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Congratulations, Michelle, on your new book Tough on Crime: The Rise of Punitive Populism in Latin America. Thanks for sitting down with us—your Global South Colleagues, Marlea Clarke, Reeta Tremblay, Guoguang Wu and Feng Xu—to explore in detail the concept of punitive populism and the role of neo-liberal media as you outline in the book.

Marlea Clarke: What an impressive comparative work on Argentina and Chile! You analyze nearly 200 interviews conducted from 2006 to 2015 with journalists, editors and producers as well as state and civil society actors who work in the area of crime control or police violence and particularly with those involved in the communication of either to the media. Before we ask you to describe the book and its findings, can you please briefly tell us – what do you mean by Punitive Populism?

Michelle Bonner: Punitive populism is a political strategy. It refers to leaders’ use of tough-on-crime rhetoric and policies to win elections and gain popular support.

Punitive populism is populist in the sense that it divides society into two irreconcilable groups. On the one hand, the leader creates the “people” through rhetoric and symbolism that represents diverse public demands that have resulted from some sort of rupture with the past, such as the implementation of neoliberal economic policies. The leader then uses what Laclau calls an “empty signifier” to unite these disparate demands around a single vague idea that justifies a punitive response, for example, “security”, “tough on crime” or even “human rights” (such as the human right to security). Once constructed the leader juxtaposes “the people” or “citizens” with “criminals” who threaten the security of the former in a zero sum manner.

Punitive populism is also punitive. The leader offers solutions to “the people’s” insecurity that are not based in criminological research or human rights commitments but rather a response to the leader’s perceived or constructed idea of public opinion demanding tough on crime policies. The policies and rhetoric call for, among other things: more police on the streets, with more powers to use discretion and possibly violence, more criminal laws, less oversight of the police, and harsher punishments for those judged by courts to be criminals. Not only do those solutions not decrease crime (and may increase it) and often increase human rights abuses, but it is also not necessarily what “the public” wants.

Feng Xu: Why did you write this book?

Michelle Bonner: In many countries, crime and insecurity are pressing and sensitive issues. They are political landmines where popular tough on crime solutions exist in tension with concerns for human rights.

Tough on crime rhetoric is sometimes articulated in a manner that very explicitly undermines human rights. For example, in 1999, during an electoral campaign to become governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, Carlos Ruckauf infamously stated: “Criminals should be shot/ Hay que meterle bala a los ladrones”. He won that election.

More often tough on crime positions are articulated with less colourful language. Instead, they simply, but emphatically, advocate for more police, greater police powers, and severer punishments.

In either case, the solutions emphasize an institutional and retributive response that sacrifices the rights of some in the name of security for others. Such solutions sit in opposition to both criminological research on crime control and international human rights agreements.

Public support for tough-on-crime rhetoric and policies is now common throughout Latin America, Europe, North America, the Antipodes, and parts of Asia and Africa. Recent examples of “tough-on-crime” presidents include Trump in the United States, Dutuerte in the Philippines, Sarkozy in France, and Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Certainly political leaders can win elections without using tough on crime rhetoric. Yet, many of these leaders have pursued tough on crime policies (or combined them with preventive programmes) once in office. Their change in strategy often follows a shift in perceived public opinion following a highly mediatized crime incident.

For example, in June 2010 Dieciocho gang members burned a bus in El Salvador, killing 17 passengers. In response to the significant media coverage and public outcry, President Funes introduced a new anti-gang law and deployed 2,800 military personnel to assist the National Civil Police in crime control.

Similar to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s slogan, “Tough on Crime. Tough on the Causes of Crime”, Funes justified his new approach in the following manner: “We know that in the long term the policies of social inclusion and prevention will deliver results, but in the short term the violence is being fought with repression. And this is what the government has been doing and will continue to do.”

As this example shows, the mass media play an important role in the dominance of “tough on crime” rhetoric and policies. This role is recognized in the large body of literature on the phenomenon. Yet ideally, in a democracy, the mass media are expected to act as a platform for debate for a plurality of perspectives and hold punitive rhetoric and policies to account.

Given the failure of the mass media in many countries to play this democratic role adequately, it becomes important to ask: Why do the mass media privilege tough on crime rhetoric and policies?

Marlea Clarke: Let me pick up from here. You argue in your book how media are organized. You point out that media systems matter. Can you expand on neo-liberalism, media and populism?

Michelle Bonner:In the book I argue that the neoliberal reform of media policies (most notably privatization and especially deregulation) and the resulting everyday communicational practices used by journalists, in interaction with state and civil society actors, are central to explaining the rise of punitive populism.

Together, these changes reduce the ability of the media to hold punitive rhetoric and policies to account, homogenize public opinion as punitive, and increase the saliency of crime and punitive ideas in policymaking. In this manner punitive voices come to dominate public and media discourse thus encouraging political leaders to use punitive populist strategies to win elections and popular support.

