The Representation of Youth Identities as Gang Behaviour and / or Criminal Activity Within The British Media


Throughout history youth gangs have always been mentioned yet little research has been piloted within the UK which explains to a full extent what youth gangs are and their nature. In the 1920’s Thrasher conducted research around the notion of gangs in Chicago offering a rich and profound analysis of US gangs which in turn led to a breakthrough in the history of sociology and subcultural theory (Johnson, 2004). From this advance in research by Thrasher further research was conducted into the nature of gangs incorporating the ideas of Merton (1938) and Cohen (1955) who related the concept of gangs to factors such as class difference, lack of employment opportunities, socioeconomic status and the awareness of power, struggle and identification (Bennett and Holloway, 2004). Although the research mentioned was largely conducted around the concept of gang culture within America it still holds the basics to apply to gangs in the UK. However in the recent years there has been a large amount of attention paid to British gangs and youth culture following the London 2011 Riots with the concept of these riots spreading to large cities throughout England. This led to criminal justice representatives being determined to comprehend the knowledge of youth gangs within the United Kingdom (Wood and Allenye, 2010). 

Throughout history within the UK there has been many examples of groups of youths that linked youth subculture and delinquency e.g. the Mods and Rockers, Skinheads, Punks and Hippies. Although there may be little research into these groups the exploration that was conducted has now been applied when explaining the emergence of youth subcultures but in particular youth gangs. This dissertation will therefore comment on the fact and fiction surrounding the phenomena of today’s youth gangs within the UK using statistical evidence and media reports to discover whether a correct depiction of youth gangs within the UK is being painted. Although there is little research conducted within the UK around gang crime and youth’s, a vast amount of research from the US can be applied to the situation and this will be discussed later. The key focus points this dissertation will address is an analysis of different definitions of youth gangs and youth subcultures within the UK, with reference to other countries classifications of youth gangs, to find and highlight the difference between the two classifications. The use of subcultural theories will be mentioned in order to explain the emergence of youth gangs in today’s society, with reference to historical youth subcultures which could have influenced this perception of youth gangs and youths as a general concept e.g. Mod and Rocker’s, Skinheads and Punks and finally the effect the media has on influencing societies reactions and perceptions with reference to published newspaper articles emphasising this point. The effect the portrayal of youth’s being in gangs and conducting delinquent behaviour within the media will also be linked with government responses and this will also be discussed.

Chapter two will scrutinise the limitations that occur from the large amount of definitions of youth gangs and youth subcultures, not just within the UK but throughout the United States and Europe. The US definition of ‘gangs’, but more specifically ‘youth gangs’ will be analysed and from this it will be seen if the definition could be applicable to the UK. The notion of youth gangs compared to youth subculture groups will be debated and the idea of what constitutes a youth gang will be discussed before evaluating how problems can arise when trying to apply a definition to a group of youths and how this can affect policy and research.

Chapter three will explain the emergence of youth groups in the modern society relating in historical youth subcultures that caused moral panic throughout the UK using examples such as the Mod and Rockers, Skinheads and Punks with reasoning to contemporary explanations. From this, the dissertation will distinguish what ideologies youth subculture groups may hold that could potentially lead to them being labelled a ‘gang’ and why this labelling may not be correct. The theories by Merton (1938) and Cohen (1955) will be discussed to create an in depth, theoretical look into the emergence of youth gangs. The ideas of class difference, socioeconomic status, lack of education and employment and the awareness of power, struggle and identification will be addressed to discover what may lead a youth to move into a life of youth subculture and how those who conform to these ideologies may be labelled without being involved in the delinquent behaviour associated with a ‘gang’.

Chapter 4 will then focus on the aspect of what moral panic is and how moral panic is achieved around the concept of youths, youth subcultures and youth delinquent gangs. This chapter will draw in what this moral panic created by the media can progress in to especially in relation to societal perceptions and government responses. How these societal perceptions could potentially lead to stereotypical views towards youths, regardless of their youth group status, will also be conversed. Finally, media representations of youths throughout the UK will be reviewed to determine whether violent crimes which involve youths, knives and firearms are linked to the concept of ‘gangs’ by the media. Newspaper articles will be used as evidence to offer a well-built argument around the topic and offer a small insight into terminology, ideologies and stereotypes that are used by the media to highlight crime relating to youths hence leading to societal perceptions which may not be based on facts.



Defining Youth Gangs

Before the phenomenon of youth gangs can be examined the definitions of the term ‘gang’ must be defined. Even though the term ‘gang’ is used so universally throughout society there is not one single definition of what a ‘gang’ is (Franzese et al, 2016). A look into previous research that focused on youth gangs shows that much literature is unsure of what a youth gang is (Spergel, 1995) with many having different definitions used to reinforce the researchers point (Klein et al, 1995). The recent awareness of gang research has thoroughly highlighted the importance of consistent definitions for gang’s and gang related crime (Esbensen et al, 2001). The label of ‘gang’ has been applied to various groups over the last 60 years including prison inmates, organized criminal groups, motorcyclists and groups of youths. Despite its diverse application, the term has always been linked to those who have involvement with illegal activities (Skarbek and Freire, 2016). A definition by Miller (1982, cited in Pitts, 2007) has been found to be the most applicable in terms of ‘gangs’ and describes a gang as ‘a group of recurrently associating individuals who have identifiable leadership and internal organisation, which can involve identifying with or claiming control over specific territory in the community, and can also involve engagement in violent or other forms of illegal behaviour’. Although the definition by Miller helped create a clear opening into gangs within America around that time, there was still little criminological research on gangs within the UK but more importantly there was little research on the concept of ‘youth gangs’ (Cox, 2011). However, there has been development in the definition of ‘youth gangs’ within the UK with Esbensen (2000) arguing that a youth gang consists of the following features; two or more members of the same age range (between 11 and 25 years old), a common identity is shared whether this be names, symbols, gang signs or colours, the group exhibits stability over time and the group members are involved in criminal activity. This definition led to researchers being able to use a list of features created by Esbensen (2000) to define ‘youth gangs’ more easily within the UK. However, a point from these two definitions that should be raised is that not all youths who identify together through an identifiable leader or by shared ideologies are involved in a ‘gang’. Throughout history many youths have created subculture groups based off ideologies that they share. One example of this would be the Mods and Rockers who identified with others due to the same interest in music and fashion, with Mods and Rockers wearing specific clothing which would highlight one of the features mentioned by Esbensen (2000). However the concept and creation of The Mods and Rockers was not as a delinquent group. For this reason, when referring to a gang the term delinquent should be added to highlight that some youths may identify through leaders and control over specific areas but without the delinquent behaviour they do not constitute as a gang (Gordon et al, 2004). One other definition that needs to be addressed beforehand is what ideologies are presented in a ‘youth gang’.A typical youth gang member is labelled as being aged 12 to 25, predominantly male, and living in large cities or near underprivileged regions (Alleyne and Wood, 2011). From this definition, a youth gang in today’s society will involve members aged between 12 and 25 which reinforces Esbensen’s definition from 2000. Cohen (1987) found that during the years of relevant research, such as the delinquency theory, helped within the UK to theorize about delinquent subcultures and this was a large leap straight from the functionalism of the original American theory to various theories around delinquent groups in the UK.

The problem of youth gangs and street gangs affects both the US and the UK to the same degree due to gangs throughout the world involving the same traits and features, from the idea of an identifiable leader to the concept of common identity (Grund & Densley, 2012). These similar treads within gangs in the UK and the US make it easier to apply research from the US to the youth gangs in the UK. Although crime rate rises in relation to crimes that may involve gangs e.g. gun crime in both places discussed, this growth does not necessarily imply that there is similarity between street gangs in the US and the UK. One key factor however that does show the similarity is location. In the UK it was found that youth gangs within the UK are located in the largest cities in the country where poor communities may be present e.g. Manchester, Liverpool and London (McCauley, 2007). This has also been found to be consistent with American gangs with research conducted within America finding that gangs are located mostly around areas such as Chicago and Los Angeles (Starbuck et al, 2001). Although the lack of research studied in the United Kingdom compared to the US is evident and the understanding individuals have when they hear the term ‘gang’ may be saturated by American stereotypes, the above knowledge shows that to an extent these perceptions and definitions are correct for both American and British gangs and hence the stereotype of American gangs being applied to British ‘gangs’ can be done so loosely. Although this shows that to an extent the term ‘gang’ within America can be applied to the United Kingdom it does not clarify the difference between those who share same political views, fashion and policy against those who offer violence, danger and crime. For examples, youth culture is described as ‘the way adolescents live, combined with their norms, values and practices that they share’ (Brake, 2013).This definition can then be linked to youth subculture which is ‘a group of youths with distinct styles, behaviour and interests who offer participants an identity outside of their social surroundings’ (Martin, 2016). This definition compared to that of Miller (1982) shows a clear difference between youth gangs and youth subcultures.

