Found guilty of kidnapping her own daughter in an attempt to grab a huge ransom, she's been vilified, called lazy, sex mad, and a devious liar. Everyone has an opinion about Karen Matthews, the failed mother who seems to embody all that's wrong with our benefits culture. A pick-and-mix family, kids by a handful of men. Some kids with dads she can't even remember shagging. But is Karen the embodiment of evil? Last week another shocking example of motherhood was in court, Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell, the woman who abused her daughter Constance so badly the young girl turned her memories of a bleak childhood into a best-selling book, Ugly. Carmen claimed it was a pack of lies and sued her daughter for libel. She lost the case.
That both Carmen and Karen were dreadful mothers is beyond any doubt. But evil? Take a look at the case of academic Sally Adams, the fiftysomething singleton who is so desperate to be a mother she has advertised for a sperm donor – but he must be an intellectual who has attended either Oxford or Cambridge. I don't deny any woman the right to long for a child, but Ms Adams has relegated the role of a father to the level of sperm supplier with a high IQ and no more. In this respect, I can't see how she's all that different from Karen Matthews, albeit aiming for a better gene pool. Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell produced 11 children, and when Constance's father disappeared, her mother did nothing when the new stepdad started to treat her cruelly.
In all of this there is a thread: men aren't really seen as fundamental to a balanced family life. The mothers make the rules and run what is laughingly called a "home" in their own bizarre way. Normal standards of behaviour don't apply. In the Baby P case, the little boy's mother was completely in the thrall of her new boyfriend, immune to the cruelty he inflicted on her son. Baby's P's mother and Karen Matthews spent their days in similar fashion. Karen would send her kids to school for their breakfast – she didn't cook. Baby P's mother and Karen whiled away their time watching daytime telly and scanning the internet. Most of their benefits went on booze and cigarettes. During the school holidays Karen dosed her daughter Shannon with tranquillisers to make her easier to handle. Her sister claims that she even taped a plastic bag to one baby's bottom in order to save money on nappies.
We seem to have become a society where officials are so scared of demonising mothers that they come up with euphemistic language to describe wilful neglect. One report said that Karen would "require constant monitoring and support throughout the lives of her children" – but still she went on breeding and taping bin bags to their little backsides.
A new study claims that as many as one in 10 children is abused. That abuse might not be physical. It could just be emotional deprivation. Even allowing for a woolly definition of abuse, it's clear that a lot of women have a very damaged relationship with their offspring. Breaking the cycle of poor parenting is difficult. Bad mums aren't a product of the benefits culture; they've been around for ever. What's astonishing is that we stand by and let them flourish, when we're supposed to be the caring society with so many support systems in place.
Gorgeous George: Film star or not, he still buys his own drinks
There's been much debate about whether the moustache he's grown for his latest movie role adds to or detracts from the gorgeousness of George Clooney. Does it confirm him as the new Clark Gable? After spending a couple of hours in his company last Thursday, I can vouch for the glamour, with or without the greying little brush that sprouts under his nose.
I've had some tough assignments, but running the auction at a fund-raising dinner for the actor's favourite charity, the Not on Our Watch foundation, was probably the most nerve-racking, as the celebrity audience included Kid Rock and Matt Damon, who sportingly splashed out $40,000 (£27,400) to spend a day with surfing legend Laird Hamilton.
George Clooney was out on the town last week, turning down the offer of a VIP table in a nightclub the night before the charity dinner, behaving like a normal human being and buying his own round of drinks at the bar. He's knowledgeable and serious about Darfur – and helped to raise a huge sum of money by chatting to all the guests and making the party go with a swing. He's currently playing a soldier in the film of Jon Ronson's dark satire 'The Men Who Stare at Goats'. In 1979, the US Army set up a secret unit who used ancient Chinese mind techniques to achieve amazing stunts, claiming they could walk through walls and kill goats by staring at them.
In the flesh, Clooney is thin and wiry – and is said to get in shape by running up mountains. I'll think I'll have another mince pie and pop on one of his DVDs. It's a lot less effort than slogging up the Highlands to achieve that washboard midriff.
Matt Damon, by the way, reached my knees – how on earth did they shoot 'The Bourne Identity'? Does everyone else stand in gutters?
Shop till your mouse drops
I spent hours last week Christmas shopping, hunched over my computer and surrounded by magazine cuttings of gift ideas available on the internet.
I've gone online to avoid the traffic and the effort of lugging bags around – and I'm not alone. Last Monday there were a record 4.6 million purchases online, worth about £300m.
But shopping online doesn't deliver the buzz you get from feeling the fabric or smelling the packaging, does it? And the best way of limiting spending is to stick to what you can carry. Sadly, that doesn't apply to internet purchasing, so I predict even bigger credit card debts in January.
Spirit-raising measure backfires
When VAT was reduced to 15 per cent as part of an attempt to reinvigorate the economy and get us spending, the Chancellor increased the tax on alcohol so that we weren't encouraged to binge on cheap booze. After whisky distillers complained, he didn't impose this rise on spirits. Consequently, alcopops, containing 5 per cent spirits and aimed at the young, have actually gone down in price, while beer has gone up by a penny a pint and wine by nearly 4p a bottle. Even more confusingly, the Queen's Speech proposals didn't seek to ban happy hours, but to curb offers that promise "all you can drink for £10". The proposed ban on supermarket promotions will hit middle-class wine drinkers more than young boozers. I'm not sure that this is a joined-up policy.