Betrayal and Fear: Press Coverage of Canadian Skinheads

Murray Forman (Concordia University)

Abstract: This paper examines the ways in which skinheads and the press in Canada mutually engage in public strategies to subvert each other's significatory powers. Arguably, skinheads present a limited challenge to the social mainstream which, like their style, exists primarily on the surface. In analyzing the media response, the discursive containment of subcultural resistance is revealed as news reports retain the social order of the existing institutional structure. As skinheads attempt to draw attention to themselves and to society's hidden contradictions, the media exploit their spectacularity, transforming it into a saleable news commodity.

Résumé: Cet article propose une étude des façons dont les "skinheads" et la presse au Canada se livrent un duel sur la place publique dans le but de subvertir leurs significations et leurs pouvoirs respectifs. On reconnaît qu'à première vue les "skinheads" posent un défi à la majorité de la société. L'analyse de la réponse des médias révèle que le discours de la presse atténue la dimension rebelle de cette sous-culture et tend à renforcer l'ordre social et la structure institutionnelle établis. Les "skinheads" veulent attirer l'attention sur eux-mêmes et sur les contradictions de la société; les médias exploitent leurs côtés spectaculaires à des fins commerciales.

What shocked me most was what a brutal and savage experience being a teenager has become in the 80s....The whole essence of this generation seems to be betrayal and fear.

Paul Kaihla, Maclean's

It is clear that people who denounce deviance may at the same time have a vested interest in seeing deviance perpetuated, at least temporarily, until the phenomenon loses its "sales value."

Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics

The Canadian press have been instrumental in introducing skinhead activity to public discussion through various forms of news coverage. As social constructs, skinheads and the press encompass two distinct and active systems of codification and, subsequently, two sites of contention for examination. The question of how meaning is drawn from a loosely organized subcultural group converges, from a theoretical perspective, with questions of how meaning is derived from the press as a highly organized institutional structure. The challenge lies, then, in differentiating the forms of articulation motivated by both skinheads and the press and in characterizing their underlying relationship. This study seeks to explore some of the ways in which these factors of difference interact (or collide) according to powerful ideological forces which are often at variance with each other.

Subcultures and the Media: Centre/Periphery Dynamics

The analysis of media coverage of youth subcultures provides an insight to the ways in which subculture members are perceived and responded to in society as well as providing a perspective on how these perceptions are constructed. Their relationship is also relevant to an understanding of the dynamic that yields information about how youth is understood in broader social contexts and how conformity as a social ideal is articulated through Western institutional bodies. The media's relationship to subcultures is highly mediated by various social elements as both factions continually interact within environments defined by, for example, legal criteria, economic class differentiation, access to social policy-making practices, etc. It should be noted that both subcultures and the media have an important public profile which, though separated by differences in their actual power, provides a common link that influences their mutual involvement and dependency.

As a prominent cultural institution, the media are strongly associated with the privileges of social dominance and are actively involved in the process of "consensus building." They are situated in a central social position enabling them to inscribe certain preferred ideological values and attitudes over those alternative, oppositional or resistant propositions emanating from the social periphery. Social authority articulated from the centre is motivated by references to that which is without privilege, or that which is "Other." Barthes (1972) grounds his definition in class-based relations whereby the upper- or middle-class member is "unable to imagine the Other...the Other is a scandal which threatens his essence." The Other is a referent of human difference generally demarcated by standards of measure including (but not solely dependent on) class and the occupation of social space "other" than that of the ruling elite. The Other, in attempting to inscribe its own meanings outside of the restrictions of the hierarchy, must continually confront the powers of domination with the ensuing struggle for power over the construction of meaning and control of representation being intrinsic to centre/periphery relations. The power to make meaning or even to gain access to the means of signification becomes the "prize" as the opposing factions of centre/periphery relations attempt to define reality according to their own ideological imperatives. As Hall (1982) notes, meaning is made in the negotiation among the various discourses and conflicting "voices" in society, found between the different articulations of reality. Clearly, this interaction does not take place in a vacuum but in the chaos of daily experience where each group may at once exert influence or absorb effects from other groups. The media, acting as social monitors, attempt to apprehend subcultural otherness and to comment on its deviation from the social mainstream. By focusing on what is new, different, or dangerous, the media fulfill the established mandate they have set for themselves as the official voice which contextualizes occurrences and events within the existing social order.

One must remain mindful, however, that the media are not a homogeneous or monolithic entity in society. They exist in a variety of forms (for example, broadcast or print, and within the printed media, in various formats including broadsheet, tabloid, magazine, etc.) and are often in competition for a limited audience (with a limited attention span). This can -- and often does -- lead to some interesting differences in the coverage of popular events and issues. Still, excluding what might be referred to as "alternative" media, there is a consistency in coverage which remains generally supportive of the present social structure and reinforces the existing social order.

Discursively functioning as dominant institutional voices, the press and other media organs in Canada reinforce and reproduce their own power, naturalizing social relations which are in fact structured according to an institutional order of significance and legitimacy. Subcultures in general, and skinheads in particular, also initiate their own discursive mechanisms, creating a symbolic code of meanings which is, at least initially, unreadable or "foreign" to the media and other key institutions. This results in tension as the controlling forces in society see their power to inscribe meaning subverted, if only momentarily, placing them in a reactive posture as they scramble to reassert their dominance by reclaiming the order which subcultural signification has disrupted.

