Crime, Media and Moral Panic in an Expanding European Union



Abstract: In the latest phase of European Union enlargement Bulgaria and Romania were admitted to EU membership on 1 January 2007. In the UK, media coverage of the accession process focused on the potential movement of large numbers of people from Eastern to Western European states; a particular focus was the crime risk associated with enlargement. This article examines how newspapers reported the perceived crime threats and assesses the extent to which the concerns can be understood as a moral panic. The article confirms the contemporary utility of moral panic analysis, albeit with some flexibility to reflect the modern media landscape.

During the last 50 years, what originated as six states agreeing to form a European Economic Community has evolved into a European Union (EU) of 27 states, with the latest phase of enlargement being the accession to membership of Romania and Bulgaria, on 1 January 2007. This article focuses on enlargement by examining UK newspaper coverage of the perceived and actual crime threats associated with the membership of Bulgaria and Romania. This is of specific interest as their accession was delayed due to concerns about these countries' justice systems and their levels of organised crime and corruption (European Commission 2006).

Our approach is first to set out the context of the crime dimension of EU enlargement. Second, we outline our sampling methods. Third, we discuss both the pre- and post-accession newspaper coverage and briefly compare predictions with what actually transpired. Fourth, we consider the extent to which the reported crime threats can be understood as a moral panic response and we assess the utility of the moral panic concept as an aid to analysis, both in this specific context and more generally. This article, therefore, has a dual purpose: on the one hand it seeks to highlight news media representations of crime concerns associated with the accession and on the other hand it seeks to test the moral panic concept as an analytical tool. We conclude that moral panic models do provide a useful explanatory framework, but one that needs to be used flexibly to reflect both the modern media landscape and the deeper socio-political context of the ‘problem’ being analysed.

Enlargement, Crime and Migration in Context

The accession of Romania and Bulgaria was the second enlargement involving the incorporation of Eastern European states. Previously, in 2004, together with Cyprus and Malta, eight Eastern European states joined, namely: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Based on the numbers of Eastern European states involved, these two processes were referred to, respectively, as the ‘A2’ and ‘A8’ accessions, a convention we use throughout this article. In a period of less than three years, therefore, the EU increased from 15 to 27 states after a period of relatively stable membership.

The UK news media have tracked each recent enlargement, reporting on the process of applying for EU membership and appraising the applicant countries. The reporting has been wide-ranging but much of it has focused on the potential numbers of migrants arriving in the UK and the implications of this for housing, education and health services. One constant theme has been the issue of crime linked to the migration of people from east to west. As Finney and Peach (2006, pp.52–4) have summarised, immigration and asylum issues have become prominent in the UK media and have been the subject of several studies (see, for example, Coleman 1996; Statham 2002). These suggest that immigration has been framed negatively, dominated by such themes as deviant migrants and pressures on the welfare systems. To date, however, few academic studies have analysed media treatment of the ‘A8’ and ‘A2’ accessions (an exception being Pijpers (2006)).

The coupling of migration and crime is not the preserve of the news media and there is a substantial literature addressing different dimensions of the relationship (for example, Savona, di Nicola and da Col 1996; Marshall 1997; Tonry 1997). In the European context, Goodey (2002, p.137) has usefully summarised that the merging of migration/security/crime issues arose through a number of 1990s events, namely: (i) the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe after 1989, which was followed by economic instability and criminality; (ii) the breakdown and break-up of the former Yugoslavia, leading to the displacement of people and ‘enhanced cultures of lawlessness’; (iii) the EU's opening of its internal borders, leading to opportunities for the movement of goods legitimately and illegitimately; and (iv) the EU's policing of its external borders, which creates opportunities for criminals who can profit through evading the controls.

