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08 November 1997

After Diana, Louise

As half the western world waits for the result of Louise Woodward's first appeal, Jennie Bristow expresses disquiet over the implications of the reaction

'This is the daft face of modern Britain, where flowers are piled at accident or murder scenes and yellow ribbons tied to trees when Britons are jailed overseas', argued Daily Mail columnist Peter McKay on 3 November. Daft? I wish it was.

McKay, like just about every newspaper columnist, was writing about the British reaction to the 19-year-old au pair Louise Woodward, convicted of second-degree murder by a Massachusetts jury. The story of her trial and conviction has gripped the British public for weeks. But haven't we read something like this story before?

When Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash we were overwhelmed by the constant media coverage, flowers, tears and hysteria. When the story itself was dead, there seemed to be a vacuum: society wanted more of this, another tragic victim around whom they could converge and weep over. Now the vacuum has been filled by the unlikely figure of Louise Woodward, another victim of circumstances, another innocent wronged. All she has in common with Diana is her status as a victim, but to have that in common is enough.

The fact that Louise Woodward could so quickly set off a Diana-like emotional reaction shows that this public feeling cannot be dismissed as 'daft'. It is the face of modern Britain, where emotion rules and rational discussion is suspended. If the hysterical discussion were confined to the simple speculation 'guilty or not guilty' avoiding it would be easy enough: stop buying the papers and turn the television off. But the emotive character of the discussion around Woodward's trial quickly spread to wider aspects of social and political life, tainting them with some highly regressive ideas.

In amongst all the emotion and sniping that went with Woodward's trial, the critics of the verdict brought against her were raising some issues of crucial importance. Take for example the role of the jury in her trial. Through embodying the notion that suspects are tried by the people rather than the state, juries have always played a vital part in the democracy of the courts. They can protect defendants from abuses of power by a non-elected, non-representative judge. Yet all it took was the jury to make a decision that Woodward's many supporters disagreed with for the cry to go up. 'Down with the jury!' they said, and started lobbying the judge to overturn the jury's verdict. The consequences this has for democracy and justice are serious. When all can agree that a judge's power should be absolute in one case, how much power will be given to judges of the future?

Jurors are not the only group of people to come under fire from the 'Woodward innocent' brigade. For working mums everywhere, the guilt taps have been turned on. It was the Eappens' fault, apparently, for leaving their supposedly beloved child in the hands of an inexperienced babysitter. Does this not show that they never cared abut Matty in the first place?

The attempts to slap down the parents is an extraordinarily backward step for women's equality. In these feminised times, we think of housewives as a thing of the past and know that they days of the male breadwinner are gone forever. But still, successful working mums are just not acceptable. 'The kids should come first' is the reactionary message that underpins all attempts to brand the Eappens as the real villains, and it does not take too much imagination for other working parents to find comparisons with themselves.

But should you not be able to trust a nanny? If Matthew's death was really the fault of his parents, then it casts major doubt on how far you can trust professional child-minders: particularly young ones. And here another section of society - young adults - comes into the firing line. Babysitting used to be a job that girls could do from the age of thirteen. Now an adult nineteen-year-old is seen to be too vulnerable and immature to take on that kind of responsibility. Playing up Woodward's incompetence may well help her case, but what effect does this have for all those wannabe au pairs who do consider themselves capable of holding down such a job? If they can get a post at all, they will no longer be trusted as adults capable of doing the job, so they may as well stay at home.

The social questions raised around the Woodward trial used to be the stuff of formal parliamentary discussion. Now they come to the fore only in a discussion too emotive to give such issues due consideration or a fair hearing, and result in real consequences at the speed of light. Diana's death will mean more restrictions on press freedom and the Woodward trial will no doubt mean more attempts to constrain juries, guilt-trip parents and sack au pairs. And why? Because in the weeping world of post-Diana crusades, the first thing to go is common-sense. Justice and freedom are not far behind.

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