Although gangs are seen as engaging in illegal or violent behaviour this element does not apply to every specific gang. Elements that can be applied to gangs include fashion, tattoos, political beliefs, race and religious faith yet these are not what is described as above by Alleyne and Wood (2011) and the idea of violence and criminality. The concept of the ‘gang label’ has effectively led to events and groups which may not be ‘gang related’ being defined as such (Marshall et al, 2005). From this ‘gang labelling’ of those who were not a typical delinquent gang, Hallsworth and Young (2008) offered a brief description of three levels of ‘delinquent collective’: the peer group, the gang and the organized crime group. Peer groups are relatively small, unorganized and the involvement of crime is non-serious in nature and not essential to the identity of the group. A gang is largely street based groups of young people who are an apparent group and crime and violence is fundamental to the group’s identity. Finally organized criminal group is a group of individuals from who crime is for personal gain and crime is essentially their occupation. While these distinctions between the three seem clear, the criteria for identifying instances of each in real cases are less clear which could lead to different youth subcultures being placed under the wrong label (Marshall et al 2005). It is evident that key issues that needs to be resolved is a providing of a uniformed definition of what constitutes a ‘youth gang’ and distinguishing a youth gang from troublesome youth groups and youth subculture groups (Mitchell and Pyrooz, 2015). The stigmatisation of labelling each collection of people who share similar political views and fashion etc. could have potentially led to heightened moral panic within society without their being any threat of violence present from the suggested ‘gang’. This element of stigmatisation will now be discussed in relation to the emergence of gangs within the UK and how ‘gang’ ideology may have been built upon elements of youth subcultures that were represented incorrectly in the media.


The emergence of youth gangs within the united kingdom

The definition of the term ‘gang’ always highlights the use of violent behaviour and the aspect of gangs being heavily male based however this is not always the case and this stigmatisation could lead to heightened moral panic around gangs. The roles played by ‘gangs’ such as football hooligans or delinquent groups are distinctive subcultural styles and the fragmentation of those who identify through fashion and musical style are too diffuse to match each other (Cohen, 1987). Throughout UK history there has been a number of subcultural youth groups labelled as ‘gangs’ which may not exactly follow the description of gangs which has been found. Examples include Mods and Rockers, Skinheads, Punks and Hippies.

Gangs have always been a consistent element of the urban landscape of Britain, especially post World War 2 (Esbensen, 2000). Since the end of World War 2 Britain has seen the emergence of many adolescent subcultures which have been labelled within the mass media as ‘youth gangs’ without conforming to the stereotypical definition of ‘gangs’ created by Miller (cited in Pitts, 2007), Esbensen (2000) and Alleyne and Wood (2011) of young males involving crime. In the United Kingdom during the 1960’s Mods and Rockers were heavily highlighted by the British media. The reasons for the creation of Mods and Rockers may be because they mostly consisted of young working class adolescents who had access to disposable income with no prospect of progressing throughout the British class system and had a sense of disillusion within a post-war society (Critcher, 2008). This highlights the possible emergence of youth subcultures, with youth subcultures signifying a reaction to growing up in a class society (MacDonald, 1997). Cohen (1955) theorised that youth subcultures, such as the Mods and Rockers, emerge from a subculture created by those of a lower socioeconomic status in response to their exclusion from mainstream middle-class culture. The youths accept that they will not obtain the middle class status and thus create a gang culture that offers them an alternative source of status and identity. During this time research was being conducted in America around the concept of gangs which could have been applied to the UK Mods and Rockers at the time. America in the 1950 / 1960’s was not like Britain, which was a post welfare state, cracking of all those interdependent myths of classlessness and consumerism and was in the early warnings of economic recession and high adolescent unemployment – the relative weakness of identifiably political resistance (Cohen, 1987). From this the phenomenon of gang like crime and youths were being linked to the permissive 1960’s and the breakdown of the traditional family (Hopkins-Burke, 2016).

This media coverage of the Mods and Rockers, which was largely linked to the fights between the two in 1964, sparked a moral panic around the notion of British youths and the two groups became labelled as not just ‘gangs’ but as folk devils (Cohen, 1967). The youths who were involved in the Mods and Rockers subculture were known for their fashion predominantly; Mods wore clean cut outfits and suits whereas Rockers were spotted for their fashion of leather jackets. This factor of identifiable fashion is popular in today’s society among youth gangs, with gangs representing different colours etc. However even though rivalry did sometimes occur between the two groups this was a minority of the two. It was found however that following these actions from splinter groups the British media turned the Mods and Rockers subculture into a negative symbol of delinquent and deviant status (Cohen, 1987). Society soon turned to labelling those involved in the subcultures as ‘rule breakers’ due to belonging to certain deviant groups. This labelling could in turn lead to the youth acting how they have been labelled. Labelling also occurred among the youth subculture group known as Skinheads which occurred around the same time as Mods and Rockers.

The 1960’s saw the first wave of Skinheads. This first wave was motivated by the expression of alternative views rejecting the 1950’s austerity and conservatism with fashion also being a key image for Skinheads who based their looks on the Jamaican Rude Boys (Brake, 1974). Although this first wave was a subculture group generated through the difficult economic conditions caused by government cuts, the second wave of Skinheads in the 1980’s involved far right splinter groups resulting in tabloid hysteria and extreme nationalism (Pollard, 2016). This was also the era of the ‘punk’ subculture which was in many ways similar to the skinhead subculture following along the same ideology of fashion. However what is different between the Mods and Rockers and Skinheads is that splinter groups such as Oi! Skinheads were created through music that attracted those through having a rough form of anti-government socialism and attracted white nationalists and members of the National Front (Williams, 2007). This ideology from the splinter far right groups led to a more extreme look compared to the previous Skinhead subculture and the more politically charged second wave added raised profile of Skinheads in society through the media highlighting these points to show their reputation in popular consciousness as being countercultural and political (Brown, 2004). These were movements created by youth subcultures to highlight their political views and although violence was present, the majority of cases did not ensure the same amount of violence recorded in youth street gangs today. Before the 1980’s, gang behaviour typically involved bare knuckle fighting but post 1980 there has been an increase in access to lethal weapons making ‘gangs’ become more powerful (Hawkins et al, 2000).  As in most of the Western world, the 1960’s in England was a time of rising crime and civil disorder (Olson and Kopel, 2003). However gun crime was never seen as a problem. Scotland Yard used objectives of elimination to ensure that improper and careless custody of firearms was abolished and that it was difficult for criminals to obtain firearms (Olson and Kopel, 2003). This cannot be said for firearms today. In 2007 there was over 20,000 crimes involving firearms committed in the United Kingdom. This is a large increase from the 1960’s and this could have something to do with how readily available weapons are in the United Kingdom today. Although it is illegal for a youth to own a firearm, many youths report that if they wanted to obtain a firearm illegally they would have little difficulty in finding one (The Future of Children, 2002). The increase in violence, and therefore media coverage, among youths during the late 1990’s into the 2000’s was mainly due to a growth in violent acts committed by youths under the age of 20 (Blumstein, 2002). In 2015 it was reported that ‘gang members’ carried out half of all shootings within London and was responsible for 22% of all serious violence (Home Office, 2015).

 Alongside these reporting’s of increased violence among youths came the increase in youth homicide which was in turn due to firearms which in turn changed the concept of bare knuckle fighting in 1970’s to the 1980’s into violent and dangerous homicides (Blumstein, 2002). Other interrelated factors that also fueled the increase of ‘youth delinquent groups’ included the rise of the illegal drug market where youths were hired into the market and alongside this youths reported carrying firearms because of the dangerousness of the market and other rival gangs (Lizotte et al, 2000).  The drug industry has grown since the 1960’s around the idea of drug smuggling and trafficking. Post 1970’s saw ‘gangs’ becoming less interested with territorial affiliations and a heightened interest in use and distribution of illegal substances replaced this (Flowers, 2013). A number of criminal gangs within the UK are known for specialising in the importation and sales of illegal drugs (Ruggiero, 2009). It is estimated that approximately 60% of ‘gangs’ in the UK today are involved with drugs with these gangs also being involved in crime with firearms. Due to this expansion of drug and firearm industries the violence portrayed by youth gangs in the UK is drastically different to the crimes committed in the 1960 / 1970’s around Mods and Rockers, Skinheads and Punks. Crimes committed by these youth subcultural groups from 1960/1970’s included protests, boycotts, squatting and vandalism which differs from the crime of drug production, drug dealing and firearm crime (Moore and Roberts, 2009).

From these previous explorations of subcultures it is clear that there is many predominant social and economic factors that have influenced the increase of youth subcultures and in some cases the rise in youth delinquent gangs. For this dissertation the influence of identification, education and the community will be discussed to offer an insight into the factors and the influence they can have on an individual to highlight the emergence of youth delinquent gangs. It has been shown that young adults innovate to survive being socially excluded and this can involve the concept of identification with others who are interested in the same elements (McAuley, 2007). The concept of fashion was a big element in distinguishing who was involved in youth subculture groups such as Skinheads, Mods and Rockers and Punks. This concept of fashion can be linked to many famous youth gangs throughout the world. How young people dress has been the focus of subcultural studies for many time in relation to resistance and subcultural youth groups especially in working class communities (McRobbie, 2000). From an international perspective, in America the symbolisation of red or blue bandanas in association with the Crips and Bloods gangs are a worldwide symbol that shows how fashion influences those in society to hold stereotypical views that someone wearing this fashion item is essentially part of a youth delinquent group (Garot and Katz, 2003). Examples of British subcultures which were typified by their chose of fashion was Teddy Boys which included drape jackets reminiscent of those worn in 1940’s America (Bennett, 1990). To relate this to societal views and how fashion has been turned to represent youth subcultures and youth delinquent gangs in the UK, characteristics and fashion have been represented in the media to highlight these groups. Hoodies are mostly associated with youth gangs within the British media with many youths feeling judged and stereotyped by society because of this fashion item (Mares, 2001).

