Joan Smith: Whatever he is, Tony Martin is no hero


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Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who was released from prison last Monday, makes an unlikely hero. In 1999, Martin shot two people who had broken into his farmhouse, hitting a 16-year-old boy in the back and leaving him to bleed to death.

He has expressed no remorse and last week accepted a large sum of money from the Daily Mirror, which gave him unlimited space to justify his actions. Martin seized the opportunity to present himself as a decent man, driven to desperate measures by criminals and the failure of the police to protect him. There is no doubt that this interpretation already resonated with Middle England, for whom he has become a symbol, but it misses the real story by a mile.

What has always struck me forcibly about Martin is how distant he is from the average, law-abiding, concerned citizen he is meant to represent. Many of us worry about being burgled but we don't go to the lengths Martin did, acquiring a lethal weapon - an unlicensed shotgun - and settling down in the dark to await intruders. (Thank God for British gun laws. In the US, Martin would have had access to semi-automatic weapons, and who knows what carnage might have been the result.) Nor do we announce our intention of shooting burglars to the police, as Martin did after only the second break-in. This point is important, because he has often been portrayed as a man worn down by repeated thefts from his remote farmhouse. The reality, according to his own account, is this: “After the second break-in, I rang the police and said, 'If they come back, I'll shoot them.'”

This is the reaction of a man who was and, to judge by some of his remarks to the Daily Mirror last week, still is, mentally ill. “I don't feel anything about anyone or anything,” he proclaimed after his release from Highpoint prison in Suffolk. Nothing is his fault, he had no choice but to act as he did and he finds it “amusing and ironic”, according to his friends, that he now has round-the-clock police protection. These are not normal human responses, in any sense. No wonder the Court of Appeal, which reduced his conviction from murder to manslaughter, concluded that he was suffering from a paranoid personality disorder.

Even though he felt insecure, Martin did not take basic steps - installing alarms and security lighting, which have now been provided by the police - to deter intruders. Perhaps he could not afford them but it may also be that he preferred to rely on cruder forms of protection, including an illegal weapon and his three Rottweilers. An alternative picture begins to emerge, unattractive in every respect - it involves petty criminals preying on a disturbed individual, whose state of mind cannot have been helped by geographical isolation - which is a harsh corrective to idealised notions of rural life. Martin's dilapidated farmhouse hardly suggests a thriving enterprise and he seems to have been deliberately targeted by a group of young men, probably even poorer than himself, who saw the run-down buildings as easy to rob.

It is hard not to deduce from Martin's threat to shoot intruders and his behaviour on the night of Fred Barras's death that he relished a confrontation, making a mockery of his claim to be on a mission to “bring common sense and decency” to an unjust society. So why has this unstable, ruthless, paranoid individual attracted such widespread support, sometimes receiving 60 letters a day while he was in prison? The answer is an element in his story that many ordinary people identify with, either because of their own experience or that of their friends, which is a catastrophic loss of confidence in the police.

No one expects burglars to be caught any more, or deterred by the fear of arrest, and the middle class responds by spending a fortune on locks, alarms and even security patrols. Martin's supporters regard him as a victim who finally made a stand, overlooking both the premeditated aspect of his crime and the fact that he is a corrupting influence, validating their own revenge fantasies.

Far from being a story about a desperate act of self-defence, Martin's behaviour is a warning about what happens when people take the law into their own hands. The police may have failed him, but there is something deeply distasteful about the way this unbalanced, dangerous man has been turned into a hero.