Writing principally about organised crime, but of wider application, Goodey argues that these four conditions contributed to EU policy makers casting those outside their borders as the ‘other’, as dangerous outsiders preying on the EU, threatening the security of those states inside. Married with this criminal threat from outsiders is the converging pressure of migration into the EU, creating a fusing of immigration and crime issues. Consequently a discourse of reacting to perceived dangers from outside and fearing inward immigration became dominant and characterised EU policy responses. We will argue that similar fears characterise UK newspaper reporting. Goodey was writing at a time when there were 15 member states rather than the current 27. Yet her analysis is relevant, as we are interested in the situation where former ‘outsiders’ have become ‘insiders’ at a time when fears of both outsiders and immigration remain controversial issues of popular and political debate. This is particularly pertinent to Bulgaria and Romania given their delayed accession arising from concerns over organised crime and corruption. We discuss the implications of this later but, first, to set the newspaper reporting in context, we will sketch out where the UK and the ‘A2’ states sit regarding crime levels and migration.

It is not a simple matter to compare crime levels across Europe because each state maintains its own methods of recording crimes, However, the European Crime and Safety Survey compared victimisation rates across 18 EU member states (van Dijk et al. 2007). This placed the UK third highest in a league table of victimisation and reported that the UK was ‘a high crime country in the EU context’ (p.92). Bulgaria and Romania were not included in the study, but for the purposes of comparison we can refer to statistics collated by the Council of Europe. These suggest that between 2000 and 2003 Bulgaria averaged 1,763 offences per 100,000 population, Romania averaged 1,431 and the UK (England and Wales) averaged 10,733 (Killias 2006, p.37). We treat such statistics with caution, but it is notable that the UK has a relatively high number of offences per 100,000 population while the ‘A2’ states have relatively low numbers.

If we now consider patterns of inward migration, official statistics record that the numbers of migrants coming into the EU have increased since the 1990s and in 2004, the UK had the third highest level of net inward migration with 202,000 migrants (Eurostat 2007, p.77). Although data concerning illegal immigration into the EU are unreliable, prior to 2007 Romanians and Bulgarians were prominent among those detected at the Eastern land borders (Frontex 2006, p.7).

Our necessarily brief overview suggests that enlargement and migration converge to generate concern over crime at popular and policy-making levels within the EU. This concern resonates with already existing media themes on immigration and asylum. With particular reference to crime, the UK and the two new member states, the former has relatively high victimisation and inward migration levels, while the latter have low victimisation levels. It is in this context that we overlay our analysis of UK newspaper coverage of the ‘A2’ accession. The analysis does not include newspaper coverage in other European jurisdictions; although this would be a worthwhile study, it is beyond the scope of the present article.


To investigate news media reporting of the enlargement, we focused on newspaper reporting. This was for three reasons. First, although newspapers are declining in circulation as they increasingly compete with multiple news sources including 24-hour television news and Internet news providers, they remain powerful media actors and agenda setters (Castells 2001, p.198; Marr 2004) and are a rich resource for criminological study (see, for example, Silverman and Wilson 2002; Nellis 2003; Soothill et al. 2004; Levi 2006; Groombridge 2007). Second, the reporting of immigration issues has a long history in the print media (Berkeley, Khan and Ambikaipaker 2006, p.24; Finney and Peach 2006) and notwithstanding all the caveats concerning media effects (see, for example, Livingstone 1996; Jewkes 2004; McQuail 2005), arguments do exist that newspaper readership and attitudes are linked (Duffy and Rowden 2005). Third, newspapers are a reliable resource for studying an issue over a period of time. In this respect, UK national newspapers maintain accessible, searchable archives. Different newspapers adopt perspectives on issues that reflect their target audiences, their ownership and their political leanings. Accordingly through sampling newspaper coverage of controversial issues, it is possible to achieve a nuanced analysis of how the ‘story’ of an issue is played out in the popular media over a defined time period.

