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
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
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?
Join a discussion on this commentary