Fashion is not the only factor which can lead to the development of moral panic among society in relation to youth subcultures. Lack of employment and education is also a major factor highlighted by the British media when referring to youths. Exclusion from secure jobs has been a common experience among youths within the UK. Last year it was found that 568,000 young people aged 16-24 were unemployed (House of Commons, 2016). This factor has been mentioned frequently among media articles to highlight the emergence of ‘youth gangs’. The breakdown of the UK economy cannot be used as a point to distinguish who is involved within ‘youth gangs’ as although unemployment is high among youths, unemployment is also high among adults within the UK with rates reaching over 1 million (House of Commons, 2016).

The rise in female youth gang members has also emerged. The concept of female’s involvement with youth gangs was always as a passive victim to crimes including rape however, females are now becoming involved members of youth gangs breaking stereotypes and definitions of what constitutes a youth gang (Miller, 2001). Although the concern around female youth gang members is not a new phenomenon, the UK has seen a rise in female violent behaviour. The association between female violence and growing numbers of female youth gang members essentially goes hand in hand. The increase in female youth gang members has been associated with dominant discourses relating to male youth gangs and the much criticized proliferation of ‘youth gang culture’ in the UK (Goldson, 2011). This rise in female gang members installs more moral panic among society due to a large majority of definitions relating youth gangs to males. The idea of youth females engaging in violent and criminal behaviour also does not sit with the traditional view of a young girl from the 1950’s to 1980’s, and from this the older society may have increased moral panic which could in turn lead to Ephebiphobia.

From this it is clear that youth subcultures were corresponding to the structural sources of strain, as highlighted in the subcultural theory as anomie, status frustration and lack of leisure opportunities and due to labelling through the mass media of being ‘delinquent’ and ‘youth gangs’ the subculture groups acted how they were labeled. From the research found it is evident that these subcultures were more movements against politics and stereotypical views rather than youth gangs who committed delinquent behaviour as mentioned in the definition by Miller (Cited in Pitts, 2007) and Esbensen (2000). Whether the groups are Mods and Rockers, Skinheads or Punks two dominant themes are suggested: first that their style or political views is essentially a type of resistance to subordination; secondly, that the form taken by this resistance is somehow symbolic to them and may be them expressing their political views and not delinquent behaviour (Cohen, 1987). Essentially from this, it can be seen that youth subcultures are judged and stereotypically related to previous youth subcultures who society may have viewed as delinquent or gangs. It is also clear that ‘gangs’ pre 1980 were subjected to splinter groups who may have occasionally been involved in small scale crime compared to ‘gangs’ post 1990 which was involved in violent, dangerous crime involving organized crime including drug trafficking. This would therefore suggest that youth crime gangs are present within the UK, due to this relating to the definitions provided above yet it is evident that because of these youth delinquent groups other youths who join together through fashion, music and political ideologies are being swept into the phenomena of being labelled as ‘youth gangs’.

