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Yobs, dogs, backpacks and deja vu...

THAT WE live in uncertain and worrying times is a fact that, sadly, none of us can escape. The newspapers, TV and radio are full of bad news, much of it extremely disturbing. Attacks by suicide bombers, the deaths of scores of innocent people, the police hunt for the bombers which leads them literally to our own back yards…

We are exhorted to carry on as normal, and that’s a view I take, but it does make you feel very nervous about travelling anywhere, especially on public transport and especially to London. Like it or not, the backpack terrorists have affected out day-to-day lives. It’s happened before, of course, but somehow the threat didn’t seem so immediate, so real as it does now.

But I’ve been experiencing an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu about all this bad news. To start with, some of the tabloids are whipping up hysteria to a very nasty extent. Just the other day one headline screamed that the 21/7 London bombers were all ‘asylum seeker benefit scroungers’.

The inference there is clear, if not said out loud. i.e. that ALL asylum seekers are benefit scroungers and potential terrorists. No matter how reasonable and open-minded one is, it’s difficult not to look at certain people of a Middle-Eastern or Asian appearance and feel a sense of apprehension. It’s ten times worse if they are wearing a backpack. Could they be the next suicide bombers? It’s not racist for me to give voice to this fear – it’s real, it’s a fact.

Just a few weeks ago though, in what now seems almost a lifetime ago, before the 7/7 London bombings, the headlines were screaming about attacks by gangs of ‘Hoodies’ – yobs wearing hooded tops. The whole ‘hoodie’ thing in itself is disturbing – my partner’s teenage sons wear hooded tops, and my 5 year-old son also loves his hoodie, but they’d never think of giving a total stranger a kicking for a laugh, or worse, film it on their mobile phones as part of the ‘happy slapping’ craze.

The image is clear though, and it all started with the Essex shopping centre that exercised its right to enforce a dress code and to ban teenagers wearing hooded tops. The tabloids seized on that, openly saying that only yobs wear hooded tops. I couldn’t help but smile wryly, because in one of the speeches I give about dog laws, I denounce the Dangerous Dogs Act and draw the comparison with the idea that just because a dog looks like a certain breed or ‘type’, then that dog is dangerous. I asked "Are the Government going to ban hooded tops? After all, we know that only yobs wear them." Talk about life imitating art! You couldn’t make it up, could you?
Mention of the Dangerous Dogs Act brings me to the whole feeling of déjà vu I’ve been experiencing about the tabloid hysteria recently.

Prior to 7/7, Hoodies were the new menace; every attack and incident was reported. Let’s not deny that some of the attacks were very nasty – three men died. But statistically and in reality, attacks by gangs of ‘hoodies’ weren’t happening any more than, say, ordinary muggings. However, to the tabloids, hoodies, teenagers, any teenager in a hoodie or even likely to wear a hoodie were yobs, thugs, murderers… Then all of a sudden, we had the backpack bombers and the hoodies were forgotten. Did the hoodie attacks just stop? Was happy slapping a mere memory? Or did the terrorists/asylum seekers/immigrants become the new media hate figures?

That’s where the déjà vu comes in – back in 1990, the tabloids were full of stories of attacks by ‘pit bulls’ or any big dog – and they openly said that only yobs and dog fighters owned such dogs. You couldn’t open a newspaper without some lurid dog attack story screaming at you. But then in the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussain invaded Iraq and yep, you’ve got it – the dog attacks (apparently) ceased. Saddam was the new hate figure – who needs dogs and yobs when you’ve got a mass-murdering dictator to hate?

Of course, once Kuwait was liberated in early 1991, dogs became the target again. Yes, there were a spate of particularly nasty dog attacks, and the media went into overdrive. Once again, every little dog attack incident was reported, or every dog incident full stop! One regional newspaper in Yorkshire ran its own ‘Devil Dogs’ campaign, calling for legislation to exterminate all such dogs (or at least have any big dog registered). In the absence of any real dog attacks to report, they started printing stories about stray dogs wandering down streets, causing people to be afraid, the sort of story that even a local freebie would have sneered at as un-newsworthy even on a slack news week. The headline ‘Stray Dog In Street’ doesn’t engender fear, does it?

But put that same story alongside a huge banner headline that say ‘Devil Dog Campaign’ and then say ‘Pit Bull Stalks Children In Street’ and that’s news for you!

The same newspaper even printed a very unsavoury story about the murder trial of a man accused of killing a young girl on the same page as their Devil Dog Campaign. The link? The man enticed the girl into his clutches by promising to show her his dogs – and the newspaper listed the fact that the dog were a GSD cross and a Bull Terrier cross. Why list the dogs’ breeds in a story about a child being murdered? Inference: Nasty crossbreeds owned by a murderer, therefore only murderers own dangerous dogs.

Of course, all the media hype led to the then Home Secretary Kenneth Baker enacting the ill-thought-out and draconian Dangerous Dogs Act, which led to years of misery for thousands of law-abiding dog owners, whose dogs were seized merely because they resembled a ‘type’ of dog that was allegedly dangerous. And then the whole concept of Breed Specific Legislation was spread throughout the world, where it still causes anguish and heartbreak to dog owners to this day.

I’m not saying that the media shouldn’t report bad news, but I am saying that journalists – and I’m a journalist too – should maintain a sense of proportion. Editors should refrain from nasty, ‘stirring’ headlines that victimise the innocent, merely because of the way they look, or where they come from. History shows us that vilification of one section of society leads to fascist laws – whether that section of society happens to be ethnic minorities, teenagers or dogs and their owners.

Like I said – déjà vu. And it worries me greatly…