Youth Riots: Media Representations of the Riots in Bradford 2001 and Manchester 2011

The events of Summer 2011 in areas of England have provoked much debate within sociology. Numerous explanations have been mooted for the urban unrest, riots or ‘disorder events’ (Home Office 2011) such as the rise of the consumer society (Bauman 2011, Moxom 2011), economic inequalities (Grover 2011), timid policing (Gorringe and Rosie 2011) and discourses of race (Murji and Neal 2011, Solomos 2011). This paper compares and contrasts the Bradford ‘riot’ of 7 July 2001 and the urban unrest in Greater Manchester on 9th August 2011. In particular the focus is on how these two events were represented in the media, as this is a prevailing source of knowledge on events not actually witnessed first-hand (Jefferson 2011). Cohen (1972) suggests that moral panic is a media-orchestrated response of fear towards some group or individual ‘folk devil’, based on the perception that they are dangerously deviant and pose a menace to society. In the case of Bradford race was an undeniable factor in the events of 7 July 2001. Interestingly this was just months before the attack on the World Trade Center which resulted in increasingly divergent and antagonistic global media reports of the Muslim population (Spalek 2002, Abbas 2007). Arguably one modern folk devil is the Muslim extremist, scapegoated for being criminally blameworthy and socially problematic due to failure to ‘integrate’ (Massey and Singh-Tatla 2012). Race was also seen to be a catalyst for the urban unrest in August 2011 due to the shooting of a young man, Mark Duggan of African-Caribbean descent by police for no obvious reason, along with the police’s poor response to requests by the local community for answers, leading to looting of local shops in Tottenham (Solomos 2011). So there are links in terms of race when considering the events across England in August 2011 as a whole and the Bradford riot. However, it will be argued here that the Muslim extremist, or indeed any folk devil constructed around race, played no part in the events of August 9th 2011 in Greater Manchester, rather media reports placed the blame firmly at the feet of ‘feral’ youth.

This paper provided a media analysis of urban disorder in Bradford in 2001 and Greater Manchester in 2011. The main themes in reports on the former include (failed) multiculturalism, education, employment, racism, segregation and neo-fascist political groups such as the BNP and NF. Events in Greater Manchester were constructed in the media as concerning out of control youth, acts of immoral debauchery, vengeance and justice, a lack of policing and mindless violence. At first glance similarities between the two events are not obvious. We can certainly conclude the disturbances in Manchester were not a race riot. In addition there is no mention of ‘timid policing’ (Jefferson 2011) in Bradford. However, the sentences given for those arrested at Bradford authenticate more severity than those received by defendants in Manchester. On closer inspection there are affinities in media representations of the two events though. The presence of young people is mentioned in both accounts, though arguably there is more of a moral panic (Cohen 1972) around the alarmingly low age of those implicated in the Manchester disturbances than the ‘angry young men’ (Alexander 2004) embroiled in the Bradford ‘riot’. Also the ‘rioters’ have likenesses in terms of their economic and employment status, as all those involved were mostly unemployed and living in areas of multiple deprivation. The inclusion of the word ‘gang’ is apparent in media accounts of both events. Arguably this word has criminal connotations (Hallsworth and Young 2008, Ralphs et al 2009) though in reality it appears the media are simply referring to large groups of predominantly young people.

Perhaps what is most striking here though is the construction of the two incidents as mindless or obtuse, lacking any clear rationale or cause. Deeper investigation indicates that in fact the Bradford riot was in response to a very real threat of a BNP march on the city (Bagguley and Hussain 2003, Massey and Singh Tatla 2012). Similarly some media reports (most notably in The Guardian) on events in Manchester reveal a lack of confidence in the government, poverty and unemployment as possible motivating factors. There is also a discernible ‘folk devil’ (Cohen 1972) who has been scapegoated for all that is wrong with society (Young 1999) in media representations of both instances of urban disorder. In the case of Bradford it is the Asian youth who has become ‘the New Asian Folk Devil’ (Alexander 2000,2004) and post 9-11 is increasingly viewed as a fundamentalist, and if they associate with a group of Asians, the leap from ‘gang’ to terrorist cell is made all too convenient for the media (Massey and Singh Tatla 2010). In the instance of the Manchester ‘riots’ the blame is placed firmly at the feet of feral youth.


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*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Dr Joanne Massey

Dr Joanne Massey

Senior Lecturer in Cultural Criminology in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr Joanne Massey is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Criminology in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. She worked at Manchester Institute for Popular Culture from 1999- 2005 as a research assistant.

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