Political leaders usually derive their understanding of public opinion from one of three primary sources: elections; the mass media; and public opinion polls. Mass media play a particularly important role that has been shaped less by technological changes and more by the neoliberalization of media, which began in most countries in the 1990s. The neoliberalization of the media involved, in some instances, privatization, but more importantly, deregulation. Deregulation included eliminating or reducing restrictions on ownership across-mediums, in geographic territories, and across other business sectors. It has involved the elimination or reduction of content regulations that ensure coverage of issues or groups of people whose contribution to public debate and democracy are key but not commercially viable. In some countries, it has also involved the cutting or elimination of subsidies to media that focus on these issues, groups of people, and investigative journalism.

This new neoliberalized media system then encourages journalistic practices that decrease the role of the media in holding punitive populist leaders’ rhetoric and policies to account for their consequences, homogenizes the public as punitive, and increases the importance that political leaders place on the media in policymaking. More specifically, a neoliberalized media system discourages watchdog or investigative journalism because it is expensive and time consuming. Journalists are expected to produce more stories more often, with an emphasis on drama and entertainment. Crime is perfect. It is always there and it is good drama. Journalists are also more ready to accept public relations material to meet the increased demand for stories. This then reinforces the (often punitive) voices of powerful state and civil society who can afford expensive PR assistance.

The neoliberalized media system also encourages journalists to use proxies for public opinion, rather than use a diverse array of sources. The former is faster and cheaper. Common proxies are public opinion polls and select citizens or civil society organizations. Public opinion polls have a circular relationship with the media. Unless individuals have direct experience or knowledge with crime, most will answer polls based on what they know from the mass media. Since the neoliberalized mass media favour crime stories and punitive voices, this then is reflected in public opinion polls.

Similarly, those citizen or civil society organizations journalists choose to represent public opinion are those that are the most convenient, given their time constraints. These tend to be victims of crime (who also provide drama) and civil society organizations whose ideas are consistent with the police and victims of crime (because it appears to be common sense). All of this then contributes to the increased salience of crime as a policy issue and the rise of punitive populism as a good political strategy for political leaders hoping to be re-elected. This is true of political leaders on the political left or right, classical populists and non-populists.

Guoguang Wu: In the book you talk about three major findings: decreased accountability, the homogenization of public opinion, and the mediatization of policymaking. Can you talk briefly about each of these?

Michelle Bonner: Punitive populism is not necessarily a problem for democracy as long as the ideas, emotions, policies, and their consequences are held to account. Neoliberal media systems decrease the mass media’s role in accountability in two key ways: First, through reduced watchdog journalism and, second, through the increased use of public relations (PR) material.

Watchdog journalism acts as an important check on punitive populism. By spending time on a story and collecting a wide range sources, journalists are in a better position to: present a strong, context-based, analysis of the problem; offer a wide array of solutions; and, explain and follow-up on the consequences of each solution. In this manner, if punitive policies produce human rights abuses, including police violence, journalists are more likely to expose this and demand answers.

Guoguang Wu: Sorry to interrupt you, but isn’t watchdog journalism expensive?

Michelle Bonner: Yes, watchdog journalism is expensive. It requires journalists to spend an extended period of time on one story, rather than on many stories, and may require additional funds to pay for the investigation itself. Neoliberal media systems prioritize profit over democratic goals. To increase profit, media outlets cut the number of journalists on staff and require that they produce more stories more often. Watchdog journalism can attract audiences (increasing revenue) but so can drama, and the latter is less expensive.

The increased demands on journalists to produce stories leads to their reliance on fewer sources and increases the media outlet’s preference for sensationalist front page crime stories. Such stories are plentiful, cheap, and dramatic. A preference for crime stories favours the police as a source and a reticence on the part of the mass media to then criticize or hold them accountable for fear that they will lose access to this source. This reduces the likelihood of critical reporting on police violence and the punitive populist rhetoric and policies that encourages it.

The neoliberal media system’s pressure on fewer journalists writing more stories more often, makes journalists open to uncritically using public relations material. This makes the mass media then vulnerable to reinforcing the views, ideas, and interests of powerful political, economic, and civil society voices, as these are the actors most able to produce regular, high quality, professional PR material. The aim of PR material is to promote the legitimacy of the producer of the PR and prime audiences to see their views, ideas, and interests as “common sense”, and thus not in need of accountability.

Those state and civil society actors most able to produce professional PR material are those most likely to favour punitive approaches to crime control, notably the police and security/crime oriented civil society organizations. PR material that offers human rights stories of police violence resulting from punitive policies, while potentially dramatic, risks alienating the police as a primary source of information on crime. In this manner, PR material, uncritically reproduced, reduces the role of the mass media in holding powerful actors, with punitive ideas, to account for the consequences of those ideas.

