Saturday, 15 March 2008

Secret Stories

Update 15/5/2008
Events in the Shannon Matthews case turned out somewhat differently from my assumptions, owing to the extraordinary circumstances of her family; however, the phrase "hiding, or being hidden" turned out to be fairly precient.

As for the other "secret stories" discussed below, one that has returned with a vengeance, in the wake of Cherie Blair's recently-published memoirs, concerns the mysterious "family crisis" alluded to in 2003 by Lord Bragg. There was no mention in the book of this incident, widely rumoured to concern his then 15 year-old daughter Kathryn being rushed to hospital after overdosing on sleeping pills. The circumstances that led her to this "cry for help" are themselves controversial, and not something I will be going into any further. The press's collective decision not to allude to this story strikes me as perfectly reasonable. Besides, there are far more significant stories that remain untold by the mainstream media, many of which are not even "secret".


The press today have been gorging themselves on the story of Shannon Matthews, miraculously restored to life after spending more than three weeks hiding, or being hidden, in some guy's flat. It is the feast before the famine. Once her abductor is charged, the veil of secrecy will descend. Shannon's name will disappear from the archives of major news organisations; in reports of the trial, she will be merely "a girl from Yorkshire"; her mother, whose face has latterly been ubiquitous will henceforth be seen only in shadow, her name withheld, her voice disguised or her voice spoken by an actor. And the public will be assumed to have taken one of those amnesia pills they use on Torchwood.

Such legal restrictions are, of course, supposed to protect the vulnerable child at the centre of the story from harassment. Whether it actually works is, however, a moot point. When Charlene Lunnon and Lisa Hoodless were rescued from the clutches of paedophile Alan Hopkinson in 1999 they became briefly famous, pictured frolicking on a beach in every newspaper. Then they vanished. When they emerged from legally-imposed anonymity last year, they told a tale of schooldays ruined by rumours and bullying. Everyone in their small East Sussex town new who they were; and the fact that this knowledge was, theoretically, a secret probably made things worse.

The anonymity that almost always attaches to children involved with the law, whether victims or delinquents, is assumed to be for their protection. Often, though, it has the opposite effect. All cases before the family courts are subject to quite draconian restrictions, which protects children from press intrusion at the price, often, of preventing genuine scrutiny and debate on subjects of legitimate public interest. Families who find themselves in "the system", faced with care proceedings which may be biased by dubious diagnoses or official determination to get a result, are silenced. In a society in which recourse to media campaigns has become the major, perhaps the only effective, mechanism for correcting injustice, such rules are tantamount to loading the system in favour of the state.

Rape victims, indeed any woman making an accusation of rape, are also guaranteed anonymity, whether or not a conviction follows, while the accused man has no such protection. Even if he is completely exonerated, his reputation will have been trashed. Most of the time, this is probably justified, if only because otherwise few if any victims would come forward. But it does lead to anomalies.

The acquittal the other week of Cambridge graduate Jack Gillett for the attempted sexual assault of a fellow student led to renewed questioning of the rule. Especially since the victim - and we can safely call her that, for no-one contests the fact that she underwent an unpleasant experience - found that the one-sided view of the case presented after it ended left her painted as a devious and flaky liar. A friend penned a defence for the Mail, claiming that she had never even wanted the affair to reach the courts and going so far as to describe the accused man as "a great guy". In this account, the true villains were the police and prosecutors who resorted too easily to legal solutions, forcing the victim to give evidence against a friend. She, no less than her attacker, was a victim of the system: she was even "glad it came out in court that he's a lovely, decent, responsible and caring chap."

Given the anonymity that must prevail in such cases, her side of the story can never be properly put. In the Cambridge case, moreover, there was a hidden dimension veiled from the public, which might explain the frustration exhibited by some sections of the press. For the complainant was - well, "celebrity" is pushing it a bit far, although she did have her fifteen minutes of fame about a decade ago. But her mother is well known for her religious views. More than that I had better not say.

If this was a story that the press could not tell, there are many others that, for various reasons, they choose not to. Recently there there was Prince Harry's jaunt in Afghanistan, of course. Then there was the Duke of Westminster, the long-standing scandal of whose hiring of prostitutes via the London Branch of the Emperors Club VIP was briefly exhumed, before being swiftly reburied, probably for legal reasons. Going further back one may find the strange affair of Labour politician George Robertson and his association with Dunblane gunman Thomas Hamilton, or the interesting (to some) complications of Andrew Marr's private life. In 2004 Melvyn Bragg alluded to a "family crisis" which almost caused Tony Blair to resign before the last election. Breathlessly, the cohorts of the press and broadcast media waited to see if any horse would try this particular fence. But none did, and the story, which involved the prime minister's daughter, remains virtually unknown (outside a charmed circle of insiders, ingenious googlers and serendipitous stumblers) to this day.

To tell this story would have served no conceivable public interest, of course (though this hasn't stopped newspapers revealing things on other occasions). But other silences can seem suspiciously like cosy conspiracies against the public. That many leading members of the younger generation of politicians were once students is a fact no-one would deny. That many leading journalists attended the same universities, often at the same time (as, of course, did many others who never became either politicians or journalists) is equally obvious. But that members of these different tribes might actually have known each other, partied with each other, slept with each other, stabbed each other in the back during long-forgotten (but didn't they seem important at the time?) student elections, or bonded over the odd line of cocaine is hardly ever mentioned. Cui bono?