Anatomy of Moral Panic: the 'list of 88' and runaway constructionism

Willem de Lint, Derek Dalton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This article explores a high-profile review of cases of alleged historical investigatory police bias in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, referred to in The New York Times article, “When Gangs Killed Men for Sport: Australia Reviews 88 Deaths.” The title of the article contains the terms of a well-known feature of moral panic—a discovered crime fact and demand for an enforcement response disproportionate to the fact. Our analysis explores the response to the review of the list of cases, Strike Force Parrabell, as an illustration of runaway constructionism. Demand group-interest in the positive designation of the cases (as bias crime) was a means of acknowledging the prejudicial conduct of police during a time of wider attitudinal change. In spearheading the verification of this list of cases, demand groups and crusaders placed a high semiotic burden beyond its capacity as a comparable objective measure. The fitness of the list of 88 cases as a totem for police and societal wrongdoing requires evidence regarding disproportionality based on valid and reliable measures. Despite worldwide interest in NSW for its comparative high ranking in gay bias homicides, however, such ranking does not exist. Nonetheless, despite the impossibility that it stands in as proof of decades long prejudice, corruption or criminal negligence, the list of cases appears to do so anyway. As such, it is illustrative of the occupation of media frames and formats by weak data or of the runaway character of crime stories in an era of “fake news.”
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)723-743
Number of pages21
JournalCritical Criminology
Issue number4
Early online date9 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • moral panic
  • police bias
  • police crime
  • gay homicide
  • gay men
  • decriminalisation


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