The Media Column: The press never got to the heart of Myra Hindley

I would, if I could, prohibit any further use of the word "devastated". To say that you are "devastated", as is repeated on bulletins, in reports and just about anywhere, can mean that your child has just been murdered or that your holiday flight has been cancelled. You're devastated if you don't make it through to the next round of
Pop Bollocks and if you survive a bomb explosion that kills your best friend. So now, meaning everything, the word means nothing. It has become a barrier, not an aid, to understanding.

I would, if I could, prohibit any further use of the word "devastated". To say that you are "devastated", as is repeated on bulletins, in reports and just about anywhere, can mean that your child has just been murdered or that your holiday flight has been cancelled. You're devastated if you don't make it through to the next round of Pop Bollocks and if you survive a bomb explosion that kills your best friend. So now, meaning everything, the word means nothing. It has become a barrier, not an aid, to understanding.

Over the years, the standard exchanges on Myra Hindley, illustrated by the iconic peroxide mugshot and the passport photos of the children she helped to murder, have also become an obstacle to comprehension. The picture of the toothy Keith Bennett with his Sixties haircut (the same one I wore back then) and his glasses has been repeated so often that no one sees the real child, nor has done for 30 years. And this is not just a tabloid sin. Just as the red-tops have made the use of the word "evil" banal, the broadsheets have gradually made the discussion of repentance and punishment equally ritualised and devoid of meaning.

This weekend, we struggled for useful things to say about this anti-Diana of ours. Apart from discovering that I am just about the only journalist over the age of 40 who never met Hindley, I have found out little else that I didn't know a long, long time ago.

To me, as to other liberals, the quality and nature of Hindley's repentance was the main thing. Some people, of course, wouldn't care. But for those of us who believe that human beings are not murderous savages held in check only by the threat of communal violence, it was important to understand exactly what she did and why, and whether she had arrived at a full internal reckoning. What was always difficult for us was the Catch-22 of her incarceration: if she really understood the full dreadfulness of what she had done to those children and their families, then she would never have asked to be released, and because she understood and had never asked, then – just maybe – she could one day be let out.

In interview after interview and correspondence after profile, there was something missing. The problem for the media was not that we added nothing over the years, but that she added nothing. One reason, I think, that offenders "get" religion is to suggest repentance and change without fully having to confront the people within themselves that committed the crime. Had Hindley been as serious as she needed to be about killing and torturing the children (and their parents), she would have turned to the tough love of analysis, and not the sentimentality of transcendent forgiveness. It is interesting that when, at last, she did talk a bit about the murders, it was the killing of Lesley Ann Downey, in whose case there was direct taped evidence of her involvement, that she refused to discuss at all.

The institutional barriers to obtaining from criminals a full account of their crimes are huge. The system of appeals and paroles is not designed to encourage the fullest possible admission of real guilt. Even so, those of us opposed to capital punishment deploy many arguments, but one of the most powerful is that we can comprehend the reasons for certain kinds of crime only if we keep alive those who committed them. And that does sometimes happen. Gitta Sereny's interviews with Mary Bell add something important to our understanding of the child as murderer, and one wishes that Hindley had agreed to brave the ferocious scrutiny that Sereny has always brought to her subjects.

But she didn't, and we can only guess at why. And that is the epitaph on the Hindley case, and the reason everything seems so unsatisfactory and flat. Despite millions of words and thousands of pictures, we still don't understand what happened behind the eyes.

david.aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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