Magazine article The Spectator

Experts in Suffering

Magazine article The Spectator

Experts in Suffering

Article excerpt

It's unwise to treat victims of tragedy as universal sages

It really is no surprise to learn that Sara Payne favours restrictions to keep online pornography away from children. There cannot, after all, be a sentient adult who would not prefer our babies to spend more time with Peppa Pig than with Swed ish Dolls . But although you and I might think that internet service providers should stick their greed where the sign don't shine, our thoughts would not make headlines like last week's: 'Sara Payne backs call to block online porn' - headlines which , given a moment's thought, can only invite the question, well, so what?

This is a woman who knows a great deal more than we do about things that we must pray we never know better. The anguish when her eight-year-old daughter Sarah was abducted and killed, in 2000, is beyond our paltry imaginings, while her subsequent stoicism - surviving, as it has, a broken marriage and a debilitating stroke - puts to shame our own feeble whimpers. Nevertheless, I'll wager that she knows no more than any other amateur about pre-pubescent synapses, the cause and effect of commercially sexual filth - or, come to that, about anything much concerning the various campaigns that she has been asked to 'back' or 'call for' since Sarah's death.

It might perhaps afford Mrs Payne some small comfort to be so used (she probably calls it 'useful'), and about that we mustn't carp. It is not, however, Sarah's personal tragedy that her mother's high profile represents:

it is just an example of a peculiar trend which promotes the automatic elevation of 'victim' to 'expert'.

Also last week we heard from Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger who was murdered by two other children in 1993. This time she was quoted on 'sickos' who enjoy 'trolling' - the posting of inflammatory messages on internet sites, a nasty practice with which, to be fair, she has been fleetingly targeted. But this is only one among many contributions Mrs Fergus has made to national debate and always, again, without knowledge or qualification. She waded in recently, for instance, when the Children's Commissioner for England presented a well-researched, if controversial, opinion that the criminal age of responsibility should be raised from ten to 12.

Mrs Fergus didn't like this. Well, of course she didn't like it; her son was killed by tenyear-olds, and even now she has close supporters who have openly vowed that if they could get their hands on them they would 'see justice done'. But that is precisely why we have the social contract of law and order, whereby we remove the machinery of justice from those emotionally unequipped to handle it. Why, then, was media space given to Mrs Fergus's passionate but nonsensical view that the Commissioner 'owes me and James an apology'?

So commonplace have become such broadcasts of uninformed opinion that victims ritually offer it without request. Parents, for instance, of any drug-sodden deceased, appear to believe it proper to offer themselves as guest speakers to corralled teenagers at local schools. As far as the staff are concerned, they are pushing an open door; as far as the pupils are concerned, the grim truth is that they usually know more than the bereft and bewildered parents in front of them - and if they don't, the misinformation may be dangerous. Who can forget Paul Betts, father of Leah and self-appointed expert on the ecstasy he was adamant killed his daughter? …

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