Janet Street-Porter: So what chance did Karen ever have?

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:35

The trial by media of Karen Matthews, mother of Shannon, the little girl who was missing for 24 days, continues. Yesterday it was announced that the date for her trial on charges of child neglect and perverting the course of justice has been set for November. Some sections of the press seem intent on trashing the clearly inadequate Ms Matthews just as they did Fiona MacKeown, mother of murdered teenager Scarlett Keeling – unearthing endless examples of her "unsuitability" as a mother.

Last Sunday the News of the World carried lurid, unsubstantiated allegations from the father of one of Karen's children under the banner, "She's a violent, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, boozy slob". What chance does this woman stand of having a fair trial?

Yesterday another newspaper published a "family tree" of Karen and her partner Craig (charged with possessing child pornography) headlined, "Downfall of a decent family". Karen seems to symbolise – for some social commentators – the moral disintegration of white working-class Britain.

Hang on a minute. On closer inspection Karen's background is very similar to that of many people I know, myself included. My father, like Karen's, served in the Royal Engineers. Unlike Karen's parents, mine didn't marry until my sister and I were well out of nappies. In fact my mother had previously married when she was very young, and then dumped her husband when she met my dad. My father, too, had already been married, and both of these first marriages were kept a family secret until I was well into my forties. Dad's branch of my family is still a complete mystery to me. Once, a woman came up to me in the street and announced she was an illegitimate child by one of my close family, and how on earth would I know the truth?

The point is that with a bit of ferreting almost every family in the land could unearth broken marriages, children born out of wedlock, babies given up for adoption and a handful of relatives with criminal records. Show me a family tree that would pass detailed inspection by the Daily Mail and I'll try to find an MP that's never fiddled their expenses.

Then there's the charge that Karen and her relatives face of being lazy slobs. You can't blame poorly educated, working-class men and women for not taking up craft skills when apprenticeship schemes were axed (particularly in the North), pits and factories closed and heavy industry decamped overseas. Where were they supposed to learn the social skills to be at the forefront of new leisure-orientated Britain plc? And you can't demonise Karen for claiming large amounts of benefit when the system (as operated by successive Labour governments) is so open to abuse.

What kind of role models do politicians offer to people like Karen? The Prime Minister talks of understanding the problems of the poor, getting people back to work and off the dole. But the man who promised the end of spin spends as much as his predecessor on special advisers to groom his public persona – the kind of experts that Karen Matthews could clearly benefit from.

Jennifer Moses, formerly of Goldman Sachs, advises the Prime Minister on poverty but is one of those non-domiciled people who pay a relatively small amount of tax compared to their vast wealth. The Government should make it compulsory for all its team to pay all their tax in the UK, to set a decent example to the rest of us. But it doesn't. Benefit cheating? Is it any worse than cleverly exploiting loopholes to pay the minimum amount of tax you can get away with?

Rolling back the sneers

Paul Simonon is that rare creature – a polite, articulate, intelligent rock star who also enjoys success in another artistic field. It helps that he's tall, thin and glamorous, but it would be a mistake to dismiss his stunning exhibition of paintings (at the Thomas Williams Gallery in Old Bond Street, London) as a vanity project.

His subject matter ranges from bull fighters to plates of fish, all unfashionably realistic, and more in common with the Camden Town school of painting than anything Mr Saatchi might be interested in.

We met when I interviewed The Clash in 1977 and Simonon managed to gob very close to my feet, saying little, emoting a kind of sneering superiority. He's certainly mellowed!

* Something strange happened to me the other day. I went to a Mike Leigh film and actually came out of the cinema smiling. I heartily loathed Vera Drake, the story of a back-street abortionist set in a series of dingy tenements. Imelda Staunton has never been dressed more unappealingly for her art. Secrets and Lies wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs either.

Mr Leigh's latest opus, Happy-Go-Lucky, follows Poppy, a relentlessly upbeat primary school teacher, living with a girlfriend in a grotty flat in Camden Town. We are so used to a diet of bad news that the first 20 minutes of the film seem quite unbearable. Leigh cleverly pitches Poppy's character on the irritating side of positive, offering jolly quips to everyone she meets in a way that verges on the demented. But then something remarkable happens. We are subtly drawn in and engaged by Poppy. This is vintage Mike Leigh, because it dares to be unfashionable.

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