We used the Lexis-Nexis full-text newspaper search engine to interrogate the archives of all UK national newspapers for the period 25 July 2005 to 25 July 2007. This two-year period captured the 17 months preceding enlargement and almost eight months subsequent to enlargement. The terms we searched on appearing in the headline or text of all national newspapers were: ‘crime’, ‘European Union’, ‘Romania’, ‘Bulgaria’ and ‘police’. The initial search produced 1,905 articles and included many irrelevant pieces, focusing on holidays and property ownership abroad. We therefore refined the search to focus on two sets of newspapers: on the one hand, the tabloid The Daily and The Sunday Express and, on the other, the broadsheet The Guardian and its Sunday equivalent, The Observer. These papers are not, respectively, the tabloid and broadsheet with the largest circulations and we would not claim that our sample achieved a comprehensive or scientifically representative portrayal of popular and political views on accession. Rather, we selected each newspaper as a particular ‘cultural barometer of public attitudes’ (Wardle 2006, p.516). The Express represents the popular tabloid press from a right-of-centre position and campaigned against EU enlargement, and The Guardian/The Observer represent the broadsheet press from a left-of-centre position and have a reputation for promoting liberal values.1

Our refined search produced 216 articles; 114 in The Guardian/The Observer and 102 in The Express newspapers. Each of these was read and its content assessed by identifying recurring themes, categorising the types of crime featured, and noting the tone and use of language and the deployment of signifying metaphors. The analysis that follows is based on this sample.


Table 1 provides an overview of the pre- and post-accession coverage in the selected newspapers by presenting the headlines of a sample of articles. In general terms, The Express moved from a tone of ‘threat of impending flood’ in the pre-accession period to a tone of ‘confirmation of flood’ and associated crime wave in the post-accession period. In contrast The Guardian and The Observer moved from a tone of anticipatory welcome to one of reporting mixed stories. Within these broad characterisations, we identified nuanced themes in each newspaper's coverage.

Table 1. 
Sampled Newspaper Headlines
PHASEThe ExpressThe Guardian/The Observer
Pre-accessionThreat of impending flood
25 April 2006
Flooding into Britain soon … 56,000 workers from the East Bloc
2 May 2006
This open-door policy is not in Britain's interests
24 July 2006
45,000 ‘undesirables’ heading to Britain in new migrant surge
13 August 2006
Gypsy warning on crime wave
25 August 2006
Bulgarian gangsters will target the UK, says Euro police boss
8 December 2006
Why we're powerless to halt tide of migrants from Eastern Europe
31 December 2006
Tomorrow, 30 million are entitled to come here: Britain poised for migrant flood from gangster countries
What is there to fear?
7 April 2006
Europe is tired and confused
12 August 2006
Reid pushes for ban on next wave of EU workers: Plan to delay rights when Bulgaria and Romania join: Hoon argues in cabinet to keep open-door policy
20 September 2006
Reid hints at bar on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants: New EU members could face quotas for UK entry: Immigration must be managed fairly, police told
20 November 2006
Why are you so scared? The press has been full of lurid stories predicting that Bulgarians will ‘flood’ into Britain, pinching our jobs, benefits and, probably, wallets. Don't believe a word of it, says Yana Buhrer Tavanier
Post-accessionConfirmation of expectationsPros (and some cons)
23 February 20072 January 2007
We offer rich pickings for EU gangstersEU expansion: Clubbing together
21 March 20072 January 2007
Shoppers targeted in fake gold stingAmbitious and hardworking: First Bulgarian migrants fly in
16 June 200718 February 2007
Slough: A model of an immigration nightmareBulgarian women gangs bring pickpocket crisis: Police are stretched as teams of thieves target the London Underground

The Express adopted a hostile stance towards the impending enlargement and referred to its consistent record for calling on the government to limit migration from Bulgaria and Romania (20 September 2006). In this respect, the paper's coverage provides evidence of the ‘tradition of xenophobia in the British print media’ noted by Berkeley, Khan and Ambikaipaker (2006, p.24). Bulgaria and Romania are characterised across the articles as ‘impoverished countries’ (30 December 2006), where ‘organised crime and corruption are a way of life’ (31 December 2006). The hostile tone is constructed in the pre-accession articles through building narratives that predict negative consequences of migration, for example, The Express warns that enlargement will ‘make it easier for eastern European crime gangs to get an even bigger hold on our streets’ (25 April 2006) and will lead to ‘fraudsters, gangsters and people traffickers’ heading for the UK (24 July 2006).

