Baby P’s mother: The final injustice

Allison Pearson’s column today shows the nice dividing line between due process and mob rule:

“So now we are allowed to call him Peter. Baby P finally has a name. Yet the identity of the man and woman who caused his death remains a closely guarded secret. How come guilty adults enjoy more protection than an innocent child ever did?”

Some wonderful emotive sensation to get us going – we’re asked to consider why people who currently subject to legal investigation are given the anonymity not on offer to their victim. There are some very obvious answers to this – the protection, in this case, is temporary and genuine. This is the same as anonymity for Baby Peter – whose anonymity, if anything, went further, being not just temporary but, to some extent since we don’t know his surname, ongoing. In Peter’s case, however, it is unclear what genuine protection anonymity offered – the covering up of his name had more to do with securing a fair trial for those implicated in his death, rather than anything substantive to protect him. At most, it aimed at ensuring a right to justice for him. Allison is deliberately conflating the genuine protection anonymity offers to the adults with an anonymity which would be almost entirely pointless to offer to the victim. At the same time, she invites comparisons between the physical vulnerability of the Baby with the vulnerability of the adults, suggesting that they are being screened from a similar violence which is their due.

“The law, as we saw in the trial of the brute and his girlfriend for a separate crime at the Old Bailey last week, does not protect vulnerable children. Instead, it may end up shielding the adults who abuse them.

It makes a four-year-old girl come to an intimidating court to relive the trauma of being raped at the age of two.”

As a point of order, it should be noted that the person who made a four-year-old girl come to court was the person found guilty of raping her – who knew what they had done but tried to avoid taking responsibility for it. It should be noted that the court did all it could to make the experience less intimidating for the victim – removing wigs and conducting communication through videos rather than having the girl there in person. The alternative to this approach would be that no evidence was adduced at all in open court for these rapes taking place. That would not protect vulnerable children, but mean that someone who raped children got away with it. Alternatively, it would mean removing the solid principle of law that you have the opportunity to question evidence brought against you, allowing convictions on mere hearsay. No one wants to see children testifying in court, but when they do it is unfair to blame the justice system for it.

“The jury was not told the adults in the dock were also the couple in the Baby P horror show. The woman was found not guilty of cruelty to the raped child. Do you really think this would have happened if the court had known how she hoodwinked officials during Peter’s brief life? Of course not.”

Here Allison comfortably answers her own question as to why people in criminal cases are allowed anonymity. The fact that Baby P’s mother was involved in the Baby P case says nothing about her involvement in this case. The fact that you are guilty of one crime does not make you automatically guilty in all similar cases. It might make you more likely, but how is a jury to distinguish honest judgements of probability from the natural animosity which would stem from knowing that the person in front of them had committed something heinous previously? Surely there is a right to be tried for the crime you’ve been accused of, and not for others which you’ve already been convicted of?

“Do I sound angry? Well, too bad. Who will stand up for these children if their mothers won’t?

The brute, the mother and their lodger will all be sentenced on May 22 for ‘ causing or allowing the death’ of Baby P. The brute, whom Peter knew as ‘Dad’, can expect to get a maximum sentence of 14 years.

Perhaps the baby torturer could attend a woodwork class in prison and see if he comes out with his head still on.”

And so it ends – with the actual blood lust only hinted at in the introduction, carefully couched as a suggestion for the baby torturer to run a gauntlet of others fulfilling Allison’s desires. The anger is understandable, the feeling that a fixed sentence is insufficient is understandable, the abhorrence is understandable. It stems, however, from the feeling that this person has been brought bang to rights, a feeling which we have because we know our legal system to be fair and impartial with our juries unbiased by former prejudices. Were we to follow Allison’s prescriptions and take away protection from those we ‘know’ are guilty because we’ve shown them to be guilty of other things, that confidence would be gone. At which point we wouldn’t just have mob justice, but mob injustice as we started woodworking the genuinely innocent, fitted-up and reformed. Some guilty would, no doubt, ‘get what was coming to them’, while others would walk, free to carry on doing whatever abhorrent things they did while the innocent literally took the rap. Justice requires a uniformally fair system, even for people we don’t like.

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Finally, Jade’s sad life has a purpose

It takes a while to work out exactly why this column from Alison doesn’t sit right, and it’s almost entirely the fault of whoever wrote the headline.

