For ever a child-killer

Joan Smith
Sunday 03 May 1998 00:02

A 41-YEAR-OLD woman is forced to seek police protection after her home is besieged by reporters. Her teenage daughter makes the shocking discovery that her mother once had another identity and committed dreadful crimes, for which she served a lengthy period of detention. Two other mothers, whose small children were killed many years ago, are shamelessly manipulated by a tabloid newspaper. The Government, instead of condemning a blatant attempt to incite mob violence, colludes with the same newspaper by issuing a statement in its pages instead of in the House of Commons.

This is, in summary, what happened last week when it was revealed that Mary Bell, who was convicted of two counts of manslaughter in 1968, when she was only 11 years old, had been paid an undisclosed sum to co-operate with a book. Not that the book is sensational, or intended to do anything other than cast light on those rare and distressing cases in which children kill other children. Its author, Gitta Sereny, has an honourable track record, including an earlier book on Mary Bell and a much-praised biography of Hitler's architect, Albert Speer.

So what is going on here? As the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, repeated his condemnation of Bell and blamed her for the predicament she finds herself in, it is worth pointing out that these women have been caught up in something which has very little to do with them - a savage circulation war among newspapers. That the witch-hunt against Bell coincided with the first anniversary of a government whose election is supposed to have ushered in a new era of fairness and compassion is ironic. But the fragility of that perception is cruelly exposed by the ease with which the Sun created a storm over Sereny's book, Cries Unheard - and the swiftness with which its sister-paper, the Times, moved to bring forward serialisation.

The unintentional effect, while the Sun fulminated about the impropriety of Bell receiving money from Sereny - "cashing in on her vile crimes", as the paper put it - was to raise the question of cui bono? in another form. As the editors gave the story saturation coverage, the Sun from the standpoint that Bell should be named and shamed, the Times that her story of childhood abuse should be told, the only undoubted winner was the proprietor of both newspapers, Rupert Murdoch. With the Government hamstrung by its cosy relationship with Murdoch's newspapers, it was left to the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, to condemn the way Bell and her daughter were being hounded.

Murdoch's admirers, who include the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, would doubtless put a different spin on last week's events. On Wednesday Peter Stothard, editor of the Times, defended his decision to publish extracts from Sereny's book, claiming that "only by trying to understand what could conceivably have driven an 11-year-old girl to kill two small boys ... can we come any closer to stopping these crimes that outrage any society the most". This is a reasonable argument whose noble sentiments were undermined by the sensational front-page headline in the same day's Times: "My prostitute mother constantly abused me, says Mary Bell".

Stothard was assisted in his seizure of the moral high ground by the intervention of Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, who explained his own decision not to serialise the book in an article which resurrected the notion of "original sin". Moore's banal suggestion that, despite Sereny's "serious" treatment of Bell's motives, some children are born evil, diverted attention from the fact that Murdoch's newspapers were fuelling an argument whose only guaranteed outcome, apart from the persecution of Bell and her family, was to boost sales.

The Sun's culpability in this matter cannot be overstated. "We find Mary Bell", it screamed last Wednesday, publishing a picture of Bell as an adult and sufficient details of her family's recent movements in a "seaside resort" to raise suspicions about her new identity. "Unsuspecting children", it warned, "are taken past her house on the way to school" - the clearest possible hint that Bell might kill again. Her partner, a factory worker, was lambasted for taking Bell's part and for his revelation that the couple had used some of Sereny's cash to buy a house - an action known in tabloid-speak as "buying a house with the blood money".

Never mind that Bell's new identity is protected by a court order, granted to shield her daughter from hysterical reactions to events which took place long before she was born; like the convicted paedophile Sidney Cooke, whose rumoured presence at a Bristol police station 10 days ago was enough to spark a riot, she has become a high-profile fugitive. This is the result of a sequence of events from which few people emerge with credit.

Writing in the Daily Mail, the pundit Dr Raj Persaud characterised Bell as an "inveterate liar" whose claims to have been sexually abused should not be given credence. But foremost among Bell's detractors were Tony Blair and Jack Straw. At a moment when there seemed to be a real possibility of lynch-mob violence erupting in Britain, they chose not to provide moral leadership but to focus on a minor question - Sereny's decision to hand over a portion of her book advance to Bell in return for a series of gruelling interviews.

The Prime Minister slavishly followed the tabloid agenda, denouncing the payment to Bell as "inherently repugnant" and promising that the Government would examine the law to see if it should be tightened. This kneejerk reaction, proposing legislation whenever something happens that ministers dislike, is becoming a hallmark of the administration. It is also what a Sun leader demanded from the Government, in an editorial strategically positioned next to an article celebrating the first anniversary of Blair's election victory.

This symbiotic relationship between New Labour and Murdoch's News Group bore further fruit when Straw chose to make his disapproval of Bell known in a letter published in the Sun. Writing ostensibly to the mothers of Mary Bell's victims, Straw assured them that he and the Prime Minister "share the anger and frustration which you feel that Mary Bell is now able to profit from her terrible crimes". Straw's letter conspicuously failed to mention an equally important issue which comes within his remit as Home Secretary: the Sun's public confrontation with Bell's partner on Tuesday, which came close to exposing her new identity, and was instrumental in driving her from her home.

WHETHER OR not the payment to Bell was a lapse of judgement on Sereny's part is arguable. The fact that the mothers of her victims are distressed is understandable, but it does not automatically mean that the payment was wrong. If her account in Cries Unheard is true, Bell was the victim of abuse not just by her mother, who worked as a prostitute, but by male clients whose identity - and culpability - interests the tabloids not one jot. No one has been brought to book for that abuse and Bell will never receive a penny from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. So why are we expected to believe that cash is the most important issue? Does anyone think that, if Mary Bell had confided in Gitta Sereny without being paid, the tabloids would have reported her revelations unsensationally? The very idea strains credulity, especially in the context of suspicions that newspapers have in the past offered money for Bell's story through intermediaries - and been rebuffed.

What seems more likely is that the question of payment, and the genuine distress of the mothers of the dead boys, is being used as an excuse for synthetic moral outrage. It is a way of avoiding the really troubling issues raised by Mary Bell's crimes, such as our ambivalent attitude to childhood sexual abuse. This is a subject which has gone full cycle, from not being talked about to a tendency to detect it everywhere, followed by the inevitable backlash and a return to scepticism. Reactions to Bell's graphic account of what she suffered at the hands of her mother's clients ranged from disbelief to dismissal of its relevance. "Many people are tragically sexually abused," Dr Persaud wrote in the Mail, "but this does not turn them into murderers".

Gitta Sereny suggests that sometimes - not always - it does. This argument is so unpalatable that it seems to have sent Persaud and others into a state of denial, suggesting that an unwillingness to hear Bell's story is the motivating force behind last week's shameful events. The link between sexual abuse of children and their own abusive behaviour makes many people uncomfortable, as do the policy implications of Bell's revelations - the need for a greater degree of alertness on the part of relatives, neighbours and social workers, and a willingness to intervene if a child's welfare appears to be at risk.

At the same time, two important principles - that perpetrators who are also victims should be allowed to tell their stories, and that authors like Sereny have a right to investigate the causes of crimes - have got lost in the furore. Most significantly, no one is talking about the right of offenders who have served their sentences, and been successfully rehabilitated into the community, not to be threatened with mob violence at the whim of a wildly irresponsible tabloid newspaper.

That this has happened to Mary Bell cannot be denied even though, in the current atmosphere in Britain, in which feeling has gained the upper hand over reason, it does not appear to cause much concern. A letter in Thursday's Daily Telegraph suggested there was nothing wrong with Bell being given money by Sereny, "providing she receives it in person in front of the FA Cup Final crowd at Wembley Stadium. Then we would see some real justice". Reporters cynically describe the process of blackening someone's reputation as "monstering", which is what the Daily Mail was doing when it reported that "mothers walking in the sunshine ... had no inkling of the child-killer who has been living in their midst".

Tony Blair, the Mail observed, had once again "demonstrated his deep, in many ways instinctive, understanding of the public mood" - a facility first remarked on when he was credited with "speaking for the nation" on the morning of Princess Diana's death. The trouble is that what the nation feels - or what the tabloids tell it to feel - is frequently vindictive, illiberal and aimed at imposing silence on dissenting voices. We cannot yet judge how far the press's outrage over the Sereny book is shared by the general public, but nearly 9,000 readers rang a Sun phoneline demanding that Bell should give up the money she got from Sereny.

The adjective most commonly applied to her was "evil", with any expression of remorse on her part interpreted as a devious attempt to ingratiate herself. If we contrast this with the opprobrium heaped on Myra Hindley, who is widely believed not to have expressed sufficient remorse for her involvement in the Moors murders, the bind these women find themselves in becomes apparent. And what is genuinely shocking about the case is how many commentators appear to share Charles Moore's belief in original sin, a Christian doctrine which leaves very little room for rehabilitation.

Indeed, the efforts made by journalists last week to "monster" Bell revealed an iron determination to prove that she has not changed. The Daily Mail tracked down the father of her child, in prison for "a string of drug offences and burglaries" and not perhaps the most reliable witness. Left by Bell a decade ago, according to the paper, "for a man he describes as a witchcraft fanatic", he obligingly told reporters that "she's not a changed woman or a reformed character ... To be honest, knowing what I do about her, I can't believe she was ever allowed out, never mind going swanning round the country living on benefits".