In creating these narratives of impending crime risks, the paper draws on experts who variously ‘warn’ about the consequences of enlargement, while immigration officials are quoted as expressing ‘concern’. To support the narratives, the articles commonly draw on two notable metaphors. The ‘flood’ metaphor is used consistently; The Express refers to ‘floods of incoming criminals’ (24 July 2006), and to ‘the flow of migrants’ (19 August 2006). The metaphor is continued by referring to the potential migrants as a ‘wave’ or ‘tide’ which not only dehumanises the people concerned but also suggests an elemental force that is beyond control and management (cf. Coleman 1996). As Charteris-Black (2006, p.566) found in relation to the framing of immigration by newspapers during the 2005 parliamentary elections, positive metaphors for migrants are notably absent. The second notable metaphor is that of the UK ‘opening its doors’ to migrants (‘the opening of the doors to Romania and Bulgaria’, 25 April 2006; ‘Britain's open-door policy’, 24 July 2006). This metaphor creates an image of the UK as a domestic home that has left itself exposed and insecure by leaving its doors open.

A feature of the reporting in the pre-accession period is a supplementary article that follows the main article and provides a pen-portrait of a Romanian or Bulgarian criminal prosecuted in the UK. For example, on 24 July 2006 under the heading ‘Mr Big’ the story is told of three Romanians convicted of a ‘card skimming’ operation to ‘plunder’ victims' bank accounts. This follow-on-story technique became a regular feature of The Express's coverage, providing a profile of ‘typical’ migrant crimes and criminals.

After warning of the ‘flood’ and its associated crime ‘wave’, in the post-accession period The Express subsequently confirmed its predictions, reporting by June 2007 that ‘the influx of new migrants is spiralling out of control’ (16 June 2007). In support of this, The Express reported, in February 2007, that Romanians were responsible for 80% of cash dispenser frauds and in March warned that Romanian women were operating a ‘street scam’ selling fake gold jewellery across Britain. In its most unsettling coverage, the paper, in an article headed ‘Slough: A model of an immigration nightmare’, painted a dystopian picture of a town failing to cope with high numbers of migrants. A local police constable is quoted as referring to some Romanian gypsy families as ‘society's worst nightmare’, while a local magistrate reports on the rising numbers of Romanian children appearing before the youth courts (16 June 2007).

If The Express coverage captures one view of the ‘outsiders’ who are being allowed ‘inside’, the coverage provided by The Guardian and The Observer stands in contrast. It provides a counter-balance and challenges some of the projected stereotypes. In doing so, its coverage and perspective are pan-European. In its pre-accession coverage, The Guardian reported on a national and European policy level, including from Bulgaria and Romania and covering the accession process from Brussels. This is not to say that The Guardian ignored crime issues; on 7 April 2006 it carried a report on organised crime and gang wars in Sofia and the implications of this for Bulgaria achieving EU membership (‘Europe is tired and confused’). On 12 August 2006 it wrote about joint UK/Bulgarian police initiatives against human trafficking (‘Reid pushes for ban on next wave of EU workers’). Compared to the notably one-dimensional reporting of The Express, The Guardian's coverage is varied; on 20 November 2006 it included a lengthy article written by a Bulgarian journalist who satirised the stereotypes of Bulgarians as criminals (‘Why are you so scared?’).

