The Commercial Exploitation of Fear

Article published on April 21, 2004
Article published on April 21, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

It’s not necessarily people whose lives involve danger who are afraid. The way crime is used by the media and politicians has intensified the public perception of a looming threat – and this started long before 11th September

The busy-bodies of society, never happy with the wealth of rights and regulations we’ve already got, have been brewing disquiet across Europe since the early 90s. Fear, formerly tied up with abstract threats like the Cold War, was suddenly let loose. The wars in the Balkans pushed the threat of violence and danger back into the European field of view and increasing economic and social problems have sought an outlet for expression.

This surplus of dull fear and dullened emotions has long seduced populists like Jörg Haider in Austria, Ronald Schill in Germany and Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, and given new impetus to old-time ultra-rightwingers like Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. What their agendas have in common is that they need not be subjected to rational analysis because they gratify the demand for people to blame with their across-the-board verdict of foreigners as criminals.

Agitation in the media

The issue of domestic security could hardly be puffed up like it is without the little man’s megaphone and the tabloids. The critical German publicist, Otto Diederichs, spoke in 1997 of a “circle of fear exploitation involving the media and politicians”. The reporting of so-called crime statistics is a good example. These are based on crimes registered by the police. They do not, however, inform us whether this means a real increase in crime or whether an increase is to be traced back to heightened – and politically motivated – police activity. Stepped-up measures against petty crime can have an explosive effect on the statistics – and can in turn be used as an argument for further police activity. If the press crowns its already deceptive reporting with climatic headlines where Berlin is stigmatised “European Metropolis of Crime” then the public can hardly fail to feel insecure.

In fact there is “no or very little connection between the fear of crime and its actual impact”, as experts substantiate with the analysis of countless studies. The fear is influenced much more by the “image of crime in the media” or by the “general political climate”. And it is not only the tabloids. Serious European media like Austria’s “Der Standard” or Germany’s “Der Spiegel”, say media analysts do their bit to stir up fear through the use of metaphors like the notorious “the rescue boat is full” idea. Such metaphors, constantly seized upon by different media, end up creating their own truth. The fear of foreign infiltration is fermented and tied up with the already existent sense of insecurity.

Career potential in security policy

International research into crime also shows that what large groups of the population want above all is increased measures to combat crime, because they see “the solution of the crime problem above all in more severe sanctions”. This simplistic formula generates rapid popularity for domestic policy makers who announce harsher laws and sentencing – even when these are difficult to implement or prove to be ineffective. A witness to this is the persistent success of the German Interior Minister and former defence lawyer for terrorists, Otto Schily, who found his true vocation in domestic security. And Nicolas Sarkozy, as French Interior Minister, made good use of the freedom Chirac gave him to dream up reactionary security measures and is now on the way to taking over his boss’ job.

The SPD Senator for the Interior, Körting, recently demonstrated just how little politicians learn. He denounced nine districts of Berlin in a “district atlas” as problem areas. The only criterium was a high proportion of foreigners. After the media had avariciously gorged on this populistic fodder, it was no surprise that locals then went on to admit in surveys to their anxiety at living in areas which were in fact below the average in the crime ratings.

Paradoxically, agitating the climate can even lead indirectly to an increase in the crime rate – especially as far as racially motivated crime is concerned, which rose again in Berlin in 2004.

From diffuse fear to paranoia

In spite of it all, when compared to America, Europe is so easy-going about security that it’s almost horizontal. Anyone who saw Bowling for Columbine could shake his head quite calmly and feel safe in the knowledge that Michael Moore’s analysis of the Americans’ security paranoia is far away on the other Atlantic shore. But even before the terrorist attacks of 11th September, the USA served as an role model for some security politicians in Europe. Sarkozy’s special measures in Paris bear a striking resemblance to Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” policy in New York in the 90s and Schily, with his efforts to centralise the security services, is clearly looking to the almighty American paragons. Even commentators of liberal newspapers show right-wing tendencies when they start ogling at terrorism trials.

Helplessness in the face of terrorism, felt by public and politicians alike, is stoking the flames of emotions and makes the carousel of sensational reporting, public fear and symbolic political measures spin ever faster. We can only hope that at least some of the decision makers and journalists will keep an objective overview. Otherwise, we’re at risk of tipping over from fear into paranoia, which could long undermine the public’s trust and our civil rights.