Subcultural Theory, Signification, and the Skinhead Identity

Sociologists have displayed a particular fascination and interest in youth subcultures since the mid-1960s. The contributions of the University of Birmingham's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (under the guidance of founder Stuart Hall) and numerous British scholars (including Chambers, Chibnall, P. Cohen, S. Cohen, Hebdige, McRobbie, among others) have established the legitimacy of subcultural studies and have had a determining influence on much of the subsequent research conducted in this field of interest. Indeed, contemporary studies of subcultural phenomena are deeply indebted to these early projects and must, at some point, inevitably refer to them for historical context. Accordingly, this study owes a great deal to British subcultural theory as it provides a fundamental basis and serves as a preliminary point of departure.

As Chibnall (1977) suggests, subcultures posit a "challenge to the hegemony of the national interest" in their intentional opposition to the status quo. Subcultural youth, as the social Other to the parent culture, produce new codes and means of signification, new meanings and ways of meaning, which "take on a symbolic dimension, becoming a form of stigmata, tokens of self-imposed exile" (Hebdige, 1979, p. 2). The exile to which Hebdige refers is the element of subcultural activity that society grapples with and which the media either overlook or explain weakly. In their style, poses, and general disaffiliation from mainstream values, subculture members aim to set themselves apart from the parent culture as well as from other youth groups, for "the communication of a significant the `point' " to the stylistic expressions of subcultures (1979, p. 102). Emphasizing their difference, subcultures make a "spectacle" of themselves, drawing attention to their otherness. Their look and activities announce an attempt to expose the myths of a homogeneous society and naturalized social consensus.

Although most subcultural theorists initially focused on the significance of style and its resistant potential, many of their claims have since been reassessed and subjected to new critical consideration. For example, Hebdige's more recent work (1988) in several instances draws attention to earlier overstatements which were the result of what he now regards as a "narrow" analytic framework. In another relevant case, McRobbie's (1988) analysis of youth style and the consumption of used clothing illustrates how British subcultural theorists in the 1970s often valorized the innovation of youth style, describing the commercial endeavours (from street sellers to the more trendy alternative fashion boutiques) which emerged concurrently with various subculture groups as examples of the appropriative machinery of capitalism. Her updated critique of early subcultural analysis consequently includes an examination of the important role of the clothes trade and the accompanying commercial infrastructure that has gained prominence as youths seek out alternative garb. Indeed, this could be expanded to include the rise of young alternative hairstylists who have merged their creative abilities with the tastes of the street-level subculture members.

While few would argue that the stylistic expression of the early punk scene, as one case, was lacking in "symbolic creativity" or that it was based on a completely arbitrary set of juxtapositions, they might not go quite so far as they once did in defending its disruptive possibilities. Style may indeed contain elements of a confrontational nature, for as style demarcates difference, difference can lead to conflict. There is a certain degree of empowerment in upsetting the equilibrium of social expectations and disrupting the norms and ideals of the status quo. Even though difference can be communicated through sartorial signification, however, many subcultural theorists imbued style with an inflated capacity for resistance which may have more to do with the potential for shock than any actual refusal. Clearly, a strategy of refusal based on styles and poses offers few solutions to the problems faced by unemployed or otherwise disfranchised youths, nor does it bring about actual change. Furthermore, the ambiguity, contradictions and inconsistencies of stylistic expressivity among youths, compounded by the extreme rapidity of change and transformation across various subcultural groups, makes access (not to mention analysis) a problematic venture for those attempting to read between the safety pins and find meaning in the mayhem. Hebdige, in re-working his perceptions on subcultural signification, sums it up quite succinctly:

A fragmented picture emerges, one which fails to correspond with the neat separations perpetuated within the official discourses of responsible commentary, concerned reportage and social scientific analysis. "Politics" and "pleasure," crime and resistance, transgression and carnival are meshed and confounded....The "subcultural response" is neither affirmation nor refusal, neither "commercial exploitation" nor "genuine revolt." It is neither simply resistance against some external order nor straightforward conformity with the parent culture. It is both a declaration of independence, of otherness, of alien intent, a refusal of anonymity, of subordinate status. It is an insubordination. And at the same time it is also a confirmation of powerlessness, a celebration of impotence. (1988, pp. 34-35)

There is also an element of the prevailing notion of resistant youth that might be explained as being a construction of the very social bodies of the parent culture which are ostensibly being rebelled against. This is reinforced through the mass media and cultural products such as music television, movies, recorded music, and the press. Social institutions, including the press (both mainstream and those fashion, music, and lifestyle publications aimed at youths themselves), reinforce the stereotypical concept of resistant youth by repeatedly summoning forth descriptive characteristics and traits which have been in place since the post-war emergence of a youth culture with time and money to spare. From these images passed down from the parent culture, youths acquire their own self-conception which may arguably contain a very real element of resistant intent, but which offers a limited challenge to the controlling structures of dominance and social order. Indeed, as Attallah points out, "youth culture generally conceives of itself as being opposed to the culture of its elders, as being more sexually liberated, less encumbered by prejudice, more imaginative, and so on" (1987, p. 24). The concept of resistant youth today might be defined as a social construct based on recycled images from roughly the past 45 years, having gained a certain social legitimacy through the events of the fifties and sixties when youth achieved a high level of public exposure and notoriety.

