The theory of moral panic refers to a mass movement based on false or exaggerated perceptions that a given cultural behavior or grouping of people is hazardously deviant; thus, threatens a society’s interests and values. A moral panic refers thus to the intensity of emotion expressed in a given population about an issue which appears to threaten the soicial order. Moral panics are normally fuelled by media coverage of some social issues. This phenomenon was first illustrated in 1972 with a relation to ‘Mods and Rockers’ groups in the 1960s. The theory has since been illustrated in various occurrences like the ritual satanic abuse that occurred in 1980s, and the controversy of pedophilia, which resulted to vigilante actions against innocent people. Most recently, the theory can be used to illustrate the controversies in Live Cattle Exports in Australia in 2011 (Bargh, 2005, p. 5).

Live export refers to interstate or international borders transport of live farm animals. Australia has the largest live export industry in the world. The industry majors in exporting cattle and sheep. In 2009 only, the live export industry earned Australia $996.5 million and enabled the employment of 10000 people living in regional and rural Australia. In the year 2005, it is estimated that 572,799 cattle and 4.2 million sheep were exported to Asia and the Middle East, among other countries in the world. Most of the livestock exported is for meat although there is growing business in breeding stock, mostly of dairy cattle (Tepper, 2009, p. 280).

There is growing opposition to the live cattle export trade from the Australian Greens. This has seen the government of Australia being placed on consistent pressure to outlaw the practice. Indeed, on 7 June 2011, the government enforced a temporary ban on cattle exports to Indonesia, which is Australia largest market for livestock (80 percent of Australia’s annual exports of livestock are taken up by Indonesia). This followed a media expose by a leading news organization about the abuse of animal rights in Indonesian slaughterhouses. This expose, leaked to the media house by a group of animal-rights activists, lead to widespread public outcry about live cattle exports in Australia. Opponents of the live export in Australia are now calling for a permanent export ban relating to all animals and to all countries. This essay will argue that the 7 June 2011 ban on cattle exports to Indonesia was influenced by moral panic.

The decision to ban the live export trade to Indonesia was largely caused by the media footage which depicted the cruelty Australian cattle underwent in Indonesian abattoirs. The decision was hurried and no time was allowed to look at the other side of the story. The public bought every proposition fronted by the media house and demanded immediate action, without caring to critic on the issue. Media houses have of late had a tendency of operating as public relations and lobbying firms (Hier, 2002b, p. 50). They have succumbed to campaign journalism instead of concentrating on the business of how to get and report accurate news. Reporters argue that they are duty-bound to expose incompetence, violations in policy, and the like. However, this is only true when reporting is based on facts, and is balanced. On the other hand, when reporting is biased and unrepresentative, it only serves to appeal to emotions, instead of reason. As a result, rush decisions are made, like the ban of live Cattle Exports in Australia in 2011. The theory of moral panic was evidently at play with this rush decision. Let us look at how the Australian live cattle decision of 2011 has the characteristics of moral panic (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994, p. 25).

The Characteristic Concern

In a moral panic, there is usually awareness that the particular behavior of the group/category in question has a negative impact on society. This means that the public should be aware that there is a particular habit against their traditional moral convictions. A force may come into play in case they are not informed, to make the group aware.

This characteristic was evident in the case of live Cattle Exports in Australia in 2011. The footage by the media house acted to convince the public that something terribly wrong was happening right under its nose. The cruelty to Australian animals shown in the footage was out rightly against the laws, principles, beliefs, and convictions that the Australian nation stood for. The Australian public could not withstand this crude barbarism. It was clearly disturbing, and the very moral composition of the Australian public was threatened. Thus, the first characteristic of the theory of moral panic had been achieved here. The public cared about its social and moral standing, both through discuss the matter. It can be argued that the government’s failure to deliberate on the issue could have led to loss of trust from the public. The initial panic had indeed been set (Hier, 2008, p. 101).

The Evident Hostility

 In a moral panic, once concern has been achieved, there is usually an increase of feelings of hostility towards the group/groups in question. The target group becomes folk devils,and a clear distinction appears between them and us. This means that the accumulated hatred gets a target, and all effort is made to depict that target as offensive. Effort may be done to portray the group in question as evil, barbaric, backward, or just inherently evil. The public usually sees the questionable party as its nemesis.

In the case of Live Cattle Exports in Australia, Indonesia became the subject of the hostility. The media footage of Indonesian abattoirs served to portray the Indonesian society as ruthless and without all the civilization upheld by Australia. A mention of trade with Indonesia was nearly taboo in Australia. Australians saw the Indonesians as unthankful and thus undeserving people to involve in trade. Even the profits accrued from the past business overtures could not save Indonesia from the vitriol of the Australian public. The politicians, who are also the legislators, had to forgo their selfish business interests and play to the gallery in order not to lose their moral standing. There was near xenophobic feelings towards Indonesians. The unity in hostility was exceedingly great to such an extent that it took five weeks for anyone to question the accuracy of the media footage.

The Characteristic Consensus

It is noted that in moral panic, there must a widespread agreement that the group being questioned poses a real threat to society, even though the first point about concern may not have been nationwide. It is especially noteworthy in this stage that the victims of the cruelty (also referred to as the moral entrepreneurs) become vocal, and the aggressors of the act (also referred to as the folk devils) become portrayed as weak and disorganized.