“Finally, Jade’s sad life has a purpose”

suggests one of two things. Either it claims an insight into Jade’s internal world that it couldn’t possibly have by asserting that, for example, the raising of her children or the connecting with her public was not considered a purpose for her; or it claims that Jade, and by extension all public figures and possibly every individual, only has value for others (Jade’s being as some sort of memento mori or cautionary tale). The first is a slur, the second a denigration of humanity. Given the implausibility of the first, we seem to be driven to the second and we could, being charitable, see it as an easy trap to fall into – Jade has lived her life since appearing before the public eye essentially as a fictional character, a communal writing project which started with the producers of Big Brother and continues down to Alison’s column. Fictional characters serve some sort of narrative purpose – count the number of times Jade’s life is compared in the next few days to a soap opera, pantomime, tragedy or morality tale – and so it is easy for the headline writer to slip into to the narrow grooves her story has been run along to date and rejoice, as they seem to be, in the fact the story finally has a conclusion and a moral. The reason it sits so badly is that Jade is not fully fictional, which is one of the things that has made her story so compelling for those writing and reading it. Jade is a human being. Human beings determine their own values and the values of their own lives. Which is what makes the headline so horrible.

By and large, Alison admirably fails to live up to the headline, favouring instead the narrative approach that casts her as an observer rather than an author. As an approach, it’s innocuous enough, until we get to:

“We may all have thought we were nothing like Jade Goody. Now we know what we have in common. She cares about her kids more than anything in the world.”

Now, although this is getting at what the readers should have realised all along, the way this truth is presented is “You know what – she was human all along”. It’s the reveal in the novel when you realise that the supposed villain was actually the person funding the orphanage – and it’s too late to feel guilty for your persecution of them. Instead we’re meant to feel touched that we finally realised the error of our ways.  Notice the emphasis: “WE may have thought that WE” – Alison is thinking in the same terms as the headline writer, of what Jade does for us. The divide between the reality of Jade as human and Jade as character carried through from the headline is painful. The very fact that she is and always has been a human being exactly as we are demands empathy, all we are given is a too-easy, saccharine moral that reinforces the sense of superiority that we had all along.

While Alison talks about legacies, she misses what should have been the most obvious and is the most pressing – to reconnect us with the reality of our own shared humanity. She misses it because she can’t let go of the fiction, or worse, see that it is one. Jade’s story will end, and we will have Lindsay Lohan’s, and Madonna’s, and celebrities’ as yet unknown to take her place. We will vilify or adore them in exactly the same way. We will learn nothing, because the story-tellers have learnt nothing.

We MUST keep our Christmas spirits up

I make this the start of the ‘Erosion of Christmas’ season – I’m probably a bit late, but there will be plenty more for me to enjoy. From now on, we have nothing to look forward to but the generic complaints that the ‘Christmas is being taken out of Christmas’ as council killjoys, health and safety and political correctness undermine our healthy consumerist fun.

So here we go. Council kills joy as unlicensed premise attempts to hand out alcohol. Nativity plays fall foul of, erm, whatever¹. Christmas humbug says humbug:

“It has even become fashionable to sneer at the Christmas card which has done absolutely no harm, and rather a lot of good, for the past 150 years”

The syntax of that is interesting, it suggests its still unfashionable to sneer at the Christmas card which did do harm, but I digress. We are left to conclude that the world is changing, and it is no longer the happy place we used to know.

By ‘fashionable’, it turns out that Alison means that two people have made comments related to cards, one of whom was against them. The Bishop of Reading doesn’t believe in sending cards for the sake of it, but encourages you to send only to send cards with some sort of meaning. Which is actually quite a sensible position – there is a certain falsehood in making a single annual show of closeness at a time when tradition dictates we should. Those we are genuinely close to don’t benefit from the gesture, those who we are distant from see it as empty. All the while we’re costing carbon and cash when possibly meeting up or making a phonecall would have achieved more. We could possibly even extend it to some of our gift giving, reclaiming the season from the crushing embrace of modern consumerist traditions.

There’s something in the idea of in an age of instant emails and texts, to savour something that has been handwritten and costs practically nothing, except some effort and thought”, but it’s overdone. These aren’t the cards the Bishop is concerned about, he’s worried about the meaningless ones we send under pressure of tradition and obligation. There’s also something slightly uneasy about the ‘effort and thought’ taken over an annual one-off – however touching it is to be remembered when the list is drawn up, to be remembered at a non-specific point in the year would be more so.

The argument  certainly isn’t as clear cut as Alison would like it to be. And it doesn’t get any better when she starts trying to pep up the generic with the topical:

“Obviously, this year even Father Christmas is going to be shivering a little in the chill wind of recession.

Alistair Darling will slap a tax on laughter until poor Santa is down to his last Ho. Pretty much every family will have to tighten its belt.”

Surely the fact that money is tighter this year supports the Bishop’s contention that we should be thinking more carefully about the cards we send and not waste money on empty cards that devalue the sentiments behind them? And the drop in VAT brought in by Mr Darling should make it easier to buy cards. Increasing consumption was his stated aim. Dropping those sentences in is a cheap shot that undermines her argument while failing to engage with his.