In the post-accession period, The Guardian's reporting again contrasts with that of The Express. While The Express warned that the flood had started, The Guardian welcomed the first migrants as ‘impeccable ambassadors’ (‘Ambitious and hard-working; first Bulgarian migrants fly in’, 2 January 2007). While The Express emphasised the disbenefits of enlargement, The Guardian promoted the benefits, pointing out that each successive phase of enlargement has generated prosperity and stability (‘Clubbing together’, 2 January 2007). Again, however, crime is not ignored. On 18 February The Observer reported that organised gangs of Bulgarian pickpockets were targeting the London Underground. (‘Bulgarian women gangs bring pickpocket crisis’). Overall, therefore, in our analysis the coverage provided by The Guardian and The Observer is rounded; crime is but one aspect of enlargement and there is an absence of negative metaphors.

Our discussion of the media coverage illustrates clear differences in the approaches of the selected newspapers to reporting crime. In The Express sample the foregrounded crime problems were: illegal workers, fraudsters and ‘card skimmers’, ‘drug dealers and gangsters’, people traffickers, and turf wars, contract killings and organised crime. The Express portrays entrepreneurial petty crooks, combined with mafia type organisations. Where The Express does humanise the flood, therefore, the individualised stories are predominantly of criminals. Stories of migrants as victims of crime are notable only by their absence. The Guardian and The Observer also foregrounded the issues of organised crime, human trafficking and drug smuggling, but tended to focus on policy measures and initiatives to tackle the problems, that is, the coverage acknowledges the crime issues, but its focus is often on the countermeasures, for example, the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). Here we would emphasise that while The Guardian and The Observer did acknowledge a crime impact, the defining characteristic of their coverage was less sensationalist. This arguably reflects the ‘tone’ one would expect from broadsheets aimed at an educated readership (McQuail 2005).

If we now turn to what actually happened in terms of migration and crime levels during the period of newspaper analysis, first, according to official statistics, the predicted ‘flood’ of migrants did not materialise in the months following accession. In May 2007 the Home Office reported that officially a (lower than the predicted) total of 7,913 Bulgarian and Romanian migrants came to work in the UK in the first three months of 2007.

That The Express-predicted flood during the early months of 2007 did not materialise is perhaps not so surprising if we take heed of a briefing issued by Oxford University's Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (Compas) (2007). This confirmed that although there is no reliable methodology for forecasting the size of migration flows, it was worth considering that: (i) the numbers of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants in the UK have been low historically; (ii) there are few established links between the UK and Bulgaria and Romania, and no tradition of migration to the UK from these countries; (iii) the majority of Bulgarians and Romanians migrate to southern European states where there are established networks; (iv) the English language is a barrier to potential migrants; and (v) there is an increasing demand for labour within Bulgaria and Romania. Based on this rational consideration of historical and cultural patterns, Compas predicted (2007, p.8), seemingly correctly, that large-scale migration to the UK was unlikely. This briefing by academic researchers was not picked up on as a source for any newspaper reports within our sample.

If we address the second issue, namely crime levels, similarly during the period under analysis, there was no traceable substantive impact on the levels of crime that were associated with migration from Bulgaria and Romania. The newspapers did report an increase in pick-pocketing in the London Underground that was linked to Bulgarian women, but no evidence was produced to confirm a correlation between ‘A2’ migrants and crime levels. In summary, despite The Express's worst fears there was no evidence of either a ‘flood’ of migrants or crime issues that could be attributed to enlargement. However, ascertaining whether The Express's exaggeration of the likely effects of enlargement is reflected in, or reflective of, a corresponding reaction in the general public sphere is a different question and one which we start to address below.

Discussion: A Modern Moral Panic?

