Nanny Trial: Britain's xenophobic response hides the real issue - a clash of cultures

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The Independent Online
It has not been an easy week to be an American. "Oh send that poor little girl home!" chorused a group watching Louise Woodward on television in mid-week. Everyone around us nodded in agreement. Except me.

Why should Louise Woodward go home if she is guilty? Why is it that whenever a British girl ends up on trial abroad, she must be innocent. Or, if not innocent, then not really guilty. Certainly not the kind of guilty that involves consequences.

It is terrifying to see how easily Britain slips into insularity and ignorance.

On Thursday night, an expert appeared on the BBC's Newsnight programme to say that such a thing would never happen in a British court. More frightening still is that many people probably believe that and some have even asked me.

It is this kind of xenophobia that hides the real issue between America and Britain over this case and that is cultural.

Louise may have thought she was heading off on a gap year where she would squeeze some work in while having lots of fun in America. But there is no concept of "gap year" in the United States, nor is there any widespread understanding of the rather slippery role of an au pair.

America is a work-oriented society. People - even extremely successful professionals - take two weeks vacation a year. At Christmas you take one day and then go back to work.

It is also a country that takes contracts seriously. In general you can assume that if you sign a piece of paper in America you may be held to it.

But this is not the kind of thing that people want to talk about. Instead they want to find fault with American justice (though it could just as easily be France or Italy or Thailand on another week).

"Why is that little girl even on trial?" asked a woman. If you are American the only thing to do upon hearing this was to shrug. The US justice system is in no way perfect - miscarriages of justice can occur even in death penalty cases - but then again no court system is.

The next thing to be attacked was the American childcare system. "In the US, there just hasn't been a strong appreciation of the need for quality child-care," says Ann Collins, a senior researcher on child care at the National Centre for Children in Poverty at Columbia University in New York. I'm not sure who Ann Collins has been talking to but all the working parents I know in America talk of little else.

Then, finally, it was the turn of American parents to take the blame. "How could they treat her like a skivvy?" was a typical comment. I found this puzzling.

Louise was required to make dinner one night a week, do the children's laundry, change the sheets and keep the rooms tidy. She was also asked to help set the table and empty the dishwasher.

It's not a great life - especially for a measly $115 a week plus room and board - but it's not the end of the world either. Lots of parents in this country insist on similar devotion to duty while paying a pittance.

If Louise Woodward had known more about what was expected of her in America she may have decided the job was not for her.

The underlying story is one of clashing cultures, not which system of justice would have provided a fairer trial. But that's not the kind of thing you can say this week.