Moral Panic and Societal Responses generated by the media

Young individuals and crime has always been linked in the minds of the general society (Hopkins-Burke, 2016). Moral panic can be defined as the feeling expressed in society around a certain issue that may threaten the social order within society (Critcher, 2008). The first spark of moral panic among society was prompted by the large amount of children on the street (Pearson, 1983). Since then it appears that society goes through periods of moral panic whether this be a condition, a person or a group of people that are defined as a threat to societal views and interests. This moral panic is heightened by the nature of the issue being presented in a stylised and stereotypical way by the mass media (Cohen, 1987). The intervening years have seen much interest in the major sources of moral panic mostly being the mass media and their analysis of deviance and crime. Examples of this can include the media’s portrayal of Skinheads and Mods and Rockers dating back to the 1960’s. In the 1990’s it was found that 30% of all mass media within British newspapers was based around crime (Williams and Dickinson, 1993). Since 1990 there has been a huge surge in newspapers reporting crime of all natures on a large scale, with many reporting figures, statistics and cases of crime on a daily basis to educate society on crime within the UK e.g. violent crime jumps 27 per cent in news figures (Barrett, 2016). With this daily reporting of crime, reaching a large scale audience, comes the increase in fear and shaping of societal perceptions of crimes committed (Kidd-Hewitt and Osbourne, 1995). Previous findings of moral panic and gangs have emphasised the impact of the British media’s image as well as police, the public and the legislative response in relation to the threat posed by gangs (Cyr, 2003). In some instances the moral panic generated by the mass media has more serious implications and long lasting repercussions which in turn leads to a worldwide stereotype of the element and a change to policy and legislation. In most cases this is around youths and youth gangs. The major news stories of crime in Britain are not untypical of 21st century Britain (Critcher, 2008). In relation to ‘gangs’ there has been many high profile cases raised within the media to highlight youth gangs. Examples include 11 year old Rhys Jones who was shot dead in Liverpool after walking into a gang-related feud. This became an international story which was emphasised throughout the media around the dangerousness of youth gangs within the UK. Following the murder, the rise in inner youth gang culture and the increase in firearms and weapons was highlighted by the media who suggested that Britain was a ‘society under siege by out of control youths’ (Grattan, 2009).  Senstionalised stories of youth gangs within the UK that appear in the media are backed by little evidence on a statistical level but involve in depth knowledge and stereotypes which can lead to society fearing youth gangs without knowing true facts (Newburn, 2007). 

The negative portrayal of youths and ‘youth gangs’ within the media has led to change in policy and legislation throughout Britain. As mentioned previously, youths have been stereotyped due to the concept of the fashion item of a ‘hoodie’. Rather than society viewing this item as a part of youth culture it has been turned to some degree into panic and paranoia among society even though hoods on garments have been worn throughout history (Marsh and Melville, 2011). This panic and paranoia around ‘hooded youths’ has led to negative media portrayal and the ban of hoodies from shopping centres within the UK. The moral panic which came hand in hand with this portrayal of hoodies created by the media led to Tory Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, attempting to clamp down on anti-social behaviour and threatening behaviour by those in hoodies. The banning of hoodies from Bluewater shopping centre in 2005 created a great deal of media interest. Many members of society believed that this was a good policy as hoodies created a deep fear within them yet the banning of clothing worn by youth’s demonstrates a growing demonisation of young people and overreaction to youths within Britain (Altheide, 2009). Ainsley (2005, cited in Young, 2009) stated that moral panic over the idea of hoodies is almost a continuation of previous moral panic around Chavs. From the moral panic generated by the media around chavs, the moral panic is then applied to the concept of youths in hoodies due to the underlying fear and panic created by the media in the past (Marsh and Melville, 2011). The use of terminology like ‘chav’ has been a term used frequently in the media during the early 2000’s to describe youths. This term has been applied to today with headlines such as ‘Britain has produced unteachable uber chavs’ (Britten, 2012), showing how historical moral panic is being passed through to today to show the problem of youth gangs.

Moral panic has also been constructed around the concept of glamorization of ‘gangs’ within films and music. The impact of gang portrayal and the activities involved of their members can lead to the formation of gangs due to the glamorization it offers (Carlie, 2002). Art and entertainment has been found to possess power to change lives and in some instances shape behaviour and society (Hammond, 2016). British crime films based on gangs, such as Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, has been criticized heavily for glamourizing serious crimes according to multiple police officers and leading police chief (Steele, 2000). This glamorization can lead to youth’s conforming to these ideas and joining gangs in the hope for the lifestyle portrayed within the films. From films taking the concept of gangs and offering us a glamorous interpretation, the idea of gangs entered our imagination. This idea of glamorization of youth gangs and increase in youth gangs can also be linked to the idea of Ephebiphobia. Ephebiphobia is the ‘fear of youths’ (Astroth, 1999). When the Western world became industrialized, youths were increasingly driven from the workforce and into increasingly total institutions where they lost personal autonomy in favor of social controls (Fletcher and Varvus, 2006). Social control led to the government policies being implemented also, such as curfews and anti-loitering that were believed by many youths to target their age group (Fletcher and Varvus, 2006).  To link this to Ephebiphobia, it is believed that because youths act differently to adults a phenomenon of societal views has been created which in turn has led to a perpetuated fear of youths (Fletcher and Varvus, 2006). Ephebiphobia has also been questioned for influencing decisions of the Government (O’Kane, 2012).  Ray Oldenburg created the idea of the ‘generation gap’ which he believed showed the increasing segregation of youths and adults in society’ which led to ‘adult estrangement and fear of youths’ (O’Kane, 2012). This phobia of youths as a whole leads to a double negative situation. Youths are viewed generally in a negative light but the concept of youth gang’s shares light on the idea of a double negative and this is culturally the UK’s societies view on youths.

