Janet Street-Porter: Why we shouldn't blame Sarah Jane

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The Independent Online

Sarah Jane Porter sits in prison, serving a 32-month sentence for inflicting grievous bodily harm, having been tried and found guilty once by a court of law and once by the British press. Her crime? Infecting a man with the Aids virus.

Reading the press coverage of this case, Ms Porter sounds like an angel of death, having had unprotected sex with at least four men after having been diagnosed HIV positive. You would be forgiven for thinking that her behaviour was way beyond reckless - verging on the sadistic. But does the punishment fit the crime?

Detective Sergeant Brian McClusky told journalists that he could not comprehend why Ms Porter had "set about this deliberate chain of events... revenge might have been one possible motive".

The full facts suggest a different picture, and raise important issues. Firstly, the case was not brought to the police's attention by the main complainant, the former lover who contracted the HIV virus from Ms Porter, but by an earlier boyfriend. The man who turned out to be HIV-positive was also, as the judge was made aware, having sex with more than one other woman at the time.

In their eagerness to demonise Ms Porter, journalists seem to have overlooked the tragic situation she found herself in. I do not condone her behaviour in any way, but undoubtedly the fact that all the men involved are black adds a another dimension.

Sarah Jane was an attractive blonde who liked clubbing, with a friendly, positive personality - valuable attributes in her former job as a receptionist in a fashionable hairdressers salon. In 2000 she contracted the HIV virus from a man she was in a long-term relationship with. After she gave birth to their child (who mercifully is not infected), the man left her.

Over a period of time, this single mother struggled to bring up her son and mentally deal with her predicament. She was in denial about her medical situation, and though she received counselling she gradually abandoned the sessions. At this point her mental state deteriorated and she became anorexic, then suicidal, attempting to take her life on several occasions.

Early in 2005, Ms Porter decided to seek help and received retroviral drugs for the first time. She subsequently sought the help of the Cascade counselling service, and gradually came to accept her situation.

Does anyone come out of this sad story with any credit? None of the men involved opted to use a condom - and Ms Porter did not insist on unprotected sex on every occasion, no matter what the press coverage implies. Everyone concerned was over the age of consent, all intelligent people who knew the dangers of sex with numerous partners. She chose, as was her right, to answer "no comment" to all police questions, a fact that has given rise to unfair stories which imply that she refused to help the police to trace her lovers. The concept of "revenge" is something that appears to exists in Detective McCluskey's mind only.

There is no doubt that she has never been what The Sun so tastelessly calls "an Aids avenger". She was (and may still be) suffering from mental illness, and should have received psychiatric help from the very first moment she was diagnosed as HIV positive.

She and her child have now been harrassed by photographers. Her incarceration achieves absolutely nothing and leaves a little boy without a mum - a community service order would have been far more appropriate. And the case itself will deter many heterosexual men and women from having Aids tests, because of fear that the results might be used against them in a court of law by jealous former lovers. Her plight is a disaster for everyone working with Aids.

Let's celebrate good buildings for a change

CABE (the Commission for the built environment) has announced a competition to find the ugliest buildings in Britain, and is asking the public to send in their votes. A television series called Demolition (presented by myself and Kevin McCloud), aired on Channel 4 before Christmas, did exactly this, so it's not exactly an original concept. Time to move on. Secondly, this is a negative idea from an organisation that is meant to encourage excellence. Why not ask the public to nominate buildings they find attractive and fit for purpose? Last Friday, I opened ARC, above, the new architecture centre in Hull, a real gem of a building, designed by Niall McLaughlin. Niall conducted a series of consultations with community groups, and the result is a playful, quirky little structure that sings out at us. It couldn't be anywhere else. Celebrating the dismal is not going to fast-track better buildings for the future.

* Now Prezza has earned nothing but brickbats for playing croquet at Dorneywood, none of his political colleagues are exactly rushing to take the place over. Suddenly, these luxurious grace-and-favour pads - like the 21-room Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire, a couple of vacant flats in Admiralty Arch and a house in Eaton Place, Belgravia - are sitting empty as Cabinet ministers realise that moving in to one would be a kamikaze career move. Once, upwardly mobile politicians were fighting over these estate agent's dreams; now, no one wants to be seen as living life too lavishly. Tessa Jowell, John Reid, Des Brown and Hilary Armstrong have all declined to be re-housed, and I fully expect at least one of them to be erecting wind turbines on their roofs and boasting about their compost-making machines. These days, being eco-friendly definitely plays well with voters - and so far, David Cameron has made all the running.