As far as skinheads are concerned, stylistic spectacularity is an important element of their social identity and of their general "statement." In explaining skinhead origins, however, it is necessary to identify two stages of emergence. The primary, or initial stage is based on evolutionary changes in youth expressiveness in post-World-War-II Britain. Preceded by subculture groups such as the teddy boys, rockers, and mods, skinheads first became visible in England toward the mid-to late-sixties. By virtually all accounts (Hebdige, 1979; Brake, 1980; Chambers, 1986) "the skin comes from a declining economy, that of the white, manual, working class" (Chambers, 1986, p. 4) and is a direct offshoot of the "hard mods" who were breaking rank from the style-conscious consumerism of the general mod movement. They constructed a tougher image to counter, among other things, the "dandy" image of the "soft" mods and the rise of the more "feminine" hippies.

Adopting a look that borrowed equally from West Indian "rude boys" and the British working class, skinheads were identified by their short-legged jeans, Fred Perry shirts, braces (suspenders), Doctor Marten brand work boots (Doc Martens), and the trademark razor-cut hairstyle. Among youths who tried at every step to upgrade their wardrobes through a blend of stylistic invention and street-smart moxie, skinheads were anomalies. Their stylistic expression refused both the dominant social trends and the pretence of fancier youth styles as if they were one and the same. Stylistically, skinheads stated their allegiance with the black West Indians who, like themselves they reasoned, were the trash of modern society, confined to manual labour positions and fluctuating between "shit-work" and the dole. As P. Cohen suggests, "the skinhead uniform itself could be interpreted as a kind of caricature of the model worker -- the self-image of the working-class as distorted through middle-class perceptions; a metastatement about the whole process of social mobility" (1972, p. 25). Cohen's description suggests the possibility that skinhead expressivity is actually a highly motivated significatory act that has as its referent symbols of working-class identity commonly held among the status quo. Their statement seemed initially to accentuate the stereotypes perpetuated in mainstream society; that of the hardened working-class youth who is unfit for existence beyond the shop floor. It is important in this instance to realize that any potential sartorial resistance lies not simply in the signification through style but in the class consciousness of the skinhead as working class, as proletarian.

This foregrounded "lumpen" persona activated the requisite codes of difference and exile through a disdain for middle-class values, middle-class aspirations (stylistically expressed by early and "soft" Mods), and middle-class subcultures (most notably, the hippies). The "refusal" is written at the level of style initially, but by disrupting the myths of upward mobility and individual achievement, skinheads issued a complex challenge to the hegemony of the dominant social structure as well as to other subculture groups. As institutional control under a capitalist system of production is to some extent dependent on the seeming invisibility of its sustaining infrastructure, skinheads sought to expose the fact that the human element cannot be avoided and that the infrastructure survives by the sweat and toil of the working-class. Skinheads, then, reveal an aspect of society's underside that is structurally concealed through the avoidance of class stratification in official public discourses.

While there is little actual documentation of the skinhead "immigration" to Canada,2 it is safe to assume that it occurred in tandem with the second emergence of skinhead identity and punk's arrival in North America around 1976-77. The evolution of the skinhead has followed a relatively consistent pattern in Britain and North America, with a gradual disintegration of punk/skinhead and black youth/skinhead alliances in both cases, although the class-based rationale guiding much of the British youth experience is not as pervasive in the North American context. As Brake points out, "there is no distinct national flavour to (Canadian) youth cultures, which are usually based on the styles of a borrowed tradition, rather than built on indigenous forms of local traditions" (1985, p. 145).

In Canada and the U.S., subcultures evolve predominantly from middle-class origins, affecting the ways in which British subcultural propositions are interpreted and manifested in their importation. Of significance, however, is the development of fascist and white supremacist factions within the skinhead subculture, for it is this aspect more than any other that has influenced the media's coverage of skinheads and, consequently, the public's perception of them. As skinheads rapidly garnered a reputation as aggressive nationalists, they have been the focus of recruitment campaigns initiated by several neo-nazi and white supremacist organizations across Canada and the U.S. Their willingness to carry out the orders of these "parent" organizations has led to their role as frontline "shock" troops (with shock in this sense involving much more than style and fashion), the result being the popularization of the image of the violent skinhead, the human equivalent of the terrifying pit bull terrier, the media's latest "folk devil."

The Canadian Experience: Reading the Surfaces

Since most of Canada's major newspapers have, at one time or another, featured articles about skinheads, it was relatively easy to compile a selection of reports for analysis. For this study, English-language newspapers representing Canada's larger cities from late 1987 until early 1989 were examined, including the Vancouver Sun, the Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun, the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette, and the now defunct Montreal Daily News. Maclean's, a weekly newsmagazine, was also considered, as it featured a series of articles mentioning gang activity and skinheads in this time frame. It is during this general period that skinheads acquired a high visibility in the nation's press through an intensification of journalistic interest and coverage.

As skinheads display their subcultural affiliations through the surface construction of a particular set of stylistic signifiers, the preliminary apprehension of the skinhead "phenomena" in the press focuses on their visible forms of expression. Indeed, the skinhead style ultimately facilitates the newsgathering process as their look and behaviour enables the legal authorities as well as the press to monitor their activities and to engage in casual or concentrated surveillance. In most articles about skinheads, style is assessed in a perfunctory statement, often summarized in one or two sentences:

Converging on style as the primary signifier, these articles all read from the surface, penetrating the meaning of skinhead appearances only so far as style sets them apart from the rest of society, and most notably, from the accepted appearance of the social mainstream. The press, however, do not have an unimpeded line of access to the inbuilt meanings of the subcultural pose. It is difficult to read the rapidly changing surfaces of today's youth styles and the motivational forces behind their behaviour from the outside, beyond the inner circles based on age and territory. The tendency is to report these characteristics with an eye to the emergence of consistent patterns that will somehow explain certain groups' social disaffiliation. Perhaps the only sure thing about skinheads is that they wear their hair cropped close to the scalp and sport heavy boots. Even if this is the case, the press would still fall far short of a comprehensive explanation of what skinheads might mean as a social phenomenon, based on limited descriptions of their look and behaviour.

