During the Second Lebanon War of 2006, an American journalist coined the controversial phrase ‘dead child porn’ to describe the media’s lust for photographing dead or brutalised children. Today, we have battered baby porn. Many people have said they felt sick reading about Baby P, and that is not surprising: the coverage has been sick, reflecting a severe lack of editorial judgement and crisis of objectivity in the upper echelons of the British press. If we are not being subjected to an in-depth account of what was done to Baby P’s body – ‘He made Baby P kneel in front of him, with blood oozing from his fingers, and hold out his hands for more punishment’ (1) – we are being invited to view from afar, like visitors to Bedlam, the sort of depraved communities that allegedly nurture the likes of Baby P’s abusers.
Peer into a world where there is ‘no trace of morality’, invites The Times (2). Welcome to a class of people so depraved that one family ‘passes around a teenage daughter with Down’s syndrome as a sexual plaything’, says the Independent on Sunday, her uncles ‘happily running their hands up her thigh’ in front of social workers, so shameless and disgusting are they (3). That story is based on one source – ‘a friend’ – making those hearsay tales of horror from the Balkans and other wars seem almost airtight by comparison. Indeed, the coverage of Baby P – with its lurid descriptions of physical injuries, of homes in which ‘snakes slither around eating scraps of food’, of debased families who rape disabled girls and ‘rip off children’s fingernails’ (4) – has more in common with the hysterical coverage British journalists normally produce while in Yugoslavia or the Congo or Rwanda. Now they have discovered the ‘heart of darkness’ in rundown Haringey, a place with no morals, no decency, no human code, where untermenschen that are easily the match for ‘evil Hutus’ or ‘demented Serbs’ are partaking in ‘unspeakable human depravity’, these ‘drug addicts, feral gangs of obese children and hideous drunks’ (5). In many ways, the elite response to Baby P takes us back to an earlier key Imperial prejudice: fear of the immoral, uncontrollable barbarians at home.
The combination of pornographic detail and outrage against ‘Them’ in the media coverage of Baby P is intended to nurture two emotions: the titillation of outrage and a feeling of moral superiority. As Janice Turner argued in a sensible piece in The Times, the ‘pornography of child violence’ that we have seen in recent days is likely giving rise to secret feelings of ‘excitement, titillation, glee’. Readers may feel a ‘grim, moral obligation to stare unblinkingly at all the evidence’, she says (6).
In her important book What is a Child? Popular Images of Childhood, published in 1992 (a time when it was mostly half-dead foreign children who graced frontpage stories about famine in Africa or war in the Middle East), Patricia Holland discussed the perverse pleasure some people take from images of distressed children: ‘As the children in the image reveal their vulnerability, we long to protect them and provide for their needs. Paradoxically, while we are moved by the image of the sorrowful child, we also welcome it, for it can arouse pleasurable emotions of tenderness, which in themselves confirm adult power.’ (7) In some of the coverage of Baby P, commentators and columnists have told of how they cried upon hearing about his abuse; how they looked at their own children and thought ‘how could anyone harm a child?’; how they longed to go back in time and rescue Baby P or simply ‘hug him’ (8). One child’s terrible tragedy becomes part of a narcissistic affirmation of the cultural elite’s more caring and child-friendly attitudes. As Janice Turner says, some of the coverage has had more in common with those ‘misery memoirs’ – where, again, we are invited to take some perverse pleasure in other people’s graphic misfortunes – rather than with traditional news reporting.
The media coverage has also sought to forge some sort of new moral consensus for our disorientated political and cultural elite. Whether you are outraged by Baby P’s fate – visibly and declaratorily outraged, that is – is now the measure of whether you are a decent person. The News of the World, after producing page after page of battered baby porn, said in its editorial: ‘We defy anyone with a heart not to weep as you read the harrowing words in this newspaper today.’ (9)
This is like issuing a challenge to Britain, a challenge to pass the test of emotional correctness by weeping at the sordid details of Baby P’s life and death; a challenge to show that you are part of Decent Society – as opposed to that ‘savage, feral’ underclass, as the News of the World labels them – by advertising your horror over Baby P. The boy’s death revealed nothing about the traits of a British ‘underclass’, only about the depravity that took place in one household. However, the transformation of the Baby P tragedy into a national test of moral purity and emotional citizenship reveals much about the rulers and opinion-formers of modern Britain. What kind of society needs the depraved death of a toddler in order to feel united, purposeful, decent?
The coverage of Baby P exposes a crisis – a profound crisis of morality and direction – amongst our news-makers and opinion-formers. Journalists’ hunger for the images, sounds and smells of horror today, whether they are reporting on floods in Asia, wars in the Middle East or child abuse in Haringey, shows the extent to which they have abandoned their responsibility to analyse events, to make sense of the world rather than to moralise about it. This demonstrates a disregard for objectivity and a contempt for the audience. The desire is always to shock us or to force us to become more morally aware. During the Iraq War, one prominent journalist called for more images of ‘graphic violence’ and ‘blood and guts’