Tom Sutcliffe: Victims should not be allowed to shape law

Click to follow

What kind of qualification is victimhood? That it has become a kind of licence is beyond doubt – but we're still a little unclear about its exact entitlements. And if I'm honest I'm being a bit disingenuous by phrasing this in such abstract terms because what I really mean to ask is how exactly Denise Fergus's experience – as the mother of James Bulger – qualifies her to talk on questions of criminology, psychology and jurisprudence? To put it more bluntly still – should we listen to what she says on such matters?

That we should at least hear her out seems to me straightforward. Her attack on the Children's Commissioner Maggie Atkinson for remarks that she characterised as "twisted and insensitive" implicitly laid out one of the grounds for patient indulgence. We owe victims some sensitivity about their experience, at the very least. And when that experience is as terrible and unique as Denise Fergus's is, it isn't really a hard duty to fulfil. Prurience – or basic human sympathy if you prefer a less prejudicial term – means that anything she has to say is likely to be of interest to us.

I would have thought too that she has valuable and instructive things to say about what it is like to have a private tragedy become public property, chewed over by the world media. She can address, with a ghastly and unenviable expertise, what happens when the press simplify and sentimentalise your family life and what it feels like to have your grief become a hot commodity. I would have thought too that she might have things to tell us about how police handle the process of giving parents the worst possible news and what it is like to sit through a trial that has become a media feeding frenzy.

What I'm less sure about is whether her experience gives her the right to encounter no contradictions to her own, understandably passionate, views on retribution and child psychology – fields in which her experience is pointedly limited. She appears to think so, given her response to Ms Atkinson's suggestion that it was wrong to try her son's killers as adults. Not only did Ms Atkinson owe her an apology, she suggested, but she should then either resign or "be sacked". Never mind that Ms Atkinson had prefaced her remarks with a careful acknowledgement of how terrible the Bulger killing was. And never mind that her professional responsibility is to children in general, rather than Ms Fergus's feelings as a bereaved mother. She should go.

I should probably declare an interest here. I think that Ms Atkinson was right and Ms Fergus was wrong. It was shaming that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were tried as if they were adults and even more shaming that a howling mob should have beaten on the side of the police vans transporting them from the police station where they were questioned. And it isn't "stupid" to suggest that categorising a 10-year-old as "truly evil" might be over-simplistic – a way of conveniently brushing a terrible crime under the carpet rather than trying to comprehend how it could happen once and might be prevented from happening again. But even if you disagree with that view – you might concede that it is worth at least thinking seriously about the matter and not muting any arguments simply because they might upset the mother of the victim. And you might be open, too, to the view that grief doesn't always enhance your ability to think clearly about such matters – that it could actually be a disqualification rather than the other way round. Denise Fergus may have a right to our sympathy and understanding. But she doesn't have a right to our agreement or a veto on differing opinions.

My envy at France's upholding of the value of citizenship

I'm broadly inclined to the view that everyone is entitled to their own lunacy, provided they harm only themselves. I also think that defending a tolerant society by banning things you find offensive or alien is a somewhat perverse operation. Indeed putting up with other people's offensiveness would seem to be a necessary condition of tolerance.

So – even though I personally find the sight of niqabs and burkas in the street thoroughly depressing – I'm inclined to think that a blanket prohibition (an unusually appropriate term in this context) wouldn't be a good idea. Yes the niqab says ugly things about women's place in the world and about relationships between the sexes. But it wouldn't really be English to outlaw it – a statement that is brought into sharper focus by the fact that the French – so much more dirigiste when it comes to public life – are shortly to vote on just such a plan.

What I can't entirely suppress, though, is envy – at the prospect that a universal value of citizenship may win out over a narrow sectarian stridency. When the French outlawed the hijab in schools there were widespread predictions of social conflagration and terrorist retaliation. Now Muslim schoolgirls routinely remove their headscarves at the gates and replace them as they emerge, and a valuable principle has been preserved. It can't help but make you wonder whether common sense occasionally needs its zealots too.

A sense of belonging – however weird you are

Apparently yesterday was the internet's birthday – or one of them, anyway, it being 25 years since the very first dotcom was registered.

It's too early to say – of course – exactly how the various revolutions it ushered in will play out. But along with a celebration of the internet's transforming effect on commerce, social networking and journalism we should perhaps acknowledge another of its achievements, which has been to ensure that no fetishist – however implausible or recherché his or her taste – will ever feel lonely again. In times past, people with an erotic attraction to car exhausts or party balloons or dressing up as a woodland creature would probably have had to pursue their kink alone – a sexual Robinson Crusoe only very rarely encountering a like-minded Friday.

These days, though, a welcoming "community" is only a click away, as are countless paid-for services to sate even the most bizarre yearnings. This truth was confirmed by the story of Donna Simpson, the New Jersey woman, currently 273kg, who aims to eat herself into the record books by reaching a weight of 1,000lbs (just over 450 kg).

In the past mere economics might have put paid to Donna's scheme since her weekly food bill is almost as big as she is – and she's in no condition to take on paid employment. Now, though, the internet allows Donna to work at home – running a website which charges people for the titilating opportunity to watch her eat fast-food.

Brave new world, not that it has such people in it – but that it allows them to find each other so readily.