Joan Smith: Stop using the bereaved to whip up false outrage

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It is axiomatic these days that you do not have to go to the trouble of seeing something to be offended by it. Ministers relied on other people's accounts when they condemned Chris Morris's satire on paedophile witch-hunts, and the latest target is a play inspired by the James Bulger case.

"I have not seen this show and have no intention of seeing it," said James's mother, Denise Fergus, last week. "It is just designed to try to shock people and grab publicity."

The Age of Consent is currently playing at the Pleasance Theatre in Edinburgh and I haven't seen it either. But the playwright, Peter Morris, insists it is a serious attempt to counter the "complete irrationality" that surrounds the Bulger case and to challenge the depiction of the killers as monsters. I have a lot of sympathy with this view, but the staging of the play – and Mrs Fergus's reaction to it – raises wider questions. There has been a series of sensational crimes in this country, not just the murder of James Bulger but the disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh and the killing of the London headteacher Philip Lawrence, which trained a relentless media spotlight on the victims' relatives. Ms Lamplugh's mother turned her ghastly experience to some account, campaigning to raise awareness of threats to women's safety. Frances Lawrence drew attention to the primitive conditions in some of the capital's worst schools. But the circus of self-appointed sympathisers, campaigners and the media that surrounds Mrs Fergus makes me deeply uneasy.

Her grief has become a kind of spectacle, exposed to the public gaze every time anything occurs that is remotely connected with her son's death. Something similar happened to the mother of one of the victims of the Moors murderers – another working-class woman – who was encouraged by crime reporters to denounce her daughter's killers at every possible opportunity. When I worked on a radio station in Manchester some years ago, I answered the phone to this poor woman on several occasions and it struck me that she had come to rely on the exposure as an antidote to her unbearable grief. Yet this method of dealing with it is based on a number of mistaken assumptions.

One is that pursuing a campaign for harsher sentences eases the relatives' pain. Fortunately, we do not have capital punishment in Britain, but in the United States families of victims are invited to demand retributive justice, sometimes to the point of being allowed into court to have their say about sentencing. Yet judicial murder rarely makes anyone feel better, as proved by the disappointed reactions of some of the people who had called for the death sentence to be carried out on the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh. On the contrary, such campaigns brutalise the victims' relatives, forcing them to sustain their rage instead of attempting the admittedly difficult task of rebuilding their shattered lives.

In that sense, there is something truly dreadful about the way in which Mrs Fergus is pestered for quotes. Reactionary editors need these tragic women – and they usually are women – because they know it takes courage to challenge the assumption that grief bestows special status on the bereaved. When the mother of a murdered child calls for a longer sentence or condemns a play, most people think twice before making the reasonable observation that while she is entitled to express her opinion, it should carry no more weight than anyone else's. There is a sound judicial principle that the people most involved in a case are least qualified to make rational judgements about it.

That is why judges and potential jurors continue to be disqualified if they admit to personal knowledge or pre-existing prejudice at the outset of a trial. Yet there is a worrying trend to undermine this insistence on impartiality by giving more and more authority to the opinions of bereaved families. People who, like me, object to this development are often accused of a failure of empathy and asked how we would react if our parents, children or lovers were murdered. Of course it's almost impossible to predict, but I hope I would not suddenly abandon my lifelong opposition to the death penalty. And I am relieved to know that the judicial system would step in to protect me from my worst instincts.

In the case of Mrs Fergus, the state has done its duty by apprehending, trying and punishing her son's killers. Phone calls from reporters almost certainly bolster the illusion that she has more moral authority than the rest of us, but the tabloids have their own reasons for casting her as a perpetual mater dolorosa. She is being invited to remain as unforgiving as she was immediately after her son's death, not for her own benefit but to justify the vile purposes of people who are using it to whip up hysteria about child-killers and paedophiles.

Land of the free and the fat

As everyone knows, the French abandon Paris in August, leaving it to hordes of tourists. Many of them are American, and a good half of them are seriously overweight. I spent much of my time there last weekend staring in amazement at the most enormous people I have ever encountered, waddling from expensive hotels along the Rue de Rivoli to the Louvre and back again.

I know all the arguments for what Americans call fat acceptance, yet I can't help regarding obesity on this stupendous scale as a form of self-abuse. Worse than that, at a time when developing nations are rightly critical of America's profligate use of limited resources, these wobbling mountains of flesh are a symbol of everything that is wrong with the world's only superpower. The land of the free has become the home of unashamed greed.

Grow old gracefully, or eat pet food

A new pet food is being tested which, according to the manufacturer, could make cats and dogs live longer. As the owner of a couple of elderly Burmese, I am naturally interested in this development, but I am also somewhat sceptical. If a new type of food can prolong a cat's life by reducing the damage to genetic material linked with ageing, why hasn't someone come up with something similar for humans? Just think of the profits to be made by any company that promised to add five years to life expectancy by a simple visit to Tesco's.

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Talking of supermarkets, you've probably noticed the irritating catechism that has attached itself to the process of paying at the checkout in recent years. "Do you have a reward card? Do you want cash back?" Not to mention, "Are you a prostitute?" No, I haven't taken leave of my senses. I am merely passing on a startling insight into management policy at our local Sainsbury's superstore, where a friend of mine began till training last week.

Do not, she was told, sell alcohol to any of the following people: police officers in uniform, children, drunks or prostitutes. The first three categories are relatively easy to spot but, as the manager admitted, sex workers don't look that different from the rest of us. Clearly the only way of enforcing this eccentric policy is to ask, so please don't be offended if the checkout person follows up with some rather personal questions after inquiring whether you'd like cash back.