Mommy Dreadful

The Baby P story, where the child could not be identified, demonstrated the importance of pictures. Most papers, including the Guardian, ran pictures of bloodstained clothing and computer-generated images of the child's injuries. Some readers protested they were unnecessary and voyeuristic. But any news editor would argue that, with no other images of the child available, they were essential to engage readers' sympathy – Peter Wilby

Whatever the biases of the media it is at least reassuring that an element of gravitas has returned to what it chooses to report. It is most unfortunate that the catalyst for it should have been the sadistic torture murder of a baby boy. 450,000 people signing a petition, even if organised by the Sun, demanding instant action against those considered most negligent in the case of the murdered baby suggests that a sense of proportion and prioritisation has returned to the minds of the British public. With 40,000 people a matter of weeks ago having phoned in to complain about a prank in woefully bad taste played by two celebrities on another from the same stable, it seemed that the dumbing down virus spawned by Nonsense TV had infected radio.

‘Welcome’ is not a choice word to describe the resumption of serious news. Its advent is invariably accompanied by a high price tag, on this occasion ‘one of the worst cases of sadistic brutality and sordid child neglect to come before a British court.’ While the unremitting suffering this child of 17 months was forced to undergo intensifies the sheer horror of what is being reported, it also magnifies the discomfort in viewing, reading or listening to it.

Yet there are those who for some incomprehensible reason take the view that one very noticeable reaction to the murder was exhilaration. Striking out in the Times at the way in which the case, in her view, has been transformed almost pornographically into a penny dreadful, Janice Turner wrote:
I was rounding the bread aisle in Sainsbury when I came across three young women in mid-conversation. “He ripped off his fingernails,” said the first. “And nearly pulled off his ear,” added a second. “Who could do such a thing?” said the third, and they all shook their heads in what's-the-world-coming-to despair. But their eyes were lit by other emotions: excitement, titillation, glee.

This seems a hopelessly subjective and ultimately self-serving interpretation of what the women in question thought. I have spoken to many people about the Baby P story and glee was the one emotion definitely absent from their eyes and voices. Yet Janice Turner just happened effortlessly to find three all in one go titillated by the sordid saga. Presumably they were happy that the tedium in their lives had been punctuated by riveting tales of torture. Were they eating popcorn and sipping fizzy drinks while they were at it?

I don’t believe that these emotions of excitement, titillation and glee were really stalking that shopping aisle vicariously experiencing the thrills of the Nazi sadist while he ripped at baby ears and fingernails. More plausibly, it strikes me that the writer on this occasion found what she was looking for; more, placed it there for the very purpose of giving substance to a story she had already intended to write. The women conversing became a useful prop to stand it up against. The ugly spectre that wisped along the Sainsbury aisle was not excitement, titillation or glee but callous manipulation of imagery. Glee did not make the story, the story made the glee.

I suspect, rather like myself and countless others, the Sainsbury women were horrified and not at all titillated that any child could be forced to undergo trauma that many adults would have expired from quicker than Baby P. Unable to end his own wretched life as a means to escape the unbearable suffering the baby had to wait, traumatised by agony and depression, until his three adult tormentors tortured what remained of his life out of his tiny broken body.

In pitching the story in terms of vicarious titillation there is no concession to the possibility that the women in question may have been mothers who found it incomprehensible that another mother would be an accomplice in the torture murder of her own child; that they like many others have experienced great anguish over this baby boy and feel, even in some nebulous way, that by facing that anguish rather than opting for clinical detachment they, through a sense of common humanity, can grasp something of his pain; that through internalising that pain the women are uncompromisingly pitching themselves against those who inflicted it. This is a story of mommy dreadful, not penny dreadful.

For Janice Turner it seems the detail should be dulled down because of those deriving ‘a kick from the adrenalin surge of our own shock and disgust.’ Whatever good reasons there may be for cutting back on the detail this is hardly one of them. The cruel story of Baby P brings only depreciation in peace of mind with its vicious assault on the emotions. It is about mood deflation not adrenalin surges. There is no comfort zone to escape to here. The child suffered horrifically, experiencing a lonely, terrifying and agonising end. I for one shudder with dark despair on learning of his ordeal. The coward within me urges that I run away, spare myself the burden of empathy, take the easy way out, turn the page, skip the detail, abandon the murdered baby - the very things that happened to him while alive. Reflect on a key prosecution witness account of Baby P’s response to a social worker who greeted him ‘hello little fella’ a mere four days before his murder:

The heartbreaking thing is Baby P smiled at the woman. Sitting in that buggy with his back broken, eight broken ribs, fingernails missing, toenail missing and a nappy full of excrement and he still managed a smile.

Reading that what right have I to take refuge in my cowardice or seek shelter in accounts defined by their detachment?

There can be no retreat from this. Our awareness of the bottomless cruelty inflicted on this baby forcefully reminds us of what we are and more importantly of what we are not. We identify exclusively with his suffering and distance ourselves absolutely and irrevocably from those who caused it. The discourse of Baby P must become so voluble that it crystallises into both an ethical imperative and political bulwark against a reoccurrence. Never again should a letter be added to the alphabet of mutilated and murdered children. For this to gather irreversible momentum the desolate life and despicable death of Baby P needs to be engaged not just intellectually but emotively as well. Were it not for emotive involvement with African hunger, Asian tsunamis or Iranian earth quakes brought to us by imagery that torments rather than titillates would we dig as deep into our pockets?

For some the terrible truth lest we forget, for others the sanitised story lest they remember.


  1. It simply galls that this fiend should ever see the light of day.

  2. very very sad case of child abuse to the extreme, Missed by Harringay social services,This child was made a ward of court and was placed in the hands of a family member , But low and behold, Harringay Social services even returned little Peter to his deranged mother for further abuse. Such sick people in this world , even today. None of them should be released, Especially Tracey Connelly for allowing her son to be abused in such a manner is unforgivable. May she rot in the fire pits of Hell.

  3. Itsjustmacker,

    this was a particularly nasty case. Normally I would never see anyone held in jail forever but she should never see the light of day. Forever and a day in her case