Although the research around the concept of moral panic and youths has been researched frequently, an insight into how British media and newspapers report on youths has not. The crucial element for understanding the reaction to youth gangs by society is to question the nature of the information gathered by the mass media (McCombs, 2004). Therefore, the following chapter will offer an analysis of British newspapers to see how youths are portrayed, how statistics are used and if these articles offer a true and factual insight into youth gangs and crime or if the articles are stereotypical and based on fiction.

Media representations of youth gangs throughout newspapers


The concept of youth gangs has gathered considerable media attention throughout the last 60 years and much attention has been given to the role of the youth gang (Esbensen & Tusinski, 2007). The popular image portrayed by the media is that youth gangs are becoming more formally organized, more threatening to society and should therefore be feared (Howell, 1998). Also, the image portrayed of youth gangs within British media is largely dependent on statistical data and the subsequent reinforcement of this data in the popular press today (Thompson et al, 2000). Figures show more than half of the stories about teenage boys in national and regional newspapers in the past year (4,374 out of 8,629) were about crime. The word most commonly used to describe them was “yobs” (591 times), followed by “thugs” (254) and “feral” (96 times) (Garner, 2009). These claims are supported by a range of newspaper articles from both broadsheet and tabloid which will be discussed now.

In 2015 a newspaper article stated that ‘children as young as seven are being lured into street gangs’ (Fearn, 2015). Other newspapers stated this fact with articles declaring that ‘kids aged 10 are being caught with guns and thousands more are involved with gangs’ (Pettifor, 2016). These two articles sparked huge moral panic into how younger children are being linked and involved with youth street gangs. However, the statistics show that over 1,500 children were involved within this statistic, but the large majority were aged over 14. This was not highlighted by the media at the time and therefore installed moral panic within society due to articles bending the truth so that individuals believe that it was all children aged 10. The statistic was also generated over a three year time period from 2013 to 2016. The way in which the media used this statistic shows how easy it is for the media to bend real statistics to increase moral panic around the concept of youth gangs (Home Office, 2016). Newburn (2007) states that ‘all media appears to exaggerate the true extent of a violent crime within Britain’ and this is because of the need to sell newspapers resulting in newsworthiness crime narratives.

Moral panic was also heightened due to the announcement of police funding cuts in 2011. The central funding provided to the police was cut by 20% between the years 2011 and 2015 (Johnston and Politowski, 2016). As most of the funding provided was essentially used on the pay of officers throughout the UK, the cuts had an effect on the size of the workforce. Forces throughout the UK were expected to reduce their forces by 34,100, however by 2015 the total decline of workforces totaled 37,400 (Johnston and Politowski, 2016). During this time the media reported the police cuts in regards to crime rates among youths. The Guardian published an article which stated that, ‘police cuts were blamed for 23% rise in youth gang offences’ (Topping, 2015). From this, society viewed Britain as more dangerous than ever with youths committing crimes on the streets but due to a large decrease in the police workforce, there was no authority to stop the crimes. Due to this large moral panic among society around youths, newspaper articles began to over exaggerate the extent of youth gangs with multiple newspapers referring to a ‘gang war being waged on British streets’ (Symonds, 2012). However, official statistics reveal that in relation to youth crime, involving firearms and knives, the amount of crime rose by 2,270 offences from 2013/14 to 2014/15 (Politowski, 2016). This contradicts what was cited in the newspaper article as this is not an increase of 23%. This could therefore show how newspapers use techniques of moral panic to increase society’s perception of youth gangs in a negative light. It should also be noted that the newspaper article above highlighted statistics from London. Although major cities such as London and Liverpool, show above average for England in terms of firearm offences (Young, 2009) and findings from Home Office found that youths within these areas are more likely to possess a firearm, there is no evidence as such to suggest that any of these rises in crime are gang related. Therefore, any statistical evidence used by the media is usually based on violent crime data and not the specific data of gang crime and therefore highlights crime on a large scale involving all groups and not the niche statistics of youth groups. 

This reporting of serious statistics and crime stories around youth gangs in the media has led to a large moral panic among society around the idea of youth gangs. This in turn has led to many government responses. This current political and media representation of ‘blaming youths’ for all social evils that occur is placed in the context of changing national and local agendas (Schissel, 1997). In 2015, as a follow up to the 2011 riots, new offences of threatening behaviour with a knife in a public place or school were put in place. £1.2 million was also funded to 13 schools to help young girls who may be involved with youth gang culture. Gang injunctions were also put into place for those under 18 and were available to police and local authorities. A gang injunction is similar to an ASBO as it also imposes restrictions on individuals which prevents them from being in specific areas, wearing ‘gang colours’ and there overall aim is to prevent an individual from participating or encouraging gang-related violence (Home Office, 2011). However, gang injunctions have been criticised by many as they do not tackle the prevention of young individuals joining a ‘gang’. The use of gang injunctions also solely target the violence committed by youth gangs. Brand and Ollerearnshaw (2008) argue that from doing this, the police and other agencies are not taking into account other risk factors that are associated and are therefore failing to address ‘needs of vulnerable adolescents’.