IT IS THIS kind of testimony, from unnamed sources, which is being used to demonstrate the tabloids' thesis that "once a killer, always a killer". These attempts to associate Bell with everything from black magic to a life of leisure on state handouts would be comic if they were not having such dire effects on her daughter - a case in which the sins of the mother really are being visited on the child. But the daily onslaught also has a bearing - and this is the unmentioned subtext of everything that has happened in the last week - on the way we think about other emotive cases involving the killing of children.

In recent years, both Myra Hindley and the two boys convicted of murder in the James Bulger case have been subjected to a sustained campaign of vilification. The abhorrence people feel for their crimes is understandable; the tabloids' determination that they will never be released from detention, even if the authorities conclude that they pose no further danger, is not. The continuing row over Mary Bell casts new light on the motives of people who want to keep all child-killers perpetually behind bars; it now looks as though what they are afraid of is not that such people will reoffend but the prospect that, like Bell, they will go on to lead relatively normal lives.

This is what she has done since her release, and it challenges both the tabloids' "monster" theory and Old Testament notions of original sin. It is so at odds with prevailing notions about human nature that her acceptance of cash from Sereny must have come as an enormous relief - and provided a handy stick to beat her with. This weekend, as she trembles on the brink of having her new identity exposed, Mary Bell may be aware of a terrible irony. Thirty years ago, she committed two horrible crimes for which she was punished and expressed remorse. She is being hounded not because she grew up and repeated those offences, but because she did not. Even worse, she has talked about the abuse she herself suffered as a child. Whatever happens in the next few days, these are transgressions for which Mary Bell will not easily be forgiven.


PERSISTENCE is an essential virtue in any good reporter, but few can match the relentless way Gitta Sereny pursues a story. Still indefatigable at 74, she was described last week by Magnus Linklater, a colleague of Sereny's when they were both on the Sunday Times, as "one of the most remarkable journalists I know".

In 1979 Ms Sereny was working - with Mr Linklater - on the story of the kidnapping in Sardinia of Rolf Schild, an engineer from north London, and his wife and daughter. The Schilds, it was believed, were being held by bandits in the Sardinian mountains, and Ms Sereny was convinced that a direct appeal from the Pope would help to get them released. She bombarded him with the facts of the case. The Pope duly did Ms Sereny's bidding and made an appeal to the Schilds' captors from the balcony of St Peter's. The family was later released.

Ms Sereny was determined to keep alive her relationship with Mary Bell in the years after the publication of her first book about her, in 1972. And she clearly sees that relationship as a two-way process, by which Ms Sereny's needs as a journalist are served, and Mary Bell has someone to whom she can pour out her feelings.

"She'd been in denial for years," Ms Sereny said yesterday in the Times, in which the controversial serialisation of Cries Unheard has been appearing. "It's her way of coping with her guilt. And, believe me, she suffers from guilt. For her own sanity she had to admit what she had done." There is no more vivid example of the writer as therapist. Ms Sereny added: "She needs to trust me now more than ever. She needs to know that she will always be able to rely on me for love and affection."

But Mary Bell might well think of Ms Sereny as the architect of her fate, and come to regret her part in it. For Ms Sereny's intense commitment to her stories can also mean that she is innocent about the consequences of telling them. "For a woman who has led such a turbulent life, she is surprisingly naive," says a former colleague.

Ms Sereny was born in Hungary in 1924. As a wartime refugee in Paris, she worked as a nurse before fleeing on to the United States. Returning to Europe in peacetime she began writing, and became an expert on Nazi history. She won acclaim for her biography of Albert Speer, a key figure in the Third Reich.

"Her great strength as a reporter/writer is her ability to get people to tell her things that they would tell no one else," a former colleague says. "She manages that partly by persistence - she just wears them down eventually - and partly because people sense that she is genuinely interested in what makes them tick.

"The naivety comes in not considering, or even caring, how this process might seem to outsiders. Invite Gitta into your life as a friend or colleague and in no time at all she will be analysing your relations with your wife and children and their relationships with each other. Most Anglo-Saxons find this hard to take, but it is true of a lot of Central Europeans, especially Hungarians."

Ms Sereny, he adds, would not have anticipated the reaction to her book. "She is, I suspect, bewildered by it. Since she does not believe in innate evil, she thinks everyone is as interested in the mind of a murderer as she is. She is not there just to report but to change things." She has certainly changed the life of Mary Bell, for ever.

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