Natasha Walter: Remember the other victims, too

'Why do some murdered children become household names while others are hardly mentioned?'

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It's been more than three weeks since she was abducted, and the rage and grief surrounding Sarah Payne's murder is still mounting. In the regular ritual of our emotional age, there is now a carpet of flowers by the A29 more than 50 metres long and 2 metres deep, studded with cards and teddy bears and thronged with weeping strangers. The Payne family's reaction to every development is carefully reported: they will read all the cards and keep all the gifts; they were furious over a farmer's claim for compensation over damage to his land during the police search; they are supportive of yesterday's move by the
News of the World to "name and shame" paedophiles.

It's been more than three weeks since she was abducted, and the rage and grief surrounding Sarah Payne's murder is still mounting. In the regular ritual of our emotional age, there is now a carpet of flowers by the A29 more than 50 metres long and 2 metres deep, studded with cards and teddy bears and thronged with weeping strangers. The Payne family's reaction to every development is carefully reported: they will read all the cards and keep all the gifts; they were furious over a farmer's claim for compensation over damage to his land during the police search; they are supportive of yesterday's move by the News of the World to "name and shame" paedophiles.

If the Payne family supports this last development, it is hard for anyone to stand back and question it. But this move on the part of the News of the World represents an escalation of the emotional frenzy into new calls for action, and where, in the current climate of hysteria, will such action lead? Calls for the return of the death penalty have already been heard from mainstream commentators. A poll carried out by the News of the World showed that 82 per cent of the public support "chemical castration" of sex offenders. And last week a mob surrounded the house owned by the father of a man who had been questioned and released by the police over Sarah's disappearance.

Those vigilantes might be in a minority, but it is becoming less and less easy to stand back from the hysteria. If you do so, you will be condemned as heartless, and worse. As one tabloid newspaper put it in a emotive editorial at the weekend: "In certain quarters this week there has been a shameful attempt to pretend that the Sarah Payne tragedy need not be taken too seriously, since very few children are killed by strangers... the damage caused by such complacency is incalculable." It is this complacency - in the "liberal establishment", naturally - that, the newspaper explained, leads to toleration of paedophilia and violence against children.

But those of us who wonder why it is Sarah Payne's murder that has led to this staggering expression of grief and anger aren't necessarily the complacent ones. It doesn't mean that we are taking this murder lightly. But it could mean that we think it's time to ask why other murders, of other innocent children, are not taken as seriously. In stark contrast to the carpet of flowers and the cards arriving from all over the world, in contrast to the banner headlines and the publication of every detail of the family's reactions and the police's actions, a couple of other stories that told of the murder of young children slipped almost unnoticed into newspapers last week.

There was the news that Jade and Kieran Austin, aged seven and eight, had been found murdered in their house with their mother, Claire Austin. Police are questioning her husband. Then there was the story, also passed over hurriedly by most newspapers, that 12-year-old Emma Hall had been stabbed to death in her own home. Her father has been charged with her murder. These laconic little news reports, stripped of the banner headlines, the family testimony, the personal detail, the editorialising dismay, fall like tiny leaves into a lake of complacency, while Sarah Payne's murder whips up a whirlpool.

These other children were, no doubt, no less beautiful and innocent than the beautiful and innocent Sarah Payne. In one news report about Emma Hall, her headmaster was quoted saying, "She was a girl with a brilliant future... a lovely, talented, charming girl." And the photograph that accompanied this little report showed a smiling blonde child, her face as captivating as the smiling face of Sarah Payne.

Why do some murdered children become household names, while others are hardly mentioned? Why is it that some of those murders become great causes, marshalling the news reports and commentary of every part of the media, while others go almost unnoticed? Why do the Prime Minister and the Duchess of York send condolence letters to the parents of some murdered children, as they have to the Payne family, and don't react to the violent deaths of others? Why do some deaths trigger calls for wholesale reform of the legal system, while other deaths cause hardly a ripple of anger? We are encouraged to grieve with Sarah Payne's family. But should we let this grief so totally obscure the tales of all the other children murdered this year, and so entirely take over any debate about what could have been done to save those children?

Of course it isn't random, the way the media will alight on certain stories of murder, making them into the tale of the season, the household name to strike fear into every heart. For a start, most cynically, it has been observed that the tale of Sarah Payne's death was a real story, with a beginning, her disappearance; a middle, the discovery of the body; and, one hopes, an end, the trial of her murderer. Undoubtedly there are stories behind the deaths of Emma Hall and Jade Austin too, but they may not follow this attention-grabbing shape. And above all, Sarah Payne's story presents the perfect contrast: it shows us a golden, innocent family pitted against the evil stranger lurking in the bushes.

This fits the way that most of the media, the public and politicians want to express their fears of crime. If we start by discussing the murder of Sarah Payne, we can move on to projecting our loathing of strangers, our hatred of the monster in the white van, the madman, the devilish outsider. If we start by discussing the murders of certain other children, we might have to move on to more complicated territory, such as the violence that lives within families, and the terror that children experience when their own parents turn against them.

We know the statistics now; or we should do. Of the 90 or so children murdered every year in Britain, more than 80 are killed by parents or carers. Of all violent crime in Britain, more than a quarter takes place in the home. But where is the surge of anger about violent parents? Where are the desperate calls in the tabloids for action that might reduce violence in the home?

In our obsession with crimes committed by strangers, we are in danger of becoming complacent about crimes committed within homes. This complacency is seen not just in the media, but in public policy. As long as the media is obsessed with crime by strangers, the Government will follow. Indeed, as we saw in Tony Blair's leaked memo, following criticism by the right-wing press, he is now desperate to be seen as "entirely conventional" when it comes to the family, and "tough on street crime". This implies that new initiatives on crime are going to concentrate on crime by strangers, not domestic crimes.

We are already seeing how that works out in practice. The Crime Reduction Programme was given £250m to start its work last year, of which just £6m was earmarked for projects to reduce violence within the home. Take just one example of what that lack of funding might do to children at risk. Last week I was talking to Mhairi Stewart, who runs a refuge for women and children in the deprived Greater Easterhouse area of Glasgow. She started working at the refuge in 1995, and at that time there was enough money to employ seven staff, of whom two specialised in working with children.

Now, the staff are down to four, none of whom are qualified to work with children. So every week she turns away women with children who are seeking to escape from violence within their homes. Every week, at least one of those families with children will find that there is no refuge space at all anywhere in Scotland. Every week, that means that children at risk of experiencing violence are forced to stay in their dangerous homes. Where do we hear outrage about that?

Undoubtedly the mass outrage around Sarah Payne's murder is sparked by its very randomness,while violence in the home is more contained - if your home isn't violent, you feel safe. But if we are to have an effective debate about how to protect more children, more of the time, that debate should not be driven merely by personal fear. Because that means that too many children are simply forgotten.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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