Happy slapping: new craze or just thuggery?

December 17, 2005
National Post
By Joseph Brean

LONDON - It is a rarity for Britain's tabloid Sun newspaper to make astute cultural predictions, so nobody panicked last summer when its headline screamed: "Happy slapping craze will end in ... MURDER."

This week came a sort of vindication, when three young men, aged 17, 18 and 21, and a 15-year-old girl were convicted of manslaughter for the 2004 "happy slapping" death of a gay bartender on London's touristy South Bank.

"We're making a documentary about happy slapping. Pose for the camera," said the girl, then 14, the moment before the others started to kick David Morley, 37, a survivor of the 1999 nail bombing of a Soho gay bar, who had been sitting on a bench with a friend. As he lay dying from bleeding in his spleen, the girl kicked him in the head "like a football," the court heard.

Whether this was gay bashing will be determined early next year at the sentencing, but it will be remembered as a happy slap, the gory culmination of a craze supposedly sweeping Britain's youth.

The four teens had been on a violent, drunken spree around Waterloo Station that night, beating up homeless people or anyone who appeared vulnerable, with the girl recording it all on a phone so they could watch it later at home or show their friends.

Even with such a sensational crime, though, there is a growing unease about whether happy slapping is truly a pervasive trend or whether it has become a buzzword, overused by the notoriously jumpy British media to frighten the even jumpier middle class, a bugaboo in the tradition of muggers, hooligans and hoodies.

Commentary on the "happy slap" killing has indeed been fretful and sometimes dated, with frequent references to the minor coincidence that the killing took place on the South Bank, just as with the random violence in A Clockwork Orange, the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel, and also a popular 1971 Stanley Kubrick film.

The idea of happy slapping is to make reality television on the cheap by taking slapstick humour to its most brutal extreme. Find an unsuspecting victim, often called a "norman," and with your friends secretly recording with their camera phones, walk up and belt him or her across the head. In effect, it is voyeuristic and often terribly funny -- Candid Camera for the Jackass generation.

It is said to have originated in the South London garage music scene, where hip hop tunes and images were already being passed around via cellphones, although teens in Newcastle have since taken credit for the expression.

In its various incarnations, happy slapping can be dangerously violent or merely messy, such as the elderly man in Merseyside who was recently reduced to tears after being sprayed with ketchup, or the popstar Myleene Klass, who this month had a plate of french fries dumped on her head while teens mocked her hit song, Pure and Simple. "Pure and simple, I'm going to kill you," they sang. That video has yet to surface, but anyone can download a famous one of a teenager being clubbed with a traffic cone.

There is little doubt that some people have been happy slapped, some seriously. But for a national craze, there are surprisingly few videos available on the Internet, and hardly a criminal conviction to be found. Most online references to the term are in breathless news reports, or by bloggers disgusted at this "wildfire" trend.

The BBC reports that there were 200 happy slap incidents on London Transport in the first six months of this year, but a prominent academic contends this number was squeezed out of sketchy data, and only represents the number of minor assaults by young people who carried cellphones, which in Britain is just about everyone. "The BBC basically kept pressing for a figure," said Graham Barnfield, program leader in journalism at the University of East London.

However, there is broad support from child welfare advocates for the notion that happy slapping is out of control, and a risk to children especially. Yesterday, police in Yorkshire said they were hunting a gang of youths who shot a group of five- and six-year-olds outside a school with BB guns and may have recorded the assault, which left some of the children with minor injuries, on their cellphones.

"I'm completely sure that some of the stuff that's happening now is only happening because the technology allows it to happen," said John Carr, new technology advisor to child welfare charity NCH, who has encountered all manner of happy slap videos, from schoolyard swarmings to children forced to run across railway tracks with a train approaching.

Of 770 British young people between the ages of 11 and 19 surveyed by NCH last spring, one in five said they had been bullied or threatened over cellphones or e-mail, and one in 10 said someone had taken their photograph in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. Several schools have since banned cellphones entirely.

"This [happy slapping] was indeed something that was happening on a fairly extensive rate across the country," Mr. Carr said.

But once it has been adopted by the schoolyard bully, chewed on by the media, and clucked over by anxious parents, the happy slapping trend must surely be dying, if it was every really alive.

Mr. Morley was killed 14 months ago. Since then, the 7/7 bombings and more recently the Hemel Hempstead oil depot explosion have been proving grounds for the British "citizen reporter," equipped only with a camera cellphone. Even so, when it comes to their children, Britons seem ill at ease with this ubiquitous new technology.

"The [happy slapping] panic mixes chav-baiting, fears about black youth crime and new technology, and celebrity culture," Prof. Barnfield wrote in an online magazine earlier this year. ("Chav" is British slang for a tacky white person over-exposed to Americanesque celebrity styles, obsessed with "bling" and sportswear.)

By this he did not mean that Britain does not have terrible problems of violence and criminality among its youth, especially the racial minorities trapped in urban ghettoes practically designed for street crime.

Nor did he mean that kids are never mischievous or cruel, or even murderous. He meant that the pranks some of them were pulling with cellphones were perfectly predictable, at least in hindsight.

Happy slappers "are quite happy to provide evidence of themselves committing assaults to the wider culture. Individually, it's boneheaded, but it's also consistent with the same kind of things that drive reality television to expose the private, the intimate, the personal to a wider audience," he said in an interview.

"Time and again we have TV shows with a voyeuristic relationship to people's misery and discomfort. If that's the official line on things, then it's not surprising when younger people start to do it themselves."