. The closure of Shanganagh Open Prison at the end of 2002 was, in the context of the aspirations of the Children Act, an act of sheer vandalism that further signalled the government's lack of commitment to genuine reform of the juvenile justice system. These are, of course, fundamentally political errors and failures which we should not directly blame on the media. However, we can ask why our politicians almost ritually overreact to transient, media-fuelled crises at huge cost to long-term consistency and rational policy-making, and why the media, who play such an important part in encouraging this process, let them get away with it."

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