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In Australia, it was largely agreed that the cruel handling of Australian cattle in Indonesia’s abattoirs was unacceptable and threatened the moral standing of the Australian people. It was simply that Australia could not stomach the cruelty meted on their cattle all in the name of trade. One Australian blogger effectively expressed his feelings of distaste for profiteering while remaining blind to the fate of the cattle by writing that Australians should not look at the money, they should look at the eyes of their cattle (Hier, 2002, p. 36).

In this case, the moral entrepreneurs were the Australian public, backed by their legislators. This group was setting the standards for how livestock ought to be treated by condemning cruelties and disrespect. They pointed that making a profit was not enough to justify atrocities against innocent livestock. They had their own acceptable standards on how to handle cattle, including how to kill them. On the other hand, the folk devils were the Indonesians and their abattoirs. The Australians were asking themselves how the Indonesian government could remain mum to search atrocities in its abattoirs. For instance, why was the Indonesian government blind to the inhuman conditions in its abattoirs?

The Indonesian government thus appeared weak as compared to the Australian government that took legal action in record nine days after the airing of the offending footage. This weak and disorganized appearance of Indonesia (the offending party) is particularly crucial in a moral panic in order to give the victim (Australia) the moral standing necessary to draw its strength and unity. This consensus led to the ban on live cattle export, and advised the now continued call for a permanent ban on live cattle export.

The Characteristic Disproportionality

In a moral panic, it normally happens that the action adopted is not proportional to the real threat set by the accused group. The decision is usually not backed by facts and reason, but by public opinions and need to appease emotions. Thus, the rulings are unusually fast and their implementation immediate. The long-term effects of such decisions are not given a thought, which gives rise to the unforeseen risks associated with the actions.

In the case of Australia, the government was very quick to implement the ban on live export of cattle. Earlier laws proposing the stop of exports to abattoirs not complying with Australian livestock standards were ignored, and a new law illegalizing the trade altogether passed. Passage of the law did not take into account the loss of revenue and jobs for the many Australians. The legislators did not even care to scrutinize the credibility of the media footage. The ban was ignorant to the many abattoirs in Indonesia that met the Australian standards of Abattoirs. Banning all exports of livestock because of the sins of one country also was not just to countries like China that had no history of such atrocities. However, all that seemed to matter at the time was appeasing the demands of the public. This decision was indeed very disproportionate to the threat posed by exporting livestock.

The Evident Volatility

One typical characteristic of a moral panic is that it is highly volatile and tends to disappear just as quickly as it appeared. This is usually caused by a decline in the public interest or due to news reporters changing to another topic. The public usually tends to tire from the topic, or starts to realize the folly of believing everything the media reported. The media, being ever alert to boost sales by giving interesting stories, shifts focus to a more promising story. This makes the story that lead to moral panic to lose focus and thus to wane.

The case was not different for Australia’s cattle export controversy, politicians and media houses began to question the credibility of the footage five weeks after the ban. They began to realize that there were some loopholes in the reporting and that the ban imposed could as well have been based on half-truths. These revelations threatened voter confidence in their elected officials, as the leaders were portrayed as making poor decisions based on groundless media campaigns. As the politicians shied away from the cattle export issue, Media houses characteristically refocused on the losses farmers were undergoing because of the ban. This lead to loss of the impetus the cattle export question had exhibited in the beginning.

Let us look at the criticisms of using moral panic theory to analyze the current controversy.

Not a Panic Persé

The use of the term panic in the theory has the ability of suggesting irrationality and lack of control. In the case of Australian cattle export ban, the use of the theory may thus portray the action as irrational and lacking any control. This may not be the actual case on the ground as Australian legislators had deliberated on the issue before adopting a common action. Thus, the ban was not caused by panic as the moral panic theory may depict. However, to justify the applicability of the theory, Cohen (1973, p. 9) has argued that the term panic is suitable when employed as an extended metaphor.


Other critics point that the there is no universal definition of disproportionality. It is argued that there is no possible way to measure or determine what a proportionate reaction is in a given action. Though   we may argue that wholesome banning of cattle export in Australia was not proportional to the threats caused by the trade, we may be at cross roads if asked to suggest a better solution (Huesmann, 1998, p. 100).

Indonesian Abattoirs are indeed Folk Devils

It has been argued that labeling the offending party as folk devils depicts them as vulnerable or unfairly maligned. However, there is the view that indeed some of these folk devils actually should get the bashing and not that they are being unfairly judged. In the case of Australia, it can be argued that the Indonesian authorities should not be seen as unfairly punished, but indeed, they deserve the action that was taken (Critcher, 2009, p. 30).

The above criticisms are minor propositions that cannot proportionate the arguments for the applicability of the theory of moral panic in the predicament of Australia’s live cattle export industry.

The Way Forward

 The essay has analyzed the situation of live cattle exports in Australia in 2011 using the moral panic theory. It has been shown that media houses can blindly influence the decisions of a country. The public is highly responsive to what they see and hear in the media. However, caution should be taken before making important decisions, for there is usually the other side of the coin. Future Australian legislators should realize the importance of the moral panic theory in their daily pursuits. This is in order to avoid regrettable decision making, similar to the ban on live cattle exports.

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