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The row over Gitta Sereny's book about Mary Bell has helped to turn childhood into a political football, says James Heartfield

Mary Mary, quite contrary

The publication of Cries Unheard, journalist Gitta Sereny's book about childhood killer Mary Bell, raised a storm of protest. Mary Bell killed two children in 1968 when she herself was 11 years old. She was sent first to a special unit and then, on turning 16, to prison. Since leaving prison in the eighties Bell wrote her own life story, which was turned down by several publishers. Now, Gitta Sereny has interviewed her extensively to write Cries Unheard, which was serialised in The Times.

Cries Unheard was probably written with another case in mind: the killing of toddler Jamie Bulger by two 10-year old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in 1993. More than a million people signed a petition against their release, amid a spasm of hatred for the child killers. It would appear that among Gitta Sereny's motives is the need to emphasise the problem of holding children culpable for acts of murder or manslaughter.

In the book, Mary Bell's account of her own culpability is considered. In a letter to her teachers from 1976, reproduced in The Times, Bell is clearly contrite, talking of the 'absolute enormity of my crime'. However, Sereny also persuades Bell to explain how she felt about death at that time, having only ever experienced the death of a pet dog: 'my dad bought me the same - well, to me, the same - dog the next day.' The implication is that Bell did not fully understand death as an irreversible state, and so could not truly be held responsible for killing somebody. Similarly Jon Venables, when confronted with the news that he had killed Jamie Bulger, is reported to have asked why the toddler was not taken to the hospital to be made better.

Was Bell capable of understanding the full moment of killing another person? Opinions vary about how much children do understand. But Sereny's example comes in the midst of a very public debate about what to do with child offenders. According to home secretary Jack Straw, young children can understand. His proposals to allow the courts to find children as young as 10 capable of evil look set to put more infants in the dock. Like author Blake Morrison, who wrote a book about the Bulger case, Gitta Sereny is saying that it is wrong to treat children like adults, and to try them in adult courts as if they were capable of bearing the burden of criminal responsibility that adults do. As far as that goes, Sereny is right.

Straw is drawn to the argument that criminals must pay, thinking that such retributive justice will appeal to the desire for order. But actually it just makes a mockery of justice to put children in the dock. In a recent case four young boys were tried on a rape charge at the Old Bailey. Conscious that the boys would have difficulty concentrating on the case for long sittings, the judge allowed them to take colouring books and pencils, so that they could draw when their minds wandered. But children who are incapable of concentrating on the deliberations over their incarceration could not get a fair trial.

Jack Straw thinks that he is emphasising responsibility when he calls for children to be tried for their offences. In fact child-trials have the opposite effect. Because children are incapable of bearing the full responsibility of a criminal trial, we all get used to the idea that all defendants are just inadequate, rather than guilty or innocent. It is not childhood that is ultimately being reconsidered in Straw's proposal to amend the legal principle of doli incapax, but adulthood. Society is uncertain about what it means to be a responsible adult today - as is clear when people make the category error of confusing a child with an adult.

Where Cries Unheard is wrong is in playing on that confusion. In her own way, Sereny too is contributing to the undue politicisation of childhood. If all Sereny was saying was that it was a mistake to try Bell there would be no problem. But she is saying a great deal more. Sereny follows a well-worn path in emphasising Bell's history of abuse at the hands of her mother. The implication of Sereny's story is that the abuse is an explanation of Mary Bell's own violent behaviour.

Like any author, Sereny wants us to believe that the story that she is telling is a profound and important one, so she says her book is intended as a 'warning' to us all. She means of course that we can all learn something from this case, and indeed from Mary Bell, that the cases of children who kill have something important to tell us about who we are, about the human condition.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no profound lesson to be learnt from Mary Bell, nor from her story, nor indeed from the instances of children who kill. The only thing that really stands out is how rare childhood killers really are - especially when you think just how beastly children can be to each other on a day-to-day basis. Children kill about once every 10 years in this country.

Explaining why Mary Bell killed is a fool's errand. You might just as well try to explain why schoolboys dangle out of windows or why infants throw their toys around. Childhood is in many ways without reasons. The depressing truth is that it was just Mary Bell's bad luck that she went that bit further than torturing the cat or the budgerigar. Perhaps looking back over Mary Bell's life now it seems obvious that she was on a course of destruction. But then lots of people had terrible childhoods and never killed anybody. Everybody's life looks like fate when viewed in retrospect - you always think you can identify that influence which made you needy, gay, competitive or whatever. But you are just kidding yourself.

Many educated and radical people have reacted against the press treatment of Mary Bell and Jack Straw's ham-fisted intervention. According to radical author Beatrix Campbell it is telling that it is an abused child who is being silenced. The liberal press has denounced Straw's crusade against Bell. Sereny herself, famed for her imperious manners and indifference to criticism, has been taken aback by the reaction. When the Mary Bell case becomes a matter of public debate, these intellectuals all react against the hysterical outbursts.

But who is responsible for the extraordinary politicisation of childhood that we see today? Beatrix Campbell helped turn child abuse into an intense public debate, by her forceful advocacy on behalf of social workers in Cleveland and the Orkneys who took many children into care on (generally unfounded) suspicion of abuse. There has been a great deal of criticism in the quality press of the 'hysterical mob' for supposedly hounding Mary Bell. But it was just these papers that have elevated the most extraordinary and unjustified fears about the dangers of child abuse more broadly. This is, after all, Sereny's second book about Mary Bell. She can hardly claim to have made no contribution to the public interest in this exceptional crime.

The Mary Bell story is not really a story at all. The killing itself took place 30 years ago. Bell was released nearly 20 years ago. The only story revolves around the writing of a book that had already been written once before. The great hysteria that followed was almost entirely a creation of the media's interest - with New Labour government approval. The players were the major newspapers, the prime minister and the home secretary. Even the mothers' grief was reproduced for the cameras. If there was a story it was a story about our society, about the way that it has taken childhood out of the hands of children and turned it into a big political issue.

Childhood is not something that children have and enjoy anymore; it is something that insecure adults obsessively debate the meaning of - to no great effect. That is why there is such a difference between how we react to Mary Bell today and how people responded 30 years ago. Indeed it is arguable that Sereny's book has caused more hysteria than the killings themselves.

Retired teacher Rennie Hughes remembers that at the time of the Mary Bell killings there was nothing like the hysteria there was about the Bulger case, and the press never told you anything anyway. Pamela Hodge lived near the Bells' home in Scotsford Road during the trial and recalls that very different questions were asked about the case back then. 'It was a slum - old bombsites, uncapped gas pipes sticking out of the ground', she remembers. 'We followed the court reports every day. It was supposed to be the first time that a child had been tried for such a crime and it did not make sense to me and the people I knew. How could a child be guilty of manslaughter?

'There were some big meetings in Newcastle because of it. We asked questions like, why wasn't there proper childcare? You could only leave your kids with friends and family. And why did women have to work as prostitutes? Nobody could get decent jobs. Slum clearance was one answer, so was better childcare.'

Gitta Sereny, author of Cries Unheard, and below, Mary Bell as child and adult

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998

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