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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Green Recruitment Company: Operations Manager - Anaerobic Digestion / Biogas

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Operation...

SThree: Experienced Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £40000 per annum + OTE + Incentives + Benefits: SThree: Established f...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Maintenance Person

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care organisation take pride in del...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care organisation take pride in del...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: How much difference does the wording of a referendum question make?

John Rentoul
 

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent