Mary Bell: ice is the antidote to sympathy for the devil

THE devil has many masks. Most recently, it has emerged in the form of a 41-year-old mother called Mary Bell. A few of us, including Gitta Sereny and myself, believe that these devils are the figment of heated overripe imaginations. Peel back the mask and you'll find a very human face.

Gitta Sereny's Cries Unheard has been pilloried, not only for paying the devil, but for presenting her as one of us. Some have suggested that Bell, who could not have found a more sympathetic biographer, has calculatedly misled Sereny, ensnared her in a psychological honey trap. June Richardson, mother of one of Mary Bell's victims, has complained that the book "does not tell the whole story"; the murderer's is the only voice we hear.

I, too, have been accused of having sympathy with the devil. In January, my film about paedophiles was broadcast on Channel Four. The Devil amongst Us consisted of a series of interviews with men who had, or desired to have, sexual contact with children. The tabloid press and children's charities immediately called for the film to be withdrawn. I was accused of being duped, and of giving paedophiles a platform. It was claimed that I didn't distance myself enough from my subjects.

I confess: I liked the men I met. They were not monsters. Some were very good company; I enjoyed going out for a meal with them. Others entertained me at their house magnificently, pouring me another glass of wine.

Then, as each meeting moved on late into the night, we'd touch on their attitude to children. "I think a four-year-old could quite want, even initiate, sex with me," a 49-year-old said. After an evening in his charming company, it was hard to throw up my hands in horror. I would lean back, listen, absorb. It was,frighteningly, almost possible to feel, at that moment, that perhaps being a paedophile wasn't so reprehensible after all.

But as the front door clicked behind me, the comfort of his company seeped away. I abhorred the desires that had been expressed. When I returned home to my young daughter, I would brutally remind myself, these desires were not abstract. It was my daughter that he would like to have sex with.

What began, for me, as a moment of awareness, became a moment of professional practice. I found it important to provide myself with constant reminders of the true nature of the men I was meeting. While I was eager to get inside their minds, it was important that their world view, their interpretation, their version of events, was not the only one I consulted. It was important to step outside that claustrophobic interview room. I refused to be seduced.

It is not at all clear how far along the path to seduction Sereny went with Bell. But here is clear evidence that the process had begun. Sereny constantly refers to Bell's humanity, as if this alone were evidence enough for lack of moral culpability for her crime. She notes that Bell is fervently anti-racist, and is careful to record her frequent tears. Her love for her teenage child is presented as extraordinary, as if it weren't the most natural thing in the world for a woman to care for her daughter. In interviews that are said to have lasted up to 10 hours a day, over a period of five months, it is easy to see how it would be to take that one step back, for the interviewer to refer to a moral order outside the interview room.

Disturbingly, Sereny - a writer who ought to share Graham Greene's "splinter of ice" - describes her feelings towards Bell as "love and affection". If we love someone, we find excuses for them. Current theory presents sexual abuse in childhood as a formula to forgive almost any crime - from murder, through thievery to further sexual abuse.

Sereny has every right to produce a brave book about Mary Bell. But the quest should not be for forgiveness; it should be for understanding. We must be careful that the humanity of criminals - the friendship, the tear - does not seduce us. While the mob, and much of the media is boiling with rage, we should remain cool. The splinter of ice should never melt.