In one editorial, a Toronto Sun columnist summed up the dilemma facing him and his colleagues; indeed facing most members of the social mainstream and most newspaper readers. The problem in this instance is concerned with making sense of subcultural youth activity:

To the kid on Yonge St. with the shiny black boots and the pink spiked hair:

You make me uncertain. I'm not sure what part you want me to play in your street theatre. Am I supposed to pretend I'm afraid of you, like I did with my kids when they played "dressup"? Am I supposed to feel guilty because it's somehow my fault you've chosen to play the part of a loser in a world of infinite opportunity? Or am I expected to admire your individuality? That's the one I have the most trouble with. I'd be quite willing to recognize your courage in adopting an original lifestyle, if you all didn't look the same. Like any other uniformed group, I can't tell you apart. (Bill McVean, Toronto Sun, August 10, 1988)

As an example, this editorial successfully captures the generality of social examination or media enquiry and the fruitlessness of their attempts to read subcultures. The journalist falls into a surface analysis based on style and appearance which is evidently meant to stereotype a generic look, encapsulating and addressing all urban subcultures. He admits his struggle, his inability to comprehend the codification with which he is confronted.

Of course he cannot, and will not, ever occupy the social space that permits clear insight into subcultural phenomena for, in the end, he commits the media's ultimate foible, collapsing social difference into a form of sameness. He implies that the problem lies not in his own inability to decode the subcultural texts but in what he regards as a uniformity of encoded meanings. By so doing, he reflects a mainstream attitude which suggests that problems in society do not reside in the dominant frame of reference or field of reasoning but rather constitute a shortcoming of all subcultures. This columnist has designated the subcultural phenomenon as "trouble," displacing his, and society's, troubled guilt at not being able to understand their own children. In essence, when the media and other social institutions encounter subcultures, there is often a tendency to write the confrontation off as another case of problem youth, removing the potential causes for certain forms of youth expression from the social contexts which ultimately determine the scenario.

As Phillips suggests, "much of press reporting of young people as a "social phemomenon" is conveyed by reference to extreme actions, events, and groups" (1973, p. 323). Skinheads clearly represent an extreme appendage of youth, positioned as something fiercely "Other" than the mainstream. It is precisely this extremity, this excess of symbolic meaning inscribed in the skinhead style, that sets them apart not only from other youth and society at large, but also from other subculture groups. Interviews and news articles often include references to the hard stance of the skinheads in the streets and malls, citing their intolerance toward left-leaning punks as well as their dislike of ethnic minority groups and members of the gay community. Skinheads quoted in the news express their marginality in terms of threat (posed by them, as defenders of white working-class values, and against them, in the form of what is perceived as immigrant encroachment, negative social attitudes, and police intimidation) and an "us-against-the-world" attitude that ties in with how they dress in rejection of mainstream aesthetic considerations. As a female skinhead group member told a Toronto Star reporter, "everyone's scared of skinheads. No matter how small you are, if you have a shaved head, people are scared of you." Here, the association of power and style enter into her personal analysis of the group identity.

Skinheads are as conscious of their style and "uniform" as the media and other subculture groups are, articulating their identities on their bodies, through their attire. What the press omit, however, is that the body and how it is attired is of significance in most cultures. By way of example, the power brokers of London, New York or Toronto, who themselves comprise an identifiable social group, are also clothed in a "uniform" characterized by sober-looking business suits of a particular cut. Add to this the other accessories and the look is complete. The contradictory aspects of press reports which dwell so readily on skinhead appearances lie in the unabashed evaluation of appearance and dress codes according to a system of measurement that privileges groups and members of one social milieu over another. Implicit to this is the fact that, even at the level of style, there is a deeply structured hierarchy that contributes to the marginalization and exclusion of certain social groups.

One headline featured prominently on the front page of the Globe and Mail ("Canada's National Newspaper") reads "Skinheads: Aimless violence sparks a police crackdown" (Globe and Mail, April 9, 1988). The bold type highlighting the word "skinheads" emphasizes the actual subject of the article, pointing out that it is the group and not the violence or the police crackdown that is actually being reported. The article attempts to situate the group according to two dominant criteria "rebelliousness" and appearance, linking the two as perhaps the key factors common to all skinheads. This is further problematized as the article continues to use elements of style in a general way, attempting to explain the complexities of youth representation by emphasizing outward signs of identification:

Skinheads have been involved in an ongoing cycle of violence and revenge between underground youth groups such as punkers -- devotees of punk music who often wear outlandish fashions and hairstyles -- and preps, clean-cut teenagers who go to school and only hang around downtown on weekends. (Globe and Mail, April 9, 1988)

Here, within the hierarchy of styles, there is a noticeable preferential description of "prep" youth, who in style and behaviour conform most fully with the image preferred by the dominant social mainstream. A similar example is evident in the Ottawa Citizen as skinheads are negatively situated on the lower end of a scale of social legitimacy: "The demonstrators ranged from `skinheads' in black leather to quiet Christians who sang hymns. They included socialists, communists, environmentalists, feminists, prostitutes, and priests" (Ottawa Citizen, June 20, 1988).

This strategy of identification through comparisons of youth styles is a simple yet effective way of positioning skinheads within a range of extremes, for punks, preps, and Christians each occupy social territory specific to their identities. The identifiability of subcultures, and the accompanying public familiarity permits the media and society to contextualize the groups, to locate them within the general population. By isolating particular youth groups and defining them through their identifiable differences, a reporter begins to construct a frame of reference from which a newsreader may have access to what is otherwise uncharted territory. To the newsreader who is unaware that youths have acquired so many expressive positions within their age group, or who is aware of these subcultural articulations but lacks the cultural capital to read the different codes on sight, the press provide the basis for a better comprehension of how these groups fit into the ideological grid imposed by the institutional structure in which they occur. The media permit the idea of resistance to prevail while at the same time contributing to the impotence of a resistant movement.

Containment and Recuperation

In their analyses of media newsmaking practices, Tuchman (1978), Fishman (1980), Morley (1980), and Hartley (1982), among others, provide valuable insight on the means by which ideologies are propagated and those practices of news production which ensure that certain social voices attain public privilege. By focusing on bureaucratic news "nodes" (such as the courts, the police department, or various social agencies) and accessing designated spokespeople, the media present a narrow and limited version of reality which effectively contains subcultural phenomena within the confines of an ordered society. Skinheads are in this manner delivered to the public within the contexts of human interest stories or, more often, crime reports, explained according to the ideological tendencies and social biases of the institutional mass media.

The news discourses, bound as they are to the media's ideological predilections, are a product of significatory "work." The media return the activities, styles, statements of "underground youth groups" to a level of comprehensibility within the dominant social context. Journalists must, in effect, write skinheads back into society (where they belong). By exposing the stylistic elements that demarcate the group's appearance, the press identify skinheads as Others, outsiders in our midst. In this lies one of the major dilemmas of the mobilized subculture group, for in announcing themselves stylistically and exposing themselves to the social gaze, they are also exposed to the appropriative mechanisms of capital and the news processes of typification which position them in particular frames of reference. Clarke et al. suggest that "the dominant culture represents itself as the culture. It tries to define and contain all other cultures within its inclusive range" (1989, p. 12). Thus, the hegemonic authority of a dominant social force is sustained and reinforced against alternative or oppositional challenges from groups on the social periphery.

Journalists routinely perform practices which keep a tight rein on marginal groups, defining them according to the standards of the status quo. Skinheads are subsequently written about in a manner which enotes a youth group with a unique appearance and agenda, while at the same time connoting qualities and characteristics of violence, threat, or intolerance. This is compounded, of course, when the additional biases held by the reporter become part of the account, working within the significatory possibilities of language and articulation. This is made clear when a reporter for the Montreal Daily News who wrote a series of articles on Montreal skinheads states, "we've got to show these guys to be the animals they are."3 Skinheads and other subculture groups are in this way contained by practices of news production and systems of social re-production and are subjected to the individual authority of the journalist or the collective authority of the editorial board.

The fragmentation of events to conform more readily with the organizational demands of newspaper production; the tendency to access institutional voices; and the adherence to dominant ideological discourses of a hegemonic elite all overpower and overdetermine the aspects of history and social reality which spawn visible subcultures including skinheads. While this concealment is not necessarily part of a conscious agenda enacted by the media, the mainstream press have surely empowered the collective agendas of the dominant institutional bodies and seriously jeopardized the positions of society's disenfranchised groups:

Every time journalists treat bureaucratic accounts (such as case histories) as plain fact, they help an agency make the reality it wants to make and needs to make in order to legitimate itself. Thus, not only does routine news provide ideological accounts of real people and real happenings, it ends up legitimating institutions of social control by disseminating to the public institutional rationales as facts of the world. (Fishman, 1980, p. 138)

This suggests that, as institutional forces of law and order "police the crisis" of deviant subcultural behaviour, the media also police their audiences, maintaining order and social control through language which is itself dependent on certain "rules" and norms. Under the guise of journalistic freedom and an adherence to so-called objective reporting, the press give the impression that they are providing a service to their readers by conveying information that can be accessed and implemented as a form of cultural capital. Terms, expressions and relations of social significance are all diffused with ideological values so that, ultimately, skinheads are not written out of society but written into society through labelling processes and the strategy of naming those elements which periodically arise as a real or potential threat.

As skinheads eventually became popularized, achieving a stature of common recognizability, it became less and less important to describe the group stylistically or historically, for, as van Dijk comments, "news is not only written but also public discourse...socially and cognitively, this means that a considerable amount of generally shared knowledge, beliefs, norms, and values must be presupposed" (1988, p. 74). Once the particular characteristics of skinheads have been isolated and defined in the public forum through news discourse, little remains but to produce texts with these pre-established images in mind. With a general awareness of the skinhead persona established, the need to continually return to descriptive forms of stylistic identification is rendered less urgent, the terrain having been previously "mapped" for the newsreader.

Another problem arising from the press's attempts to contain the skinhead phenomena is the importance placed on membership figures. The size of a group, while providing information about the scope or popularity of a given movement, is also a relevant criterion of newsworthiness and it is a characteristic of mainstream society to value group size or to endlessly compile data on such social details. Skinhead membership is not easily measured, as members come and go informally without regulation or record, differing from organizational patterns of mainstream social groups which maintain updated figures on their size and demographic profile. Subcultures have little to gain by the careful monitoring of their group size, subsequently placing limited value in such endeavours.

