Beware the press when money and arrogance are on the loose

Andrew Marr on Mary Bell and the British press

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THIS is not another article about Mary Bell. It is about the rest of us, and in particular the press. We are supposed to be living in a gentler, calmer country - ''Cool Britannia'' - a nation blandly at ease with itself, basking in the semi-perpetual smile of its young leader. The old cruelties and savagery are behind us; life may be duller than in the Eighties, but it is nicer.

Now comes the Hunt for Mary, a savage and pointless episode which disgraces tabloid journalism and makes hypocrites of broadsheet people too. Let us review its successes so far.

Success one: on Wednesday night, a 14-year-old girl's life was suddenly turned upside down when she learned her mother had killed two boys at the age of eleven. She discovered this traumatic fact not gently or at a time of her mother's choosing, but because her house was surrounded by journalists in the middle of the night. Now that girl is stuck in police custody with no idea of what will happen next. This is a great thing to happen in a civilised and caring country, isn't it?

Success two: the families of Mary Bell's victims, who have by all accounts been living damaged lives ever since the 1968 murders, have had their privacy and fragile peace smashed apart. There is a Richardson grandson who didn't know he had an uncle, killed at the age of four, until a couple of weeks ago. Why is their pain stirred up? Because Gitta Sereny, The Times and then other papers decided the motives of the killer were so interesting that the victims' families' feelings must come second.

Success three: some newspapers have been sold on the back of this. Not very many, though. The tabloids were estimating no significant effect on their sale during the first couple of days of the story, though that could change now, while of the broadsheets, only The Times itself has seen any real rise. Even then, we are probably talking about 14-20,000 per day, or around 2-3 per cent, over the first couple of days, which is small beer by its standards. Perhaps this is one of those ''sensational'' stories editors think sell papers, but which leave most normal people cold.

This newspaper has reported the story, and that's our job; but we are bitterly unhappy that the story is running at all. It might have been all right had the original Times book deal stopped there; but the payment of Mary Bell has given worse papers their excuse to dig her out.

Particularly disgraceful was The Sun, which gave a fistful of clues to the Bell family's whereabouts. The paper then published a letter from the two victims' families to Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, which concluded that Bell ''should be found, named and shamed into paying back this money". I'm all for shamed, though she has been already, and for her paying her money to charity. But why ''found''? What is the point of ''found'' unless to mob her, or worse?

The payment question is real, of course. There is something distasteful in the paying of criminals for their stories, however harrowing they find the business of retelling the past. Was it worth paying this person? In my view, no. I think Gitta Sereny is guilty of overstating the importance of her book and what it reveals.

And her explanation why she paid Bell is at best grossly naive. Sereny said, in a letter to the victims' families that ''If I hadn't done so, I would have made myself guilty of done to her virtually since she was born: to use her.'' Yet Bell, and more importantly, Bell's daughter is being used. Sereny was, literally, the author behind a chain of completely predictable events - serialisation, outrage, pursuit - which have probably destroyed that damaged family's last hopes of happiness or normality. What do a few thousand quid mean compared to that?

Bizarrely, though, the Government's reaction to this story has missed the point entirely. Instead of focussing on the way in which a media hunt was spreading the damage in the Bell family to yet another generation, and stirring up the victims' families' memories, the Prime Minister attacked the financial deal. ''I cannot instinctively feel it is right that someone should make money out of crimes that are absolutely appalling,'' said Tony Blair.

It's a perfectly reasonable view - unchallengeable, even - though it applies just as much to many other crime exploitation wheezes that go unchallenged, such as the use of Mad Frankie Frazer to advertise a disgustingly sugary drink.

In fact, to focus on the original Mary Bell crimes and Sereny's decision to pay her, rather than the hounding of the family now, Blair was taking the easy option. He was confirming the tabloid agenda rather than challenging it. Jack Straw, another thoroughly decent man, might, as Home Secretary, have said something about the media frenzy, particularly since his own family have endured something similar. Instead he shored up the Sun's self-righteous populism by replying to the parents in an open letter.

What should Mr Blair have done? He might have questioned the decision to serialise the book in the first place, thus creating the media frenzy that ensued. If he'd taken a bigger canvas, he should, and could, have suggested that we must eschew language about ''monsters'' and realise that abuse creates abuse, cruelty provokes cruelty. To understand is not always to forgive, but it gives hope. That would have been an act of genuinely Christian leadership.

But even if all that's asking too much, the Prime Minister certainly should have attacked papers like The Sun for coming close to breaking the law in homing in on the Bell home. But that, of course, would have been an anti-Murdoch act. This was all, it seems, a little too courageous for New Labour. Better go for the elderly author with the funny accent and the anonymous killer, the monster. The requirements of tabloid populism are seemingly so engrained that they cannot be evaded, even by a government as popular as this one.

There are no heroes in this story. Crass exploitation of human misery is our real theme, whether it masquerades as high-minded social analysis or indulges in the language of the lynch mob. Editors followed the scent of money, and acted as right humbuggers the while. Politicians followed their new masters in the press, instead of stopping and thinking and giving a real lead. The author, Gitta Sereny doesn't seem to have written a book so extraordinary that all this misery is justified; yet her common-sense attitude to why evil happens is still infinitely preferable to the rantings about monsters and revenge.

In the end money and arrogance have merely made a few sad lives a little bit worse. Happy, everyone?

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