State attacks right to think

There is a hidden agenda of censorship behind the chorus of outrage over the Mary Bell biography

There are few things more stomach-churning than watching bourgeois society going through one of its moralistic spasms. Over the last week we have been bombarded by sensationalist stories about the “child killer” Mary Bell. The bigot-fuelled tabloids, of course, have had a field day, stoking up prejudice and all manner of backward ideas.

Unsurprisingly, tabloid editors have been working overtime evoking lurid images which could come from The Omen or The Exorcist - watch out for ‘children of Satan’ or armies of zombie-like killer-children roaming your street. As Emma Forest wrote in The Guardian: “In reporting on murder, there is an unspoken tabloid rule: when men kill it’s bad. When women kill it’s evil. And when children kill it’s satanic” (May 4).

Thus, naturally, Mary Bell is supposed to become a hate figure - so runs the script. This means that the 41 year-old Mary Bell has to be demonised and scapegoated as a “child killer” rather than someone who killed as a child - for whatever reason. The fact that Mary Bell’s specific case is being subsumed under a general tabloid-driven hysteria about ‘paedophiles’ lurking outside your back door makes the current mood even more alarming. This obsession with ‘evil’ killers and perverts led to a near-riot in Yeovil, when a rumour got out - tabloids again? - that Sydney Cooke was being held in the local police station.

And, of course, after reading about the ‘evil’ misdeeds of Mary Bell, people are inclined to look to the police and the bourgeois courts for protection. Not to mention censorship. This is the hidden agenda that lies behind the Mary Bell ‘scandal’. You can be sure that tabloid editors, self-appointed moral guardians and other forces in society do not want us to get a glimpse of the real truth behind the Mary Bell story.

Instead, though with no logic whatsoever, we are supposed to believe in the existence of a timeless, transcendental, ahistorical evil which possesses certain individuals - and not others. This is the force responsible for producing Mary Bell - and Sydney Cooke, Fred West, Thomas Hamilton, Peter Sutcliffe, etc.

Naturally, anyone who challenges orthodox reactionary assumptions is immediately suspect - and risks being stifled. (For example, look at the attempts to ban the ‘offensive’ film Crash.)

The real facts about the grim and tragic life of the young Mary Bell do not fit into the neat and easy categories conjured up the salivating tabloids. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1968 at the age of 11 for the manslaughter of two boys aged four and three, Mary Bell had suffered appalling maltreatment - sexual abuse and general deprivation - at the hands of her mother and her ‘male visitors’. But the torture did not end there. At the Red Bank Special Unit, we are just learning, she was subjected to sexual attacks at the hands of staff and inmates. According to one former inmate, she was “petrified” the whole time as unit workers and residents “made it plain to her that was the way it would be” (quoted in The Guardian May 2).

Still hate her?

The general climate of censorship in Britain can be seen by the reaction to Gitta Sereny’s book, Cries unheard, which she ‘co-authored’ with Mary Bell. Sereny has written a much praised biography of Albert Speer which attempted to penetrate the political psyche of those who masterminded the Third Reich. She has also written a study of Franz Stangel, commandant of the Treblinka concentration/extermination camp.

Sereny was motivated by the conviction that Mary Bell had been the victim of an “enormous relative injustice”. She is also “absolutely convinced that children do not commit crimes because they are evil”. There had to be “a reason”. And therefore that the judicial system has to change so that children can never again be tried in adult courts or sent to adult prisons. It appears that these are ‘bad ideas’. Perhaps they should not be said at all. Perhaps it would be better if Cries unheard was not published.

Thus, when it was discovered that Sereny had given Mary Bell some of the money advanced to her by the publishers, all hell broke loose. The tabloids scream about “child killers” profiting from their crimes, conjuring up the figure of £50,000. Jack Straw instantly said the payment by Sereny had “compromised” Mary Bell’s anonymity. He was followed by his master, Tony Blair, who sanctimoniously pontificated that it was “wrong that people make money out of crimes they have committed”. In the end the Bells - mother and daughter - had to go into hiding to escape media harrassment. The tabloids claimed the moral high ground to the bitter end, piling on the pressure to suppress Sereny’s book.

Yet, with astounding hypocrisy, these very same newspapers have been offering far larger sums than £50,000 to Bell for her ‘exclusive story’. Indeed, according to Sereny, £50,000 is “infinitesimal” in comparison to these offers, which “are still continuing to come in”. Who is profiting from crime now?

In other words, to profit or not is not the real issue at stake here. It is clearly what is being said rather than who is saying it that is the target.

If you want more proof, it was announced last week that the brutal London gangster, ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, will be doing a TV advertisement for Campari. The sound of moral outrage was conspicuous by its absence. But it is very unlikely that Fraser will feel the censor’s hand - he does not pose a threat to establishment values - Mary Bell’s life does.

As for murderers and killers ‘profiting from crime’, the local bookshop or library is full of the memoirs of assorted wartime politicians, generals, ex-members of the SAS, etc. They will continue to be published - with impunity.

This should send a clear signal to the workers’ movement. Censorship and suppression of free speech is a weapon that can be directed against anyone who one way or the other goes against the ruling order. We must be vigilant and fight all attempts to deny our democratic right to think.

Eddie Ford