This has been one of those weeks where it has been agonising to be editor of The Independent. Let me rephrase that: intellectually and morally challenging, as opposed to painful.
Stimulating and thought-provoking, actually. I refer to the Philpott case, what else. While one newspaper was able to brand the killer of six children “the vile product of welfare UK” on its front page, The Independent, I freely admit, has struggled to be so black and white. My very firm view is that Philpott’s crime had nothing to do with the fact that he was living off nearly £60,000 a year in benefits.
To suggest, in any way, that it did, was profoundly wrong. As Owen Jones, our columnist, pointed out brilliantly in these pages and subsequently on TV and radio: plenty of people receive handouts, but only one set fire to his home, causing the deaths of six children.
Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous of me to maintain we are oblivious to questions surrounding the role of the state in funding Philpott’s lifestyle. They are legitimate concerns and would apply just as forcibly if Philpott had not torched his house and had carried on his irresponsible, feckless way. Tragically, it took the manslaughter of six of his 17 children to bring those issues to national attention.
That is the only role the arson attack plays here. Any attempt to tie it in to his dependency on benefits is inserting politics where they have no place. Indeed, it was noticeable that in her incisive summing up, the trial judge, Mrs Justice Thirlwall, paid scant attention to the source of his income: it did not go to the heart of the matter.
But at The Independent, we’re concerned citizens too. We’re as annoyed as anyone by free-loaders and cynical manipulators of a system that was intended to help and not be a financial end in itself. We don’t regard Mick’s money as his entitlement; we abhor his scrounging.
We don’t have an easy solution as to what to do about it. Where we’re more certain is that Mick Philpott does not invite the demonisation of an entire social class – that being a “chav” was not to blame.
Our rivals will say that we’re being typically wishy-washy liberal lefties. I demur and say that political opinion, and where our view of Philpott places us in the right-left spectrum, has not influenced us at all. Rather, we’re determined to apply balance and reason to the problem.
Presumably, as readers of The Independent, you would not expect anything less. But I confess, I would be lying if I said I’d not found myself wishing in recent days that I were an editor with only one hand: the sort who never has to say “on the one hand…” followed by “and on the other”. This job would be so, so much simpler.