Society is structured within a multiplicity of interest groups, be they in the form of politically motivated collectives, class-bound circles of association, leisure-based team units, musical taste affiliations, or what have you, and individuals are inevitably involved in several groups simultaneously. Group size has been granted crucial importance in society, with the media aiding the ordering process whereby certain groups are deemed more relevant or more important than others. Clearly, larger memberships suggest more social power and influence, and it is the struggle for power which makes the number of active skinheads of such interest to the media. In privileging the bureaucratic authority of police forces, press reports arrive at "official" estimates of skinhead members, though these figures are often at variance with those discussed by skinheads themselves and even vary from paper to paper or article to article. Some newspapers circumvent the dilemma of divergent claims by citing a wide estimated range rather than pinpointing precise figures as a means of ensuring their credibility. The press at times side-step the responsibility of estimating skinhead membership in Canada's major urban centres by combining "unofficial" information and police quotes, reflecting that "the competence of the news source is critical for determining the facticity of any account" (Fishman, 1980, p. 118).

An article in the Globe and Mail appearing on April 9, 1988, makes the unattributed estimate of 2,000 young skinheads in the city of Toronto, inscribing the figure in such a way as to suggest that it is a police estimate without expressly stating it as such. On April 30, 1988, the Globe and Mail ran a feature article on Toronto skinheads where the membership figure is estimated at 300, though once again no source is identified. The Toronto Star ran an article on March 11, 1988, estimating up to 350 active skinheads in the Metro area yet on May 17, 1988, the Toronto Star stated there were between 200 and 2,000 skinheads in the city. This report cites the figures of "some authorities" as being representative of the high end of the scale while the reporter personally disputed the claim, indicating the lower end of the scale as being more likely. The discrepancies are not cleared up by Maclean's, which suggests that there may be less than 1,000 skinheads across Canada, or by the Montreal Daily News, which counts "between 250 and 1,000 Montreal skinheads, depending on whether you believe police estimates or their own" (Montreal Daily News, August 9, 1988). Ottawa's skinhead population is placed at 15 by the Ottawa Citizen, though there is no indication of whose estimate this is.

While membership figures represent a form of "background knowledge" which helps to contextualize the story in terms of urgency or social relevance, there is a lingering question as to the validity of massive press coverage of skinheads. One may well ask whether unorganized youth congregating under a stylistic banner constitute actual gang formations and whether these "gangs" warrant excessive coverage if they account for such a small percentage of the total urban population. Can such a small subsection of a city's population -- or even of its overall criminal element -- be accurately termed "an army of skinheads threatening the citizenry," as one Ontario Crown Attorney suggested, or are the press fanning the flames of a growing moral panic focused on the emergence of the skinhead as the contemporary folk devil? In Ottawa, the Media Liaison Officer for the city police force confirmed that he had never been contacted by the press regarding skinheads, even though they had been prominently featured in the Ottawa Citizen. His concern and, by virtue of his position, the official police stance on the subject was summed up in his response to the question about a potential skinhead threat to the community "I'm not convinced that there is a problem."4 Despite news stories to the contrary in the competing English-language newspaper (as well as in one of the leading French-language newspapers), one senior editor at the Montreal Gazette doubted the veracity of a skinhead crime wave, stating, "I'm not sure that in Montreal it's even a visible hasn't really penetrated my consciousness to any great degree."5

Media Representation of Skinheads

In the first instalment of a three-part series on Montreal skinheads, the Montreal Daily News of August 9, 1988, featured a sensational display of textual multi-accentuality including photographs, headlines, and written commentary. On the front page there is a colour photograph of a girl with disheveled, multi-hued hair wearing a safety-pin earring kissing a rat on the nose. The headline above the photo states: "The ugly message of city's skinheads -- meaner and more organized than ever." The article itself appears under the bold headline "Ready For War! Peril on the streets Every weekend a number of people get their faces kicked in." The accompanying photo displays two young men and a young woman with their eyes blocked out to retain their anonymity, a practice commonly used in sensationalist crime magazines. One of the men is making a rude hand gesture toward the camera (and the reader) while another photo is of graffito reading "White Power." The introduction to the series begins:

They preach white power, and they're violent and dangerous. They're skinheads. Wearing distinctive clothing, and sporting garish tattoos and the notorious "Doc Marten" boots prized by young British thugs, so-called "skinhead" gangs are behind a growing wave of extremely violent, random attacks on individuals all over the Metropolitan area. (Montreal Daily News, August 9, 1988)

The above example effectively demonstrates how a discourse of social threat is constructed and how skinheads are described using what Hartley calls "simultaneous signifiers" which work in unison to convey meaning. Newspaper articles, conceived as a total structural unit, are intended to convey information, to tell a story, to communicate. The reader is attuned to the fact that the individual components of the article are part of a unified idea. It is necessary to realize that, as a constructed whole, each sub-segment has its own discursive potentials which may also have meanings not immediately connected to the other components. Therefore, as a form of multi-accentuality, it may be argued that the headline provides one discursive site, the photograph another, and the story text yet another.

