TELEVISION / A wickedness that leaves you trembling

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The Independent Culture
LAST NIGHT, World in Action (ITV) broadcast a report so painful and enraging that I think it probably amounted to an incitement to violence. The subject matter was the difficulties the police have in bringing successful prosecutions for the domestic murder of children - a volatile issue in any circumstances. But World in Action was concentrating on those cases in which the prime suspects had exercised their right to remain silent, leaving the police powerless.

In 1992 Kim Griffin, a 10-month-old baby, was killed. She had a serious fracture to the skull, multiple fractures to the ribs and fractures to her upper arm and shoulder-joint, consistent with violent twisting and pulling. Her parents refused to answer questions at the inquest or to give the police any account of how she came by the injuries and as a result nobody was charged with the death. Word of this loophole appears to have spread among child- abusers (or at least to the solicitors who represent them) as World in Action offered several other examples, just as horrifying, just as emotionally charged.

You might have expected World in Action to go into some of the complexity of this matter, to examine why the law is powerless in some cases and not in others and to untangle how the right to silence really bears on the issue. It didn't. Michael Zander, who sat on the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, was given 14 seconds to state that there was 'simply' no connection, but no time at all to explain why it was so simple. Even if you disapproved you could understand why. Most viewers would have become one-man mobs by this stage, inflamed by the sheer injustice of such cruelty going unpunished. The time for words was over, as they say in the movies, and World in Action was intent on redress rather than reason. Instead of labouring through jurisprudence it presented its most detailed case history, that of Tommy Bannister.

Tommy's parents, Jackie Bannister and Dale Hogg, broke up soon after he was born. About a month after Jackie's new boyfriend, Robert Harvey, moved in with her Tommy was found dead behind his bedroom door, covered in bruises. The autopsy revealed he had a ruptured intestine and had probably been in pain for a week. Both Jackie and Harvey denied having harmed him, though Harvey baby-sat in the evening, when Jackie worked in a club.

Because Jackie and another witness were prepared to talk, World In Action was able to mount a strong circumstantial case that Harvey had been responsible for Tommy's injuries and that he had violently beaten the child as he lay dying from his internal injuries. He had other convictions for assault and had hit Tommy before ('I thought he had learnt his lesson,' said Jackie, who talked throughout with disgusting composure). The film turned the screw even tighter by showing videos of the dead boy, and including his father's recollection of how it felt to have him fall asleep in his arms.

If Harvey is guilty (and he had no defence counsel here) he is a man untroubled by conscience. Confronted in the street he adopted a pose of confident insolence, deflecting the reporter's accusations in a cocky drawl. The final frame of the film froze him in a position of cheerful contempt, giving a thumbs-up to the camera and grinning broadly, framed in the darkness of a doorway. It was calculated to enrage, both on his part and on that of World in Action, and it worked, an image of human wickedness which left you trembling but no wiser about the deficiencies of the law. World in Action delivered the verdict - you wonder how they will feel if someone decides to carry out the sentence.

Even the determined sweetness of Sister Wendy's Grand Tour (BBC2) couldn't quite take the taste away. I really try to dislike Sister Wendy (and she helps out, with her religiose raptures and that odd glide, which suggests she has castors concealed beneath her habit) but she gets so much enjoyment out of her excursions and they show you such nice pictures that I haven't succeeded yet.