How might we understand and explain the unfolding of events so far? One way forward is to consider whether the newspaper reporting of the crime threat associated with EU enlargement fits the pattern of a moral panic. This depends on the definition of moral panic that is adopted.2 There is an immediate resonance with Stan Cohen's (1972) original description:

A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. (p.9)

Since Cohen popularised the concept, it has evolved through a process of case-study analysis and academic critique and its popularity as an analytical tool has ebbed and flowed (see, for example, Hall et al. 1978; Thompson 1998; Silverman and Wilson 2002; King 2003). Jewkes (2004, p.65) has provided an incisive commentary on both the defining features of a moral panic and also some endemic problems with the concept, including that the media now use the term indiscriminately ‘to describe public reactions to numerous social phenomena from child abusers to flu epidemics’. However, Critcher (2003, 2006) has recently revisited the concept, arguing for its utility as an analytical tool. He (2003, p.3) developed two ‘ideal type’ models that can be applied to any potential case-study to test not whether moral panics exist, but to examine the explanatory power of moral panic models. His first model is the ‘processual’; derived from Cohen's work; it examines potential moral panics through the presence or absence of seven distinct processes. His second model is the ‘attributional’, derived from the work of Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994); this examines potential moral panics through the existence or non-existence of six attributes. Each model can be applied to our case-study as follows:

The Processual Model Applied

  • 1Emergence: The ‘problem’ emerges as Bulgaria and Romania progress through the accession process. The newspapers identify key points from the monitoring reports, including concerns over corruption and organised crime. The problem is neither novel, nor sudden as the ‘A8’ Eastern European states preceded the ‘A2’ in 2004.
  • 2Media inventory: Our sample illustrates the construction of stereotypes, creating folk devils. Enlargement is perceived as a threat to social cohesion; migration is linked to crime risks and pressures on housing, health and education. If The Express was to be believed, the UK would experience a ‘flood’ of fraudsters and gangsters. These stereotypes contrasted with the official statistics from the Border and Immigration Agency (2007) which profiled the first migrants.
  • 3Moral entrepreneurs: Sections of the media filled this role, taking a lead on moral issues. Pressure groups, notably MigrationWatch UK, also endeavoured to shape public opinion and to influence policy makers.
  • 4Experts: MigrationWatch UK claimed expertise about the issue in addition to pronouncing upon the problem and its solution. Other experts were called on selectively, for example, the Institute for Public Policy Research produced a report that was criticised by The Express and reported objectively in other papers. The moral entrepreneurs chose and validated experts selectively and instrumentally.
  • 5Coping and resolution: In October 2006, the UK government announced that it would be restricting migration from Bulgaria and Romania by operating a screened rather than open-access scheme. In terms of crime, there is also little evidence that the police made substantive strategic changes to cope with the perceived problems. The UK's policing structures were evolving in any event in a manner that could respond to transnational crime, for example, the establishment of SOCA.
  • 6Fade away: During the period analysed, the ‘problem’ was fading away due to the lack of a crime wave attributable to Bulgarian or Romanian migrants. However, it will recur when newsworthy crimes or series of crimes emerge that are linked to migrants.
  • 7Legacy: In real terms the crime fears were not realised. However, this is not a ‘problem’ in isolation; it is one issue, among others relating to European enlargement and migration more widely, others being access to and pressure on housing, education and health provision.

The Attributional Model Applied

  • 1Concern: A heightened level of concern over an identified group, the potential migrants, was articulated by pressure groups and featured prominently in the newspapers. This concern appeared to be reflected in a number of opinion polls that were not based around crime, but immigration.
  • 2Hostility: A clear folk devil is constructed in the media, namely economic migrants from Bulgaria and Romania linked to particular types of criminality (as stereotyped by The Express).
  • 3Consensus: There was no clear consensus concerning the crime threat from possible migrants. Rather there was a battle for the ‘truth’, with newspapers adopting contrasting positions and the pressure groups using these as conduits for their opposing views, drawing on the expert opinions and reports that best supported their own position.
  • 4Disproportionality: The defining feature of a moral panic is that it is disproportionate to the actual risk or fear. The claims made were not realised; the moral panic over the crime threat posed by migrants was not evidenced by a Bulgarian/Romanian inspired crime wave.
  • 5Volatility: The problem did not erupt suddenly or unexpectedly. It developed as the enlargement process worked its way through the series of assessments that commented on whether the two countries were sufficiently prepared for membership. In this respect the panic is more of a long campaign than a spontaneous eruption.
  • 6Claims makers: The claims makers have not faded away. Newspapers recognise the newsworthiness of immigration and crime. If the two combine, news stories will run and pressure groups will use the opportunities to propagate their beliefs. The specific panic over Bulgaria and Romania may have passed; claims makers will no doubt revise their strategies in preparation for the struggle over the next stage of enlargement.