A headline reading, for example, "A growing menace Violent skinheads are raising urban fears" (Maclean's, January 23, 1989) situates the context of the article as being primarily about skinheads. That the section heading is entitled "Youth" further confirms the context of the article. Within the headline, there are several operative concepts which have their own specific resonance, amplifying an altogether different element of the story than the initial context suggests. The article is also very much about "menace," though not an inert menace, but one which is "growing." Society's response, the headline states, is "fear," and, like the menace, it too is in a period of intensification. Finally, the article is not simply about skinheads, but rather about violence perpetrated by them.

The key elements of the story are summed up in the headline, in effect "bracketing" certain phenomena or attitudes through ideologically overdetermined word choices. The predominance of negatively-loaded terms positions skinheads as the threat and the reader as the fearful citizen, textually emphasizing the division between the dominant and marginal forces in the scenario, relegating skinheads to the social periphery as something that is to be feared and, ultimately, destroyed.

Similarly, news photographs "speak" a particular ideological discourse, articulating positions, values, meanings through a visual language. Burgin (1983) refers to "the popular pre-conscious" and "common knowledge" which the majority of the public news audience can comprehend and access, enabling preferred meanings to emerge from within the constructed messages of the news photo. Photos of skinheads accompanying articles carry a special power and significance in their ability to situate the group in social settings which reinforce the dominant mainstream by accentuating skinhead marginality. Posed in the streets and on the curbs of the inner cities, the skins are clearly distanced from the official bureaucratic locations which the newsreader associates with legitimacy and, more importantly, control. The "streets" also have implications for the "popular pre-conscious," as they signify unsafe territories of crime and violence.

The images increasingly portray a situation in which inner-city streets are being surrendered to the periphery groups who have been alienated by mainstream society, with the centre/periphery social formations sharing the same location except at opposite hours of the day or night. A photograph in the Globe and Mail (April 9, 1988) of a skinhead standing in the street is obviously taken at night, evoking images of tough urban youths who pose threats under cover of the dark. This element of popular (though negative) imagery is also intrinsic to the construction of "folk devils" as S. Cohen intended the meaning, creating stark images which are interpreted according to our commonly held stock of social knowledge. As Hall states, "the ideological concepts embodied in photos and texts in a not produce new knowledge about the world. They produce recognitions of the world as we have already learned to appropriate it..." (1973, p. 186).

Skinheads and the Social Will

As a flag signals national affiliations, the skinhead style described, debated, and analyzed in the nation's press "amplifies" the group's presence, attracting those who may be of a like mind for, as S. Cohen suggests, "the societal reaction not only increases the deviant's chance of acting at all, it also provides him with his lines and stage directions" (1972, p. 164). Thus, the negative labels associated with skinheads and the descriptive portrayal of their crimes, leisure activities, etc., not only marginalize them but also operate as a beacon to youth. While the media have constructed a composite group image of skinheads which has reached near-mythical proportions and is now subject to stereotyped references, they have also publicized the group, in essence advertising the skinhead stance to a wider audience of sympathetic or approving teens.

The media-produced "collective images" of the skinhead threat that draws the attention of civic leaders, race and ethnic identity groups, social workers, teachers, parents, and the police also grabs the attention of predominantly lower middle-class youth in search of an identity. As the highly publicized skinhead image can be easily bought into, youths are capable of purchasing the style in order to further substantiate an attitude or assumed political bearing. The wide-spread influence of the mass media leads to a much greater accumulation of cultural capital for today's youth, which may account for the simultaneous emergence of various British subculture styles (most notably mods, punks, and skinheads) in North America in the late 1970s. Of further concern, however, is the possibility that skinhead activity may be more than stylistic expression or a passing case of media hype. Complying with Brake's assertion that "subcultures address themselves to structural problems" (1980, p. 27) or Chibnall's suggestion that "...subcultures themselves develop as responses to particular problematic situations...they are pragmatic adaptations to real problems, ways of coping with life in a given situation" (1977, p. 81), one might pursue the idea that skinheads represent a youth phenomenon born of a general social malaise. Interviews with more militant skinheads often reveal naive accounts of why white, working-class youth are unable to find well-paying or rewarding employment, their language spiked with vulgar references to immigrants "who are the enemy," as one skinhead claimed in the Ottawa Citizen.

While Western society officially condemns racism and hate literature, attempting on the surface to counter xenophobic attitudes through, for example, multicultural awareness programs, there is a latent adherence to the very tenets condemned. Recent complaints of police forces harboring racist sentiments have been voiced in various public forums including the press across Canada, especially after incidents where white policemen killed unarmed black youths in Montreal and Toronto. Harsh federal restrictions on immigration to Canada and an inappropriate response to ethnic issues at virtually all levels of government (made clear during the Mohawk uprising in the summer of 1990) lend evidence to the possibility that there is a social backlash in motion of which skinheads represent a more visible and uncompromising position. It is not insignificant to note that, in the midst of the violent public backlash against Mohawks in the Montreal area, reports surfaced that Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups were distributing literature in an attempt to make contact with the youth contingency. As Wolff, an Ottawa skinhead quoted in the Ottawa Citizen states, "this government's too lenient. I think we should deport them all..." (Ottawa Citizen, July 12, 1988).

While such statements may or may not be indicative of underlying social attitudes, the journalist merely quotes the speaker and writes the story. The insolence of the statement may emanate from either youthful bravado or a seriously impaired view of multicultural relations but this is never determined in the account. The tendency to inflate claims which increase notoriety is attractive to those who may not have regular access to the media unless they are controversial. As media personnel, sociologists, and many subculture members themselves often agree, the utterances and actions carried out for shock effect or fun remain an aspect of youth expressivity which will be surrendered as they "grow up."

