New Media, Old News: Strategies for Getting Penal Issues into Popular Discourse

Anita Dockley

Presentation at Inside Reform, Policy Event, National Gallery of Ireland, 2 June 2017

The presentation by Anita Dockley, Research Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, was in three parts: the first, introduced the audience to the Howard League and what it does; the second, was on research, commissioned by the Howard League, on how to get penal issues into the media; the last, was a case study of media campaign by the League.

Podcast of New Media, Old News: Strategies for Getting Penal Issues into Popular Discourse

Slideshow Presentation

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The Howard League

The Howard League, established in 1866 and named after John Howard, is probably the oldest penal reform organisation in the world. As an organisation, it is characterised by its independence, its maverick status, and the fact that it likes to investigate what is really going on in the prison system. Although a small charity, with a staff of under twenty, the League punches above its weight. The Howard League has four key divisions: a research team; a policy team; a campaign team and a legal team. It enjoys consultative status with both the UN and the Council of Europe. The key characteristic of the League is that it is about change and how change is to be achieved.

Public Opinion

The Howard League does not always court media attention and can work behind the scenes with policy makers and politicians. But the focus of Anita’s paper was on its public orientated media campaigns. The general public lack reliable knowledge on penal issues and their view of prison life is often distorted and sensationalised by media representations. Despite this, it is important for prison reform groups to use the media as the criminal justice system, to be effective, requires public confidence and a poorly informed public can drive ineffective or unfair penal policies.

New Media

NGOs are enthusiastic about the opportunities presented by digital media as a low cost way of reaching a mass public. However, if such campaigns are to succeed they require genuine popular support. For the Howard League social media is more often about new ways of attracting the attention of journalists rather than creating ‘mass’ public interest or encouraging supporter action.