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Wednesday, March 09, 2005


The thin veneer of civilisation

The Soham murders in 2002 were depressing, not just because of the tragic deaths of two children, but also because of the appalling vigilante bloodlust unleashed by the tabloids. It turns out that lynch mobs are not the only evidence these murders provided of how thin a veneer our civilisation is.

On Monday's Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4, Kevin Wells, father of one of the murdered girls, was interviewed following the publication of his book Goodbye, Dearest Holly. (You can listen to the broadcast online here).

Three things struck me about this interview. The first, a notable trend in media interviews with 'ordinary people', was that Kevin Wells felt compelled to express his experiences in psychoanalytical terms. It is a common fallacy that important subjects demand jargon-laden language. The widespread use of such hand-me-down terminology is indicative of the extent to which our lives have been colonised by the professionals and our self-confidence diminished in the process. Plain everyday language would have had more force and would also have helped claim back human experience from the therapists.

The second factor was more alarming. Wells claimed that the police investigation was getting nowhere until he and his wife consulted various psychics, with one medium allegedly identifying the culprit. The interviewer did not have the guts to challenge this superstitious tosh but treated it with undue solemnity. If such beliefs can be taken seriously, and given New Labour's unashamed attempts to abolish first jury trials and then due process altogether, how long before ducking stools are brought back to our judicial system?

Third, and most nauseating, was the revelation that Wells and his wife had received a torrent of hate-mail following the murder of their daughter. Amongst these were claims by religious fundamentalists that the children deserved to die because they were out playing on the sabbath. Not much evidence of Christian love there, but plenty to demonstrate yet again the bile-fuelled intolerance that motivates the lunatic fringe of religious bullies.

Meanwhile, this evening's TV news shows that we are now unable to debate the NHS without resorting to anecdotal tear-jerking, so I suppose we must abandon all hope of any rational discussion of the prevention of child abuse. The degradation of our political discourse is an inevitable consequence of following popular opinion rather than leading it.

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