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Artillery Row

A moral panic that should have been spiked

The needle spiking epidemic was a media invention

Do you remember the epidemic of needle-spiking in nightclubs? Women across the country shared their experiences of blacking out whilst partying, then waking up with small bruises and supposed puncture marks on their arms. Nobody had been kidnapped, of course, and there certainly didn’t seem to be any examples of sexual assault resulting from the spikings. But when so many thousands of girls were sharing the same stories on Tiktok, and the British press were interviewing alleged victims on primetime television, it had to be true. 

The SPA concluded there were no cases of needle spiking

One case I recall seeing on twitter came with a picture of the alleged victim pointing to what seems clearly to me to be a mole, without any of the trademark irritation you would expect to find around an injection site. Another case that drew my attention was that of a young student studying in Dundee, who expressed shock that the needle spiking epidemic had spread around the country so rapidly. Hundreds of girls jumped onto social media to share their own lurid stories, garnering hundreds of thousands of likes and shares.

It turned out that there wasn’t any evidence to back up these increasingly implausible stories. The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) released a report last week analysing 601 reported cases of spiking, 31 per cent of which were spiking “via a needle”. The alleged incidents were mainly reported by women aged 16-18, and a high proportion of those were students. The SPA concluded that there were no cases of needle spiking, and just four of the reported drink spiking incidents resulted in a suspect being charged.

Common sense dictated as much. It was a mass-jabbing operation so broad in scope, it would have made Dominic Cummings proud. Actual needle attacks would require Russian spy levels of expertise and would be almost impossible to carry out, particularly on an organised scale. Besides, as anyone who got the Covid jabs last year can attest, an injection isn’t the sort of thing that happens without you noticing it. 

My gut instinct — that the media was unquestionably amplifying a moral panic amongst the group most susceptible to them — was correct. The BBC made the link between the rise in reported cases and mainstream coverage in its reportage on the police findings, despite covering the stories without a whiff of scepticism a year earlier. You might expect the lack of interest in countering this narrative in the Left-wing or “apolitical” press, but the issue was consistent across the ideological spectrum. Even GB News reported on the phenomenon.

It is not the role of the press to reinforce delusions

We’re all susceptible to flights of fancy. Some are sweet and juvenile, no harm done. Some have life-altering consequences. Women have suffered because of medical professionals and policing staff failing to take their concerns seriously, so when young women begin to claim that they are being placed in danger, it would be foolish to dismiss their concerns out of hand. But it is just as patronising to unflinchingly repeat baseless claims as fact — and it is certainly not the role of the press to reinforce delusions that affirm fashionable social narratives. 

Forceful needle spikings aren’t happening, and the equally-feared drink spikings are rare. Actual cases of drugging normally occur, like so much sexual abuse, within the confines of a relationship — not in a dingy nightclub filled with witnesses. Nightclub predators don’t need to drug girls to force them to come back home with them. Distressingly, it’s drunkenness that will put you at most risk. Sexual assault is rarely cut-and-dry; it is often confused by messy, undefined social dynamics that make up modern male-female relationships. Everyone will commiserate with you if you’re assaulted by a stranger. Few will do the same when it’s your boss.

Vice News — quite the opposite of an anti-feminist publication — was the first media organisation to honestly assess needle spiking claims. For Vice reporter Max Daly, needle-spiking hysteria was another example of poor drug reporting in Britain: “the media and society in general are very susceptible to spreading wild scare stories involving drugs, because it generates fear and clicks, and the media is generally quite clueless when it comes to drugs because it doesn’t bother to understand the issue and is too much led by morality over fact.”

Perhaps the most pertinent lesson to be learnt to this tale is the pervasive issue of journalistic laziness. Journalism is poorly paid and “high-status”, so it attracts a coterie of slightly dim nepotistic beneficiaries who are more interested in campaigning than researching. Continuing to be wilfully incorrect without sanction — and, in many cases, being actively praised by your co-workers for it — would be nonsensical in any other industry.

Journalists like to present themselves as the last bulwark against fake news in a world inculcated with contradictory narratives and informational warfare. The failure to question accepted narratives, paired with the declining quality in reportage, means that consumers will increasingly find it impossible to trust legacy outlets. I, for one, will not mourn for them.

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