Neoliberal media systems also tend to decrease the pluralism of public opinion because journalists face pressures to homogenize it. In particular journalistic practices favour the more cost-effective use of proxies for public opinion (which tend to homogenize) instead of a diverse array of sources. The most common proxies are public opinion polls, and selective citizens or civil society organizations.

Marlea Clarke: Let me jump in here. What is the relationship between the public opinion polls and punitive populism?

Michelle Bonner: Public opinion polls grew in popularity with the spread of neoliberal media policies. While public opinion polls vary in quality, most have a circular relationship with the media. That is, unless the individual responding has firsthand knowledge or experience, then most people respond to polls based on impressions gleaned from the mass media. Since punitive state and civil society voices dominant in the mass media these perspectives are reflected and reinforced in public opinion polls. These polls then confirm that “the public” (in the singular) desire punitive crime policies and legitimize punitive populist leaders’ policy choices.

Reeta Tremblay: Where do citizens fit in this picture?

Michelle Bonner: Journalists sometimes use individual citizens and civil society organizations as proxies for public opinion. In neoliberal media systems, journalists are encouraged to use proxies over an array of sources to help increase the number and speed of stories they produce. The citizens and civil society organizations preferred as proxies are those that are readily available and, ideally, add to the drama of the story. Victims of crime are ideal. Civil society organizations whose ideas confirm, rather then challenge, the perspective of the police are also common proxies as they avoid alienating a primary news source. Owing to their consistency with the police, these voices are familiar to journalists and audiences and therefore are more likely to resonate as “true” or even “common sense”. Punitive populist leaders can then use their own and audiences’ self-identification with victims as an empty signifier that unites “citizens” against “criminals”.

Certainly clientelism in Argentina and political alignment in Chile, as well as additional social movement strategies, can create political opportunities for human rights organizations to oppose punitive populism and reveal its implications for police violence. Yet, in a neoliberal media system, these opportunities are not consistently available and thus limit the ability of these organizations to shift dominant media frames.

Feng Xu: Let’s get back to findings of the book. What about the third finding: Mediatization of Policymaking?

Michelle Bonner: Mediatization of policymaking is when policymakers select and advocate for particular policies based on how well they are likely to be covered in the mass media. Thus while the rise of punitive populism can be explained through the negotiations and influence of an array of political and economic actors at the local, provincial, national, and international levels, media often play an important role in these negotiations and the ideas that emerge as dominant.

Neoliberal media systems favour some ideas in these debates over others. A neoliberalized media system favours more punitive policy choices than others. This is the result of two key issues related to the salience of crime and the prominence given to the voices of victims and the police.

In democracy, political actors address a large array of policy issues. Crime has not always been a central area of policy concern. Neoliberal economic policies opened up a large array of policy concerns related to insecurity, which include but are not limited to crime. Yet neoliberal media systems encourage journalistic practices that provide extensive, prominent, and regular coverage of crime to increase audience size and thus revenue.

Story frames tend to be episodic (what is happening now, not context) to emphasize drama and emotion. The repetition of these stories as agenda setting news and their selective use of available statistics on common crime (defined as robbery, theft and homicide) prime audiences to view this issue as the most important facing their country and the basis upon which to evaluate political leaders’ performance. These practices then increase the salience of crime as a policy issue.

For reasons discussed throughout the book, neoliberal media systems favour crime stories and rely heavily on victims and the police as sources. This then strengthens these actors’ views, ideas, and interests in policy debates. Political and civil society actors whose perspectives align with the views of victims and the police will find their policy frames resonate as familiar with the public. Human rights organizations or those concerned with police violence are more likely to find their views marginalized or even presented as disrespectful to the police and victims of crime.

Reeta Tremblay: Thank you very much, Michelle. You have given us excellent insights into the role of media in defining democracy, yet you caution us that democratic media, uncensored by the state, can produce undemocratic outcomes. In part, this is because some democratic media systems are more supportive of the democratic role of the media, than are others. The priority in a neoliberal market-based media system is profit, not democracy.

Thus, understanding democratic media systems (in the plural), and the journalistic, state, and civil society practices each produce, is important to our understanding of when and how media strengthen democracy, and when they weaken it. This is particularly important to our understanding of the rise of punitive populism and the implications it has for human rights, especially police violence.

Michelle Bonner: Yes. In this this book I show that neoliberal media systems encourage communicational practices that favour punitive voices, which results in a mass media construction of insecurity that supports the rise of punitive populism. Media reform is thus an integral part of building a stronger democracy, more successful crime control, and increased accountability for police violence. Through understanding the details of the types of communicational practices used by journalists, state actors, and civil society organizations that encourage punitive populism, we can begin to identify the types of changes that might reduce it.

Thanks again, Michelle.