Joan Smith: Broken Britain is a media invention

There is no such thing as a failed society, only failing families. The rest are doing their best, despite their deprivations

Share
Related Topics

Just before he was assassinated, John F Kennedy was reading a book called The Other America: Poverty in the United States, by the distinguished social commentator Michael Harrington. It was about the poor and socially isolated whose lives many Americans knew nothing about. It had impressed the President so much that he was about to pass new social legislation when he was murdered.

In this country, a parallel phenomenon – what a modern-day Harrington might call "The Other Britain" – has been exposed by a series of shocking events that culminated last week in guilty verdicts in the trial of Karen Matthews and Michael Donovan. They were warned by the judge to expect long prison sentences for kidnapping Matthews's nine-year-old daughter, Shannon, in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, last year.

Matthews's plan to make money out of Shannon's abduction has been presented as the work of a criminal mastermind, even though the sequence of events suggests something much more ad hoc and chaotic. Inevitably, the case has been compared with that of Baby P, who died after months of abuse in north London. "Pure evil" is how the detective in charge of the inquiry described Matthews, and his grandstanding for the media struck a chord.

We have been bombarded with unflattering photographs that show her as slumped, overweight and looking more like a woman in her 50s than her actual age of 33. She has never been out to work, and is the mother of seven children by at least five fathers, existing in such a state of ignorance that she described the two children with (probably) the same father as twins, even though they were born in different years.

Not surprisingly, no one has had a good word for Matthews since her conviction. "Karen just goes from one bloke to the next, uses them to have a kid, grabs all the child benefit and moves on," said John Bretton, father of her eldest child. The managing editor of The Sun, Graham Dudman, made the same allegation on Friday morning's Today programme, accusing Matthews of using her children "as a meal ticket" so she could get a bigger TV or council house. This is a favourite claim of the right, which likes to imagine that the working class – contemptuously lumped together as "these people" – are drunk, lazy and uneducated, but also capable of making actuarial decisions based on self-interest. The Daily Mail went further, describing Matthews as "lazy, sex mad and living on benefits, a pathetic symbol of broken Britain".

In fact, it is more accurate to suggest that Matthews provides an insight into an aspect of this country of which most of us are still barely conscious. The problem isn't one of entire communities blighted by feral behaviour; on the contrary, it was Matthews's neighbours in Dewsbury who campaigned and made the little girl's disappearance a national story, despite having neither the education nor the contacts of Madeleine McCann's parents. It was also local people who realised before anyone else that Matthews's version of events didn't add up.

The Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, Sir Norman Bettison, got nearer to the truth when he talked about "hidden, secret parts of our community" two days ago. We simply do not know what goes on behind closed doors, and even when someone guesses that something is badly wrong, social workers are reluctant to act. In a depressingly familiar pattern, a worried neighbour reported Matthews to officials at Kirklees Council three times in six years, yet Shannon was removed from the child protection register. The Dewsbury MP, Shahid Malik, has led calls for a public inquiry, but such demands miss the point; what's needed is a much greater willingness to acknowledge the abuse that takes place within individual families, and the stratagems adults adopt to conceal it.

Not every hard-up family in Dewsbury abuses its children, even if a cycle of deprivation – teenage pregnancy, incomplete education, low expectations – is repeating itself. What the authorities aren't good at, in West Yorkshire, or elsewhere, is spotting families where abuse is occurring in myriad forms, from beatings and incest to rape and deliberate isolation. Most of us don't live in a "broken society"; we love our families and friends, raise money for charity and campaign for causes we care about.

But we need to acknowledge the existence of apparently respectable households where a father can rape his daughters and make them pregnant on 19 occasions; where girls of 16 or 17 can be packed off to the Indian subcontinent to be married to uncles or cousins; where toddlers suffer a catalogue of unexplained injuries, including a broken back; and where teenagers can grow up in strict religious families without being allowed to make friends from different backgrounds, leaving them vulnerable to bullying and sexual abuse.

This is The Other Britain. It is real, and its victims need help as urgently as the socially excluded whose plight moved President Kennedy half a century ago. But it has little to do with the fantasy world of the popular press, where feckless women who live in council houses get pregnant just to get a widescreen TV.

React Now

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

Upper KS2 Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Upper Key Stage 2 teacher ...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + ?110 - 130: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher ...

KS2 Teacher with SEN responsibilities

£115 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: KS2 teacher with SEN responsibi...

Administrative Assistant

£60 - £75 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Administrative Assitant Hertford...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Young Syrian refugees gather around a small fire at the Minieh camp in Lebanon  

Cameron and Obama may want to ‘destroy’ Isis, but what will they do about the growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria?

Kate Allen
“You're running away!” Nick said to me the other night as I tried to leave the hospital  

In Sickness and in Health: ‘There’s nothing I want more than to have you at home, but you’re not well’

Rebecca Armstrong
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
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments