Jekyll and Hype

New Statesman (1996), February 7, 2000 | Go to article overview

Jekyll and Hype


Murder used to be just murder. You read about it in the Sunday papers, "the sofa cushions soft underneath you" in the words of Orwell's famous essay, savouring the details, marvelling at the villain's cold-blooded nerve. Now, murder is high politics; to adapt Aneurin Bevan, the sound of a body falling to earth must echo through Westminster and Whitehall. Blame must be apportioned, action taken, controls imposed. Leader-writers and commentators must deplore and denounce. No serial killer can take his place in Madame Tussaud's without first being sucked dry for lessons of wider significance.

Thus it is with Harold Shipman, the Manchester doctor convicted of killing 15 elderly women patients. A Times writer informs us, in all seriousness, that Downing Street expected to be blamed for 1,500 deaths (this figure being reached on the assumption that serial murderers kill at a constant rate, getting through a steady 50-odd victims a year rather as other people get through a steady number of cigarettes or cups of tea) and "steeled itself' for a crisis that would dwarf Northern Ireland. Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, tells MPs that the "overwhelming majority" of family doctors will be as appalled as they are (well, that's a relief) and announces an inquiry, "comprehensive and inclusive" but also speedy. He huffs and puffs because a man convicted barely 24 hours earlier (and until then, therefore, presumed innocent) is still registered with the General Medical Council and still in receipt of a salary. MPs hop up and down with calls for further monitoring and regulation. Political panic is accompanied by desperate punditry. The Times's Thomas Stuttaford - the model for Private Eye's "A Doctor" and a man now beyond parody - assures us that "doctors have faults, but few are likely to be serial killers". Tom Utley in the Daily Telegraph suggests that Dr Shipman wouldn't have got away with it in the South-east, where people are too smart to allow themselves or their relatives to be killed.

All manner of things are wrong with the medical profession, and with its procedures for regulation. But a single, extraordinary case is not a good basis for making policy or law or even opinion. A lone gunman who commits multiple murder on school premises does not establish an argument for turning all schools into fortresses. …

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