The logic behind the articulation of white supremacist, masculine working-class values associated with skinheads is often ridiculed in the press only as far as it is tied to violence and aggression, though the political agenda that exerts legal pressures on immigrants carries none of the same stigma of racism or xenophobia. The media portray racism as a disease within our communities although they analyze it through the eyes of a social institution that is itself guided by the demands of an economic system that consistently under-represents ethnic minorities in both content and personnel. Hebdige explains the subcultural manifestations in society as phenomena deriving much of their character and vitality from the complexities of the broader social field: "Clearly, subcultures are not privileged forms; they do not stand outside the reflective circuitry of production and reproduction which links together, at least on a symbolic level, the separated and fragmented pieces of the social totality" (1979, p. 85).

Skinheads, then, may not be enacting a wholly original and isolated attack on specific target groups, but rather they may be responding to a general condition of social and cultural concerns. They dramatize what they feel are the causes of their unemployment or their assumed minority status as white urban youth, reifying violence toward social Others (including ethnic minorities or gay men), carrying out what society cannot perform due to its fundamental taboos. Despite their consensus-building role, the press have turn their attentions to the active expressions of skinhead racism or fascism without accounting for the concealed trends that may indicate a much larger social consensus on the issue.


As this analysis has attempted to isolate some of the major problems in the press's apprehension of Canadian skinheads, several key themes have developed. Of a nature critical of Canadian newspaper reporting on skinheads, they include

The skinhead subcultural element is subsequently set up for exploitation at two important levels as a result of these problems in reporting. They may first be exploited by the institutional mainstream of society in a broad sense which responds to certain subcultures, such as skinheads, as threats though their actual ability to upset the social equilibrium is minuscule. The rationale of defending the social equilibrium (cast as being either vulnerable or immmoveable, fragile or solid depending on the situation and conditions at hand) permits the authorities to increase surveillance and to keep closer controls over youth, particularly those who display "symptoms" of disaffiliation and deviance. This is enacted with the general consent of the social mainstream who follow the proceedings in the national press. It is a safe and dramatic way of ensuring that the status quo is secure, providing a scenario of threat (which cannot be tolerated), challenge (which cannot triumph), and the impression that something is being done to contain the threat (to maintain order).

Finally, skinheads are exploited by the media. Canadian newspapers have resorted to the same reporting techniques as the British press where skinheads are concerned, implementing the same catch phrases and the same modes of representation. These reports are tantamount to imitations of Britain's construction of skinheads as folk devils. They provide good copy, exciting photo opportunities, and a continuing story that easily lends itself to the demands of dominant cultural narratives with clear lines between good and bad, right and wrong. They reveal society's underside without revealing the structural inequities that manifest these apparently negative formations. Thus, spectacularity, shock effect, a string of victims, etc., are subverted, written as the relevant and necessary components of a news account. Employment and economic conditions, racism and homophobia, and a pervasive urban paranoia -- the fundamental elements underlying the skinhead "story" -- are summarily dismissed.

Furthermore, the volatility of a minority of skinhead youth is extended by reporters to encompass the more level demeanour of the vast majority. By constructing a homogeneous profile of the skinhead subculture based primarily on clothing styles and police reports, nothing less than misinformation has been written into the official account of the group, with serious implications for individual members, the police and judiciary, and for the average citizen with little face-to-face contact with the group. Skinheads have become extremely active in Montreal's Ligue Anti-fascist de Montreal (LAM) while a vast North American project called Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) has also emerged with chapters across Canada. Fear, and the reverse notion of security, have become consumer items. Selling them to the public through descriptions of explosive, violent youth -- with skinheads as a prominent example -- has become an accepted and profitable practice.

One would hope that, with time, the story would straighten out, veering closer toward a description of skinheads free of the usual biases. A Maclean's (May 22, 1989) feature story on youth violence, however, reveals a continuing ignorance of the problem. Replete with the same buzzwords, the same sensationalism, and the same fear-mongering that has become associated with skinheads, the headline reads "Gang Terror: How young thugs are creating fear in Canadian cities." The language and rhetoric sustains the dynamic of conflict between youth and adults, reinforcing the myth that youth resistance -- the attempt to signify one's identity in a society that proliferates signs -- necessarily involves violence. The press continue to divorce youth from the total frame of social relations, insisting that it is a homogeneous element that has its own internal maelstrom which is spilling into the greater social frame. By these means they are avoiding the fact that the fear, the savagery, and the brutality are endemic to our contemporary social condition and that youth constitutes one site among many where these elements are manifested.


I am indebted to Paul Attallah for his encouragement and critical reading of this paper.
While there has been relatively little published on the emergence of skinheads in the Canadian context, the recently published Les skinheads et l'extreme droite (Montreal: Vlb Editeur, 1991) by Daniel Hubert & Yves Claude documents various aspects of skinhead racism and homophobia and the recruitment of young skins by organized hate groups in Canada. Mike Brake's (1985) Comparative youth culture: The sociology of youth culture and youth subcultures in America, Britain and Canada features a brief but useful overview of the historical and geo-political evolution of youth culture in Canada. This paper also benefited from Brendan Best's (1989) unpublished essay "This Ain't England! `British' Youth Culture in Central Canada."
Interview with Albert Nerenberg, September 1988.
Interview with Constable Paul Page, February 1989.
Interview with Mark Harrison, January 1989.


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