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02 May 1998

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Gitta Sereny's book about childhood killer Mary Bell is a convenient excuse for everybody to get on their high horses, writes James Heartfield

Tony Blair says she should not profit by it. Jack Straw says she has surrendered her right to anonymity. Lord Taverne says that the Home Secretary is playing to the mob. Lord Wakeham says that the press are hounding her.

Mary Bell killed two children when she herself was eleven years old in 1968, was sent first to a special unit and on turning sixteen 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 is being serialised in the Times.

Bell's story comes in the middle of a panic over the release of child sex-killer Sidney Cooke, and parallels have been drawn between the two cases. See this month's issue of LM

But the book was written with another case in mind: the case of the two boys who killed the toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993. It would appear that author Gitta Sereny's motives are to emphasise the problem of holding children culpable for acts of murder or manslaughter.

In the published extracts of 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 her to explain how she felt about death, having experienced only the death of her 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 he was not taken to the hospital to be made better.

Sereny's book pursues the nowadays compulsory course of describing how Bell was persecuted by her mother, and so was damaged. But more uplifting in the whole story is the fact that Bell has overcome her childhood crime and incarceration to make a new life for herself, even to the point of bringing up her own daughter. At least that was the case until the Guardian newspaper leaked the story of the impending publication of Cries Unheard, and its serialisation in the Times.

The first person to really stoke up the outrage was the Prime Minister, who during an 'on-line' interview (questions had to be submitted four days in advance) gave vent to the self-righteous prejudice that is his metier. He said that it 'could not be right' that Bell should profit from her crimes. But Bell is not profiting from her crimes. On the contrary, she paid a very heavy price for the part she played, as a child herself, in killing the two boys. She has been paid a modest sum for the work that she put into helping Gitta Sereny with her book - a book which will help clarify the vexed questions of childhood culpability and rehabilitation. The idea that Bell is the equivalent of some drug baron, growing rich on her ill-gotten gains is just other-worldly. The attorney general has since agreed that there are no legal grounds on which Bell's payment could be seized.

The next person to get his knickers in a twist over Mary Bell was the Home Secretary Jack Straw. Straw suggested that Bell had compromised her own claim to anonymity - guaranteed in an earlier injunction dating from the birth of her daughter. This was widely seen by the press as the nod and wink to go after Bell, which they did, even to the point of confronting Bell's teenage daughter with the news of what her mother had done thirty years ago. When it emerged that the Home Office had been fully informed of the impending publication, and had declined to advise against it the Home Secretary was exposed as having stirred up the press against Bell.

Dick Taverne's intervention to accuse the Home Secretary of pandering to the mob, though, was wide of the mark. Unlike the Sidney Cooke case there is no mob pursuing Mary Bell - no mob except the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and those newspapers smarting at having been scooped by the Times. But before playing the usual game of blaming the tabloids, as Lord Wakeham has, let's not forget that this was a panic that started at the very top: with the Prime Minister Tony Blair, who seems to think that harassing a former prisoner, struggling to raise her daughter is the morally correct thing to do.

Tony Blair's preferred outcome from this debate is new powers to censor and regulate what can be published, so that people can be prevented from 'selling their story'. Already bookshops have said they will not stock Cries Unheard and author Gitta Sereny has been publicly pilloried. Why not let people judge for themselves what they read?

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