Applying these models, as above, contributes to our understanding of the processes at work and the roles played by the various actors in the ‘A2’ case-study. Namely, the Bulgarian/Romanian migration ‘crime problem’ fits key criteria under each model and we would argue that this problem has been a moral panic in that: (i) there is a clear folk devil; (ii) hostility develops, or is fostered, towards the ‘folk devils’; (iii) the threat is disproportionate to the actual risk; hence (iv) fade away is to be expected; (v) claims makers (or moral entrepreneurs) are prominent; (vi) experts are deployed instrumentally; and (vii) the role of the media is central.

Although Critcher (2003, p.23) argues that the attributional model underplays the role of the media, in our analysis it is central. In Cohen's (1967) earlier work, he noted in his analysis of the 1960s skirmishes between Mods and Rockers that the media were responsible for sensationalised representations, the transmission of stereotypes and the creation of expectancy. Our analysis of the case of the ‘A2’ migrants confirms that Cohen's observations remain valid in 2007, despite the vastly altered media landscape. For example, Cohen noted in 1967 that the media amplified the situation by reporting the same incident twice; in our sample from The Express we found two articles on two different dates that were the same story, one being an edited version of the other; the first on 23 February 2007 (‘We offer rich pickings for gangsters’) and the second on 1 June 2007 (‘We make it cushy for EU gangsters’). Both were written by Frederick Forsyth and warned of the export of organised crime from Eastern Europe to the UK. In addition, just as in 1967 the media created an expectancy of impending clashes between Mods and Rockers, in 2006 The Express created expectancy through its warning of an impending ‘flood’ of ‘A2’ criminals.

However, while elements of Cohen's original concept remain useful, our case-study suggests that it is timely to consider the changing nature of the moral panic and its analysis. Here we draw first on the work of McRobbie and Thornton (1995) who revisited the model for a contemporary media age. For McRobbie and Thornton, the proliferation and fragmentation of media forms and ‘the multiplicity of voices, which compete and contest the meaning of the issues subject to “moral panic”’ (p.68) rendered the moral panic model outdated. From our analysis, we recognise the media context described by McRobbie and Thornton, but we favour developing the moral panic model rather than rejecting it as redundant.

In this respect our case-study sees the blurring of actors and processes that was not evident in Cohen's statement and application of the original model (1972/2002). The role of claims makers or moral entrepreneurs (those groups that seek to define a ‘problem’ and take a campaigning lead on its moral and social dimensions) was notable in our case. MigrationWatch UK, the anti-immigration pressure group, appeared frequently in the newspaper (and wider media) coverage. As a group that lobbies, commissions research and provides expert opinion, MigrationWatch UK's place in the applied models straddles ‘moral entrepreneur’, ‘expert’ and ‘claims maker’.

In addition, and importantly for the development of the moral panic model, MigrationWatch UK was able to communicate direct with the public using new media, principally its Internet website; it did not rely on the traditional media channels to promulgate its views, although it was also prominent in the traditional media. This is an interesting development at a time when public trust in the traditional media is in decline (Grade 2007) and a broad variety of media sources is widely available for the gathering and filtering of immigration and crime information. The influence of new media and direct communication was beyond the scope of our study, but this is an interesting area for future moral panic studies. Given these developments, moral entrepreneurs, claims makers and media agencies are blurring to produce complex multi-layered representations of social problems.

Our case-study also has implications for the related notions of ‘volatility’ and ‘legacy’ within the two models. Both models suggest that panics reach a peak, after which they subside as the issue is resolved or fades away. This temporally-bounded aspect of panics is regarded by Cohen (1972) as significant in that it serves to limit the influence of any given panic episode. However, in his most recent discussion of the moral panic concept, Cohen (2002) has noted how reaction to asylum seekers has followed a distinct trajectory, with the temporally-bounded form of panic seeming to give way to a ‘virtually uninterrupted message of hostility and rejection’ (p.xix). He suggests this open-ended episode of panic is a unique exception to the usual panic profile.

We note this development with interest, primarily because our own analysis suggests that such an open-ended version of moral panic may not be confined to the case of asylum seekers. We would propose that the open-ended moral panic is now a more accurate way to model a cluster of issues, such as immigration in general, East European migration to Western Europe in particular and EU enlargement per se. One consequence of this open-ended profile is, we believe, a slow-burn moral panic, existing within a climate of general concern about immigration, much as Berkeley, Khan and Ambikaipaker (2006, p.30) argue that ‘a multiplicity of media panics about new immigrants maintains a public perception of perpetual crisis about immigration policies and social problems’.

In view of the way in which this open-ended form of moral panic has seemingly ‘stepping stoned’ its way from asylum seekers to immigrants, to EU enlargement, to general anxieties about crime, we suggest that the slow-burn model no longer be regarded as deserving of Cohen's (2002)‘exception to the rule’ status, but be seen instead as an increasingly significant variation on what is clearly an evolving concept. Here we are not yet suggesting that all episodes of moral panic now conform to the slow-burn model. Such a claim would require testing and substantiation on a case-by-case basis, perhaps incorporating the insights of risk-society scholars (Bauman 2002; Beck 1992; Douglas 1992).

In the particular context of EU enlargement we regard this slow-burn form of panic to be, at least partially, rooted in the fact that each accession can be tracked and assessed on its journey through the EU's membership processes. This visibility means that claims makers and the media, recognising accession as a process that can be planned around and incorporated into schedules, can predict the effects and impacts of enlargement. In this way EU enlargement inheres newsworthiness through the news value of ‘predictability’ (Jewkes 2004, p.42). Given the ongoing nature of the EU expansion project it is tempting to predict that the core panic regarding EU enlargement will remain smouldering for some time to come.


In examining the case of UK newspaper reporting of the ‘A2’ accession, our analysis suggests that the episode could be described as a moral panic. Claims makers constructed Bulgarian and Romanian migrants as folk devils and newspapers played a central role in projecting accession disproportionately as a social problem. However, to understand the ‘A2’ accession and its media coverage, the moral-panic model needs to be stretched to take account of the changing nature of the media and the way that pressure groups operate within the developing media landscape. The nature of mediated communication is changing – methods of reporting and publishing are moving on, as are people's ways of acquiring news – and moral-panic models need to adapt to this to remain relevant. While the application of the models was helpful, as Critcher (2003) has noted ‘moral panic analysis is not an end but a beginning’ (p.178). In this respect, we conclude that the ‘A2’ accession should not be considered as an isolated case-study, but needs to be seen within the context of an increasingly insecure Europe (Crawford 2002).


  1. 1 The Audit Bureau of Circulations categorises The Daily Express as a ‘middle market’ paper with an average circulation of 720,000 and The Guardian as a ‘quality’ newspaper with an average circulation of 315,000 ( (accessed 30 January 2008)).

  2. 2 The term ‘moral panic’ is thought to have been coined by the Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan and appears in Jock Young's (1971) article: ‘The role of the police as amplifiers of deviancy, negotiators of reality and translators of fantasy’. However, the concept is most closely associated with Stan Cohen and his publication of Folk Devils and Moral Panics in 1972. The concept has featured regularly in academic studies of crime, notably in Hall et al.'s (1978) study of street crime in the 1970s, but also in more recent theoretical applications (see, for example, Hier 2008).