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.

What sort of society have we become when a good Samaritan is kicked to death and a suicidal man jeered by a mob?

Stephen Glover has a problem with statistics:

“Crime, according to some statistics, has fallen in recent years. Others argue convincingly that violent crime has risen. We can bandy about figures as much as we like”

And who could blame him? By their very nature, statistics depersonalise events reducing them from one off incidents of personal significance

“My own teenage son was beaten up in [Oxford] centre a few years ago.”

to a series of numbers in a table

Number of violent crimes per 1,000 population

2002/03

2003/04 2004/05

2005/06

2006/07

Oxford City

24.57

24.51 26.54 28.04 31.82

[Source: Oxfordshire Data Observatory].

They reduce arguments to a counting of beans, as if the numbers themselves were what mattered and not what they represent.

But here’s a thing: I work in Oxford and am yet to be mugged, which presents a bit of a problem. In their isolation, we have conflicting anecdotes. Devoid of context, we can do nothing with them – they speak of an individual experience of crime, but not of the world in which that experience occurred. Significant personally, if anyone else wanted to draw significance from them, they would need to see how they fitted into a wider picture.

There are two ways to get our wider picture. This is Stephen Glover’s

“We can bandy about figures as much as we like, but Frank McGarahan died a shocking death all the same”

In one sentence we move from the thematic to the episodic. From there, it’s just a short jump into the narrative.

“Norwich does not yet have the reputation of Los Angeles. It is a cathedral city where a street murder of this sort would have been scarcely imaginable 20 or 30 years ago.”

Effortlessly, the anecdote moves from being part of a wider empirical world where we can ask questions like ‘how typical’ into being part of a story where typicality is a condition of inclusion. The import of the anecdote is taken as a given; the world is in decline and this proves it.¹

The problem with taking this approach is that by separating events from their context we can use them to confirm almost anything. ² With our conclusion already in place, we can draw on anything we like, drawing post hoc causal links as we go along

“How oddly symbolic, too, that Mr McGarahan’s murder should have happened outside a lap-dancing club.”

As with our conflicting mugging anecdotes though, we have a problem. On its own, each story is just that, a story. In the Mail

“the police sometimes struggle to maintain law and order, where they can seem ineffectual in turning the tide of mindless violence, and where there are terrifying gangs of amoral youths “

At which point, we might wonder whether we need argue. If Stephen Glover thinks the world is getting worse, for him it probably is. This is, in itself, no small tragedy. The story though, perpetuates. There will always be things that shock us, or social policies which offend us, which reflect our decline and feed our fear. Fearful people seek action to reduce their fear, and fear without context demands action which matches. By the time he’s finished, Stephen is applauding mob justice and ‘zero tolerance policing’, which is an easy position to take when you can be sure it won’t be you being mobbed or policed. He tells the story because it justifies his fear and in telling it he spreads that fear. We lose the faculty to evaluate, and the fear becomes free-standing. The risk of crime decreases while its fear increases.

Stephen Glover can never know whether he is right – all he has is perception and belief, unchecked against the real world. Given that the narrative approach he uses moves backwards from conclusion to evidence, he can only ever be right by coincidence, not design. Even if the statistics were as questionable as he claims, chances are he’d be wrong. Which might be something worth considering.

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¹ We can think of these approaches as ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ – in the former we take our facts an look for the conclusions we can base on them, in the latter we have our conclusion and look for bolstering evidence.

² From the same starting point, I could tell tale of the heroic rescue of a Lithuanian man by a stranger – someone who would give their life to save someone they’d never met before. Strangers are wonderful – there has always been crime, but it’s surprising how often strangers intervene like guardian angels. We hear about them all the time, from which we can safely conclude that there are a lot of them out there, protecting us.