Tom Sutcliffe: Why we change the crime to fit the story

Social Studies: We want life to have significance – and so we're eager for details that make sense of the senseless

Related Topics

At least Max Clifford and the father of Meredith Kerchner have a good excuse. Both men have recently delivered categorical pronouncements on the guilt or innocence of a person under the shadow of legal proceedings.

In Clifford's case it was Shrien Dewani, accused of procuring the murder of his wife while on honeymoon in South Africa, and Mr Clifford's excuse was that protesting Mr Dewani's innocence was exactly what he was being paid to do. In the case of Meredith Kerchner's father, interviewed recently as Amanda Knox's appeal hearings began in Italy, the excuse was parental grief – which seems fiercely defensive of the idea that his daughter was killed by three people rather than just one. He was openly outraged by the idea that Knox should attempt to prove her innocence – as if her guilt was one of the few consolations left to him. And if you were judging their take on these matters I suppose you'd note first that they're both interested parties.

We're all interested parties of course, and not just in the sense that these two stories have proved utterly gripping in their unfolding. Because we rush to judgement as well, and are tempted to do so by our appetites for a particular kind of narrative.

You could see this at work most dramatically after the recent arrest of Julian Assange, with his detractors apparently deciding that any crime would do and his sympathisers reflexively jerking in the other direction, so that the women who have laid charges against him were pre-emptively (and on virtually no evidence in either direction) declared guilty of false accusation. Lip service was paid, on both sides, to the conceptual difference between an allegation and a fact – but it was clear that a lot of people had made their minds up in advance to go with a storyline that matched their politics.

In cases like that of Amanda Knox and Shrien Dewani, our motives are less obvious. The South African Tourist Board might understandably favour an explanation that depicts the event as almost unprecedented rather than typical, but that's neither here nor there for most British readers.

What does matter to us is our appetite for the story itself. To put it bluntly, if Anni Dewani's murder was a random act of violence by two township thugs, it's far less engrossing than if it was a pre-planned hit – just as it was more "interesting" for Lindy Chamberlain's baby to have been sacrificed in a cult ritual than snatched by a feral dog.

We want life to have significance – and so we're eager for details that make sense of the senseless. And newspapers know how to feed that. Yesterday it was reported that CCTV images of the Dewanis shortly before the murder had emerged: "Shrien keeps his hand in his pockets and makes no physical contact with his new wife, who walks silently behind him with her head bowed", read one press description, and thus utter banality was slyly called on behalf of the prosecution.

To be honest I'm no better than anybody else at resisting the temptation of this kind of thing. I have my convictions. But I do try and remember that, for the moment, they have almost nothing to do with admissable evidence. And that innocent people can get trapped in a good story.

Mona Lisa smiles on my prediction

It's been a bumper year for Mona Lisa stories – that irresistable flypaper for the attention-seeking academic. They began, in January, with the suggestion that the model for the painting had suffered from high cholesterol, which was almost immediately followed by the proposal to disinter Leonardo himself, so that theorists could check out their notion that the picture was actually a disguised self-portrait. I wrote at the time that I doubted that we would"see 2010 out without another theory being added to the swarm that buzzes around her".

In the nick of time Silvano Vincenti (who was also involved in the plan to dig up Leonardo) has ensured that it wasn't a false prediction. A lesser man might think that one contribution to far-fetched Mona Lisa studies was enough for one year. But Signor Vincenti has not let his imagination rest on its laurels. Now he's suggested that Leonardo painted a secret cipher into the eyes of the figure, including the letters LV in the right pupil.

These are, naturally, only visible under magnification and only, I strongly suspect, if you look with the eyes of faith. Vincenti also publicised thetheory this year that Caravaggio was poisoned by lead in the paint that he used – but I'm glad to see he's returned to the mother lode now. I won't risk a prediction about exactly how far we will penetrate into 2011 before his next sensation. But I bet it won't be long.

Banning cocktails is completely pointless

The US Food and Drug Administration has effectively banned Four Loko, a turbo-charged alcopop which, after hospitalising a number of its consumers, generated its own prohibition panic in the US. Authorities were worried about its combination of high levels of alcohol with stimulants such as caffeine.

Frat-boys, by contrast, loved this cocktail and competed with each other to see how many they could drink before lapsing into unconsciousness. Quite what the FDA thinks its ban is going to achieve I'm not sure. It took Google 0.18 seconds to produce 339,000 results for the search "Four Loko Recipe" – an emetic-sounding blend of boiled sweets, caffeine tablets, malt liquor and Sprite. Will bathtub Four Loko really be any less hazardous than the real thing?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits