Don't pin down youth

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Journalists are only following the example of politicians in penning a torrent of lurid stories about yobs, neds and thugs, says Stuart Waiton

Following the Mori research that unsurprisingly found the media often portrays young people in a negative light, Margaret Hodge, the Youth Minister at Westminster, exclaimed: "It's almost getting to the point where it's OK to see every young person as a yob." The irony of this statement coming from a minister of a government obsessed with antisocial youth was apparently lost on Ms Hodge.

Following this research, a campaign has been launched by Young People Now, called "Positive Images", similar to the Citizen Y campaign in Edinburgh, which is attempting to highlight the more uplifting aspects of youth in the UK.

However, while I can appreciate the frustration of those groups concerned with the negative images of young people in the press, their focus on the media appears to be somewhat wide of the mark, as it is the Government, not newspapers, which has made the lives and behaviour of young people into a public issue.

The rise in stories about antisocial behaviour, for example, is not the result of malicious hacks, but a reflection of the political priorities of all the major political parties. In the 1980s, the crime panics of the day were more politically focused on alien muggers and violent trade unionists.

Today there are more than 1,000 articles a month in the press across the UK addressing the problem of antisocial behaviour.

Never-ending government legislation and local authority initiatives to deal with misbehaving youngsters - plus the activities, research and new rules and regulations developed by unions to protect their members from naughty children - means that antisocial "yobs", "neds" and "thugs" do in fact make for good copy.

Indeed, at a time when adults have less active involvement in politics than any other time in living memory, the lives of children have become increasingly politicised and as such are more open to media attention.

Love or loathe Margaret Thatcher, at least her battle was with adults and their moral and political values. Tony Blair and his Government, by contrast, are increasingly attempting to "get them while they're young" and hope to create a "self-aware, anti-racist, environmentally friendly social citizenry" via the education system. Even nursery schools are promoted as a way of resolving problems of antisocial behaviour and my son and daughter have been receiving marks at nursery for the past three years on their racial and environmental awareness.

Unfortunately, issues like racism are rarely understood politically. Like many other social problems, they are seen to be simply another form of antisocial behaviour needing to be modified by culturally aware educators.

Make working class kids more polite, stop them saying Paki and, presto, racism is defeated.

Campaigning for "Positive Images" of young people not only misses the point, it also in part stems from a problematic image of young people as victims of hurtful words. Rather than seeing young people as robust and dynamic, this campaign - like the Scottish Socialist Party's attempt to outlaw the use by politicians of the word ned, and also like the attempt to stop children using words like Paki or even fatty - starts from the assumed need to protect young people's fragile self-image.

Ironically, it is this understanding of young people and indeed of adults themselves as being fundamentally vulnerable that has led to the ever increasing politicisation and criminalisation of young people's behaviour.

Youth friendly radicals often attempt to scupper the portrayal of young people as yobs by arguing that, rather than young people being antisocial, they are more likely to be victims of crime and antisocial behaviour. But whose victims are they? The answer is, of course, that they are victims of other young people. Indeed the representation of young people as victims has actually encouraged the over-regulation of their lives both in school and on the streets.

Presenting young people as victims of ned-ranting tabloids can ultimately only help to reinforce the idea that young people need to be protected from the nasty words and deeds of their antisocial peers.

Stuart Waiton is a director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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