Come to think of it, the reference to the lawn fertilising company is a bit clunky too – a long way to go for a ‘sniffy about … manure’ joke. It suffers from a similar problem – by saying she doesn’t receive many cards, she rules herself incapable of judging whether receiving a large number is a problem.

By now I’ve stopped expecting Alison’s columns to hang together, with coherent arguments and related points, but still, the conclusion she manages to draw from all this was somewhat surprising:

“If we’re lucky, there may even be a brief moment when we might hear the still, small voice of calm amid the wailing from the prophets of doom.”

Of all the places you might look for it, a story about the erosion of Christmas which portrays a moderate and defensible position as an attempt to undermine the one thing which roots us (“Christmas is the one time of the year when we still know what the rules are, and surprise ourselves by wanting to cling to them.”) is not the best.

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¹ Boredom, probably. It’s the same story every year, the acting is poor and it’s scab labour. You might as well be watching panto.

My A to Z of thrift… (Or why every Lidl helps!)

A piece full of interesting things from Allison Pearson, which is a relief in a week so far filled largely with comment pieces on Peter Mandelson¹.

“I send my warmest wishes and several thermal vests to Anne, who has turned off all the power in her flat and is living by candlelight after getting a string of bullying demands from the appalling energy supplier npower.”

A fascinating anecdote: it would be nitpicking of me to point out that this is only tenuously related to the Credit Crunch as it is either a) the result of error on npower’s part, or b) the result of high global commodity prices rather than a lack of liquidity in the financial markets. So I won’t – I am sure we can let it through on grounds of family resemblance: as the Crunch worsens, we will all be switching off the power rather than pay npower. Anne Myall is thus ahead of the curve, and is some sort of heroine.

As it transpires, this is exactly the thinking:

“I suspect Anne won’t be the last to make a stand. One thing is clear amid the smoking wreckage of the banking system: the era of Competitive Consumption is over.”

thus introducing a previously unsuspected link between Myall’s electricity bills and competitive consumption. Now Anne foreshadows an era in which we will all be switching off the power, rather than pay npower for the electricity we consumed competitively. While on our two foreign holidays.

Now I fully realise this is meant to be a humourous piece, so I can’t expect it to hang together as if it were a cogent article. So what does it matter if the first half doesn’t sensibly introduce the second? And why does this sort of frippery come under the purview of a blog looking at fear and despair?

Humour’s interesting because it rests on common assumptions – the absurdities have to be accepted as such by the audience if the punchline is to work. As a result, in telling the joke the joker reveals a lot about the world of themselves and their audience and the ideas that inform it. The ‘A-Z’ approach allows Pearson to touch on all sorts of themes dear to her reader’s hearts, showing us all sorts of interesting things.

Such as the premise:

“With two million headed for the dole, bragging about two fancy foreign holidays a year will be socially unacceptable.

Please welcome, instead, the age of Competitive Thrift.”

Bragging is fine, and previously bragging about consumption was fine. Now we’re all going to be poor, it’s distasteful (although it wasn’t when it was just other people who were poor). Which is one worldview.

Or take the acceptance of the consumerist ideal of beauty:

“without our expensive cosmetics, we’ll all be looking as rough as Amy Winehouse the morning after”

Note that the cosmetics are all that’s standing between you and [for the sake of this article, the unarguably unattractive] Amy Winehouse, when not looking at her best. Which, even controlling for humorous exaggeration, is a dark view of women². See also the laughs garnered by the suggestion that women were ever stupid enough to wax.

Or the rather revealing comment on Nookie:

“Cheapest form of home entertainment. Could even lead to pleasing surge in declining British birth rate. “

Which on the face of it doesn’t work – having a baby is a very poor solution to having too little money. To have ignored this would seem to suggest that the first sentence was there in service of the second and that we’re suddenly into a point about identity and national identity. Why is this lining silver: because more British babies will be born, the British standing in stark contrast to the ‘Afghans on benefits’ which appear later.³

I could go on: there’s the snobbery of the ‘Lidl’ comment (we used to do it previously but felt it was beneath us), the tortuousness of ‘Rationing’ (an exciting new game show with a title unrelated to its subject matter), the strangeness of a taboo on It girls in a newspaper obsessed with celebrity, and so on. But I won’t. Even if you accept the premises, a joke can go on too long.

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¹ To summarise: the Mail is not a fan

² Sorry to get all Marxist on you, brothers and sisters, but here’s a silver lining: the potential for tighter consumer spending to emancipate us from the fashion-beauty-media complex. The lie that you need products to make you look beautiful is one that generates misery for profit in a way unparalleled by anything short of the arms industry.

³ For those not convinced this is a race thing, try replacing ‘Afghans’ with ‘scroungers’ – suddenly we have a point about the welfare state and not one about immigrants.