chapter  13
When harm is done: Panic, scandal and blame
ByGraham Knight, Juliet Roper
Pages 16

On Tuesday, May 29, 2007 a worker employed by VirCom EMS disconnected the electricity supply to the home of the Muliagas, a Samoan family living in the Mangere district of south Auckland, New Zealand. VirCom EMS was acting as a subcontractor for Mercury Energy, an electricity supply company, which had authorized the disconnection because the Muliagas were in arrears in the payment of their electricity bill, and the overall amount owing had been increasing despite partial payments having been made. As a result of the disconnection, the oxygen machine used by Folole Muliaga ceased functioning, and fewer than three hours later she died, despite the efforts of paramedics who had been called to the house because of her deteriorating condition. The death of Mrs. Muliaga, who was normally described in the media as a 44-year-old mother of four, subsequently became a major news event and contentious public issue in New Zealand as the various actors involved in the situation sought to represent and justify themselves, their actions and points of view. The dramatis personae included not only representatives of the Muliaga family, VirCom EMS and Mercury Energy, but also the latter’s parent company, Mighty River Power, the Prime Minister, the minister responsible for state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the police, media columnists expounding on the meaning of the tragedy, local community members, and even an official representing the electricity workers’ union. The situation that unfolded bore many of the features of a social drama in which a

breach in the routine practices and expectations of everyday life set in motion processes of institutional and communicational resolution (Turner 1974; Cottle 2006). In this chapter, we focus primarily on the first two weeks after Mrs. Muliaga’s death.

This was the ‘salience period’ (Hood 2002) in which a distinction can be drawn between the institutional and communicational responses to Mrs. Muliaga’s death. The institutional response took the form of a police investigation, which concluded that there were no legal grounds to lay charges; the communicational response took the form of extensive media coverage in which there was some contention between the viewpoints of the central actors involved in the tragedy. We focus primarily on the communicational response in order to examine the definitional process in which some resolution began to be brought to the situation, and its dramatic impact began to be reduced. We make two main arguments. The first is that while the response to Mrs. Muliaga’s death, particularly in the media, bore the marks of a scandal rather than moral panic in the conventional sense, it can also be seen as akin to a ‘good’ moral panic in that the actions of the powerful were subject to critical popular scrutiny and blame attribution. The second argument is that, despite this focus on the actions and culpability of elite actors, the drama was resolved communicatively in a way that framed the meaning of her death in ideologically narrow terms.