Finally there was changes to firearms legislation in the new anti-social behaviour, crime and policing bill which is currently going through parliament (Home Office, 2016). In previous years over £18 million of funding between 2011-2013 has been committed with a focus on large cities such as London, Manchester and the West Midlands (Home Office, 2011). This funding has also been used to involve community based projects to reduce the use of firearms and knives among youths.  This funding was from the response to high profile murders involving youths such as Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Tayler, who were murdered by a gang of youths, which led to police projects such as Tackling Gangs Action Programme which was created with the aims to build on existing work to reduce serious violence, as well as the use of firearms, by young people involved in gang activity. The programme was only in affect for 6 months but in this short time provided a published guide for local authorities on preventing gang memberships and devising strategies which is still available today (Home Office, 2011).


To conclude it is clear that throughout the UK there is still problems today with the concept of what constitutes a ‘youth gang’. It is also clear that the idea of what the difference is between ‘youth gangs’ and youth subcultures is still not clear in today’s society. From this dissertation it is clear that definitions by both Esbensen (2000) and Alleyne and Wood (2011) are correct in a sense as ‘youth gangs’ typically meet the features mentioned by them. However the definitions are not clear in expressing the difference between youth gangs and youth subculture groups which can lead to confusion and mislabeling as youth subcultures can involve the same age bracket, shared views and fashion as a ‘youth gang’ but may not entail the same level as violence and criminal behaviour. Therefore, despite all this attention paid to ‘youth gangs’ by researchers, the concept of ‘youth gangs’ still remains ill-defined and unclearly characterized (Howell, 2007). 

In relation to the emergence of youth gangs within the UK, it can be seen that the idea of a group of youths hanging around together and sharing the same ideologies has been present throughout history dating back to the Mods and Rockers, Skinheads, Hippies and Punks. However, these subculture groups were labelled as ‘gangs’ and ‘delinquents’ due to the minority of splinter groups present. Although most of these youths did not participate in criminal behaviour they were labelled, judged and stereotyped by the media and this in turn led to a huge moral panic around these subcultural groups, which was not necessarily needed. The concept of the ‘gang label’ has effectively led to events and groups which may not be ‘gang related’ being defined as such (Marshall et al, 2005). Essentially from this, it can be seen that youth subcultures are judged and stereotypically related to previous youth subcultures who society may have viewed as delinquent or gangs. It is also clear that ‘gangs’ pre 1980 were subjected to splinter groups who may have occasionally been involved in small scale crime compared to ‘gangs’ post 1990 which was involved in violent, dangerous crime involving organized crime including drug trafficking. This would therefore suggest that youth crime gangs are present within the UK, due to this relating to the definitions provided above yet it is evident that because of these youth delinquent groups other youths who join together through fashion, music and political ideologies are being swept into the phenomena of being labelled as ‘youth gangs’.

The moral panic highlighted around youths is also a problem that needs to be resolved. Many newspapers are using statistical data which may not be entirely true to create a large moral panic around ‘youth gangs’. The way in which the media bends real statistics to increase moral panic around the concept of youth gangs (Home Office, 2016) has been highlighted throughout this dissertation. As previously mentioned, Newburn (2007) states that ‘all media appears to exaggerate the true extent of a violent crime within Britain’ and this is because of the need to sell newspapers resulting in newsworthiness crime narratives. Therefore it is clear throughout this dissertation that although ‘youth gangs’ are present throughout British society, only a small scale possess the complete traits to be labelled as this. It is clear that the ‘gang label’ is heavily thrown around to describe youth subcultures purely because they have the same ideologies but most of these youths do not own firearms or weapons and are not involved in violent or criminal behaviour therefore they cannot be labelled as a gang. Recommendations from this dissertation finds that to remove the stigma and moral panic associated with youths, a clear and well defined definition of ‘youth gangs’ needs to be created and that a definition for youth subcultures also needs to be created. The reasoning for this is because many of the newspaper articles highlighted throughout this assignment are based on crimes committed by those under the age of 18, who may have acted alone and may not be involved with a type of ‘gang’. dlocked0


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