Joan Smith: Give Abigail her name (and her life) back

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The Independent Online

I have never met David and Victoria Beckham, nor their former nanny, Abbie Gibson, who has been making headlines after selling her (or rather their) story to a newspaper last weekend. This Abigail does not seem very nice, on the basis of our complete non-acquaintance, so it is confusing that she is in the news at the same time as another Abigail whose courage has been widely applauded. This other Abigail is the young mother who was paralysed from the neck down in a knife attack last month as she walked home with her son in the Surrey village of Little Bookham; unable to speak, she has been communicating with police through blinks and facial expressions, helping them build up a picture of the events that preceded the shocking attack.

I have never met David and Victoria Beckham, nor their former nanny, Abbie Gibson, who has been making headlines after selling her (or rather their) story to a newspaper last weekend. This Abigail does not seem very nice, on the basis of our complete non-acquaintance, so it is confusing that she is in the news at the same time as another Abigail whose courage has been widely applauded. This other Abigail is the young mother who was paralysed from the neck down in a knife attack last month as she walked home with her son in the Surrey village of Little Bookham; unable to speak, she has been communicating with police through blinks and facial expressions, helping them build up a picture of the events that preceded the shocking attack.

A photograph was released last week of Mrs Witchalls in her hospital bed, with her husband and son at her side. It was an image of courage and hope, the little family reunited and facing an uncertain future together as doctors wait to determine whether Mrs Witchalls will be able to recover some movement. It was also, I imagine, intended to appeal to members of the public who might know something that could assist the police in their inquiries. In that sense, its release involves a calculation, forgivably so if it produces important information about a vicious assault. But I can't help feeling there is a less benign form of manipulation going on as the press once again choose to highlight a victim of crime who is young, beautiful and comes from an obviously adoring family.

In moral terms, the attack would have been no less dreadful if its target happened to be unattractive, elderly or indeed a man. But would it have received as much attention from the media? I doubt it. Not long before Mrs Witchalls was assaulted, a young man called Terry Welham was beaten unconscious as he walked home from Beckenham railway station in south-east London. The 21-year-old has been unconscious ever since and his father Steven said last week that the attack had wrecked "not only my son's life but also the rest of the family". Predictably, Terry has not become a household name, not being female, a child or from one of those leafy villages where people are assumed to be cocooned from the rampant crime that terrorises the inhabitants of cities. (The theme of the maniac who disrupts the English rural idyll is as popular now as it was in Agatha Christie's deeply conservative crime novels.)

None of this is intended as criticism of Mrs Witchalls or her family, whose ordeal can barely be imagined. But one of the things I dislike about the way such cases are reported is the fake intimacy imposed on the rest of us, as if "Abigail" (and "Jessica and Holly", and all the other victims who catch the imagination of the popular press) are members of our own families. We get far more information about them than we need, encouraging fear of crime and sometimes obscuring the real story, as emerged much later in the instance of the Soham murders. Far from being a case of stranger-danger, the lesson of that dreadful sequence of events was that the police had missed chance after chance to put a stop to the crimes of a sexual predator who had been attacking women and girls for years.

As for the attack on Mrs Witchalls, it cannot be an accident that the case has received so much publicity in the middle of a general election campaign in which fear and negative campaigning have played so large a role. She has become an unwitting poster girl for family values, a devout Catholic mother with a devoted husband and an appealing small son, symbolising everything that this Labour government has supposedly failed to protect. This is not her fault and I hope her condition improves, but she has been used and infantilised quite enough. I no more want to read further details about the private life of "Abigail" than I do about the Beckhams' marriage.

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