Messy Business: Media Representations of Administrative Sanctions for Corporate Offenders


  • Judith Van Erp

  • This paper was first presented at the “Criminalising Commerce” stream of panels at the SLSA conference of 2011 in Brighton, UK, organized by Christine Parker, Caron Beaton-Wells, and Fiona Haines of the Melbourne Cartel Project. The author wishes to thank Marinke te Pest who conducted part of the interviews as a student assistant. She also wishes to thank Fiona Haines, Caron Beaton-Wells, Nancy Reichman, and three anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this article. Part of this research was sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

Address correspondence to Judith Van Erp, Erasmus School of Law—Criminology, Burg Oudlaan 50 Rotterdam 3000 DR, Netherlands. Telephone: 31104081755; E-mail:


Enforcement against corporate offenses is increasingly carried out by specialized regulatory agencies. These often use publicity as a regulatory tool, in the expectation that disclosure of sanctions will invoke the threat of reputational damage and broadcasts a moral message about desired behavior. This article investigates how media represent administrative offenses in the Dutch financial market, in terms of punitiveness for offenders and in terms of the message about the wrongfulness and harm of offenses. Media coverage of administrative fines is messy in several senses. First, adverse publicity is unpredictable and disproportionally affects small firms in comparison with large, professional firms. In addition, it is also messy in terms of its contribution to the prevention of corporate misbehavior. Media do not unequivocally disapprove of financial market offenses. Rather than clarifying the demarcation line between right and wrong, media describe financial market behavior as a grey zone where differences of opinion can exist over whether certain behavior constitutes an offense. More than a publicity sanction or moral message, media was found to frame offenses by retail banks and capital market firms in terms of the power struggle between firms and the regulatory authority.