Someone must take the blame

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The Independent Culture
You don't often find them on the television, but what a bizarre modern morality tale Inside Story (BBC1) had to tell.

It concerned Caroline Beale, a 30-year-old English woman who went to New York on holiday last year, gave birth in a hotel room to a baby no one, including her boyfriend who was with her, knew she was expecting and then tried to return to England carrying it under her coat. It was dead at the time.

She is presently in custody in New York, awaiting trial for murder. And, since she is banged up in the land of the free, this entitles her to invite television camera crews into her cell 24 hours a day. Generally did-they- or-didn't-they yarns presented by programmes like Rough Justice are a bit like dinner round Macbeth's place: a crucial protagonist is usually missing. But here we had Caroline herself, centre-stage, perhaps the most tearful alleged murderer in the history of recorded crime.

Not that she was the only one in camera. This being something of a test case, and one in which the media had shown considerable interest, all sorts of experts and interested parties had jumped aboard Caroline's bandwagon to cloud the moral picture.

What appeared to be a straight-forward infanticide rap had transmogrified into a mosaic of conflicting opinion. Most of which, it seems, was anxious to propose the thesis prevalent in the American judicial system that nobody should ever be held responsible for their actions. Killed your parents? Their fault for abusing you. Killed you husband? His fault for abusing you. Killed your baby? Its fault for upsetting your hormones.

It was fortunate, then, that we had Nick Caitliff's film to guide us expertly through the tangled mess of evidence and counter-evidence. He presented the story rather as a whodunnit, answering questions almost as soon as you thought of them. How, for instance, could Caroline's family not know she was pregnant? Well, there was a home video taken two weeks before the birth of her looking inexplicably flat stomached. Why would she want to conceal a pregnancy when her whole life seemed geared towards suburban home-making? Well, there was a talking head of a psychiatrist popping up to tell us she was consumed with grief after the death of her best friend and could not bring herself to present good news to her circle of pals.

And what of the boyfriend? What did he have to say about the unexplained death of his own child? In perhaps the most telling moment of the film it was revealed that he had all but abandoned Caroline to her fate, not once in 11 months even visiting her in prison.

Perhaps he just couldn't fathom the whole affair. Caroline's parents, resolute, dignified and almost bankrupt from cross-Atlantic scuttling, certainly couldn't. All they could do was chant their defensive mantra "she's just an ordinary girl".

But the person who seemed least equipped to deal with the case was Caroline herself. Indeed it made you wonder how the cameras from Inside Story told her yarn with the degree of balance and dispassion they maintained, given the endless water-works she unleashed. Not that you sympathised with her; rather the opposite. The temptation, as she wiped yet another flash flood from her cheeks and said "why are they doing this to me" for the fifth time, must have been to suggest the key should be thrown away immediately.

For this was the nub of the tale: someone had to be blamed for the death of Caroline's baby, and no amount of responsibility-avoidance, snivelling and blubbing could detract from the attractiveness of the proposition offered by New York's District Attorney that it was probably Caroline.

n Thomas Sutcliffe returns on Monday