Deborah Orr: In death, as in life, child victims are judged unfairly by their behaviour

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The Independent Online

One of the most telling of the little rituals that occurs in the aftermath of one of the country's frequent teenage killings is the post-mortem attempt at victim beautification. For 16-year-old Jonathan Matando, shot dead on Thursday in Sheffield, the period of grace was pitifully short, and desperately thin.

This boy, the 53rd teenager to be murdered in Britain this year, and the 11th to be shot dead, moved with astonishing alacrity, according to early reports, from wanting to be a priest, to looking forward to going to college, to being a promising rapper, to going by the name of Venomous and being mixed up with a street gang involved in drug dealing. It was quickly established, in other words, despite early attempts to put a gloss on things, that this child was implicated in illegal and frightening behaviour, and therefore, by common, if little-stated consent, at least in part the architect of his own awful end.

It isn't always this way. When Kesha Wizzart, 18, was shot dead at home alongside her younger brother, Fred, 13, and her mother, Beverley Samuels, 35, early footage of the girl performing on Junior Stars in Their Eyes suggested that she was attractive, poised and talented. Reports that she was also academically gifted and hoped to become a lawyer were confirmed some time after her death, when her posthumous A-level results were revealed as being easily good enough to secure her a place at law school. Neither she nor her clever younger brother was ever linked to gangs.

Kesha's death, because she was not viewed as somehow having courted it via her own behaviour, and also because she so very demonstrably had a promising future, is tacitly considered to be much more tragic than Jonathan's, although since the killing of her family appears not to be entirely random either, there remains a suspicion that somebody somewhere down the line might not have been entirely wise in their choice of company.

This, at least, wider society finds a comfort. The law-abiding majority, quite understandably, crave reassurance that the trend towards blithe and youthful murderous activity is confined to certain sociological groups in certain geographical locations. Back in 1997, with an optimistic new government in power, there was some belief that antisocial behaviour might be turned around. Now, though, all most people hope is that the pockets of extremely antisocial behaviour that have hardened in the past 10 years can remain isolated from them and from their families.

When Rhys Jones, not a teenager but a child who had just completed primary school, died in his mother's arms after being shot in the dead as he cycled home from football practice, it was his utter innocence of any taint of either failure or of delinquency that made his end so very dreadful and outrageous. He and his parents were respectable people, making the best of their opportunities, and supporting their children through school and in developing their wider skills and interests, in just the way a good citizen should.

Their efforts were cruelly and senselessly thwarted by others who rejected all those values, so completely that they continue, out of defiant loyalty, presumably as well as fear, to shelter the 11-year-old's killer.

Yet it is an unhealthy tendency, this one, to say the least. It judges children's worth so rigorously according to their ambitions, their academic record and their talents in extra-curricular activities, that even the degree to which they deserved a violent death is calibrated in this way. Might this ruthlessly cool and superficial calculation itself be a terrifying indication of the sort of pressure children feel themselves to be under, and the level of contempt they understand their failure to achieve distinction might attract? Children don't divide into angels and devils quite as neatly as all that. But highly public attempts to do so encourage the belief that such judgements are simple and useful. Maybe, instead, they are simplistic and counterproductive.

Contempt for the audience goes way beyond phone-in deceptions

I think I see why it is that Michael Grade is reluctant to sack anyone over the £8m ITV phone-in scandal, involving some of the channel's most popular shows. Isn't it just because he knows in his heart that loads of the people working in commercial television have a tiny little bit of contempt for their audience, and that this sort of behaviour is just one of its symptoms? Many phone-ins, even if they are not actually dishonest, are undisguisedly cynical.

Inviting viewers to answer childishly simple multiple-choice questions at premium rates is just a way of flattering as many vulnerable people as possible that they are "interacting" in order to make as much dosh as possible. Once you're exploiting people that much, it's not hard to persuade yourself that it doesn't even matter that some of the respondents haven't been entered for the lucky draw they've paid for the privilege of being included in.

Further, people are so cowed, first, by the idea that all wheezes for making loads of money are basically good, and that, second, "ordinary" people shouldn't be chided for their enmeshment in low culture, that hardly a soul seems minded to suggest that sitting about paying £1.50 a time to suggest that it is, B, Sarah, who is getting married on Coronation Street this week is a mug's game anyway.

The degree of self-righteous passion with which the inalienable right of people to fritter their money away on meaningless inconsequentialities has been defended this week is astonishing. Most astonishing is that the people voicing an opinion are mainly people who would never spend their own leisure time on such banal activities, and would have a heart attack if they found that their children had acquired such a pernicious and silly habit. Michael Grade at least deserves credit for staying out of that. Not that he'll manage it for long.

* Then there's that new BT advert, with the young dad coming home to find that the young mum's going out, and leaving him with the children and their friends to look after. Young dad sets all the boys up on the internet, looking at porn or playing war games, I suppose, then sets all the girls up on the television, watching whatever they want, as long as he doesn't have to join them. When he finds that neither of these options is grabbing his little daughter, he puts her on the phone to the very mum we've just seen escaping for a couple of hours from the grind of trying to keep the children away from the screen-based entertainment. All that healthy distraction and divorce, just from one little phone line. Don't all rush.

* A third of government drug treatment clinics are offering addicts under treatment "extra drugs as an incentive to stay clean". Does anyone else see a logical inconsistency in that sentence? I'm not in the least against the practice of stabilising the chaotic lives of addicts by prescribing them with legally acquired drugs. But must we continue with the collective delusion that if the drugs are not against the law, then you're "clean"? Or should we just buy up the Afghan poppy crop, instead of burning it, and start calling a spade a spade?

* I might not be part of the oligarchy, but I've sat on the next table to it at dinner, and it doesn't seem impressed by such trinkets as £11,000 rings. How can Mohamed al-Fayed drag his dead son's reputation through the mud by suggesting that he was ever such a cheapskate that he would try to persuade a princess to marry him with the inconsequential bauble flashed at the inquest this week? I don't think you can even get a diamond ring for £11,000 in Harrod's. Can you?