Issue 244 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
We are just coming to the end of what is known in the media as the 'silly season'. Due to the lack of news, the media, even the serious parts of it, latch on to any trivia and make it seem like serious news. Hence at this time of year stories of mistreated Spanish donkeys frequently receive the same level of coverage as the assassination of a world leader. Perhaps the Spaniards have developed a greater concern for their donkeys these days, because as far as I'm aware no such stories have hit the headlines this summer. Instead, to fill the gap, we had the tedious saga of whether the Blairs would allow a holiday photograph session. As it turned out they did, and didn't that just make your summer?
Then we had to await Prince William's A level results. Now we can sleep soundly in the knowledge that he is on his way to St Andrew's University, where no doubt he'll eke out an existence on a student loan whilst doing two part time jobs to keep himself financially afloat.
Perhaps the most silly of the silly season stories, though, was the latest attempt to repackage William Hague as a beer drinker of somewhat gargantuan proportions in his youth. In his efforts to sell himself as a 'normal Yorkshire bloke', Hague claimed that as a youth he was involved in drinking 14 pints a day. One can't help feeling that his rapid rise up the Tory Party might just have been hindered if at the end of every day he could be seen reeling and vomiting around the town acting like a sort of Euan Blair in residence.
So that was the silly. But perhaps what marked this summer out was that along with the silly went the sinister.
The sinister could be found in the behaviour of the News of the World, the response of the lynch mobs and, across the other side of the Atlantic, with the US presidential race.
The sheer awfulness of the way the News of the World used the tragic death of Sarah Payne is hard to express in words. Recklessly publishing names regardless of the danger and damage it might expose people to was breathtaking. Ignoring the advice of every single authority on the subject they drove on, and in the process they endangered people with convictions (both those who were likely to reoffend and those who were not).
They drove people into hiding and away from the various authorities that were supervising them, possibly making potential victims more vulnerable.
Finally they unleashed mobs that seemed willing to attack anyone whose name or face bore any resemblance to that of someone's printed in the News of the World.
In the end it seemed everybody had a list they could call on. On the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth nightly siege lists appeared from nowhere. Families who had no connection with sex offences were driven from their homes, and elsewhere two people committed suicide.
I am told that Rebekah Wade, the editor of the News of the World, is a thoroughly opportunistic and nasty piece of work, but her behaviour in all this defies belief, even in the shoddy world of tabloid journalism.
In her defence she claimed the support of Sarah Payne's parents. One can hardly begin to imagine how they must feel. However, the anger, hurt and bewilderment of a set of parents is one thing--a circulation-driven bandwagon organised to create hysteria is another.
As for the lynch mobs, I watched the Paulsgrove scenes and what I saw were not frightened, worried parents but a crowd having a whale of a time terrorising others. I have never felt anything but disgust at mobs that turn up to these things. Watching crowds of adults trying to attack the van in which the young murderers of Jamie Bulger were being driven to court turned my stomach.
I also had one close up experience of a potential lynch mob. A couple of years ago a story got out that a convicted paedophile who had finished his sentence was staying with a tenant on the estate where I lived. This created all sorts of mayhem--the tenant's car was set on fire and his flat attacked. Even though the alleged offender had gone, the attacks continued on the tenant, on the grounds presumably that if you know a paedophile you must be one.
I vaguely knew one or two of the 'lads' who were going to get the 'nonce', and argued with them. During the course of the argument, I asked whether they weren't at least concerned that their firebombing antics might go wrong, and that they would set alight any one of the surrounding flats, all of which had children in them? Weren't they concerned that at the very least they would frighten the children in these flats? Ironically neither issue seemed to concern them much, these champions of child protection.
Which brings me to America. If you have ever seen a film of those outside a prison awaiting an execution, there are always two crowds who gather. One demands an end to the death penalty and deplores the barbarity about to take place within. The other turn up to celebrate death and judicial murder, and they seem to get a high from what is about to take place.
No doubt such people turned up recently in Texas to celebrate the impending death of Oliver Cruz, a man who had the mental capacity of a young child.
George W Bush could have spared him but hey, this is election year and, as Bill Clinton showed, you don't give reprieves in election year.
So the child/man is murdered, a grizzly crowd cheers, and a presidential hopeful keeps his lead in the opinion polls.
It appears this year our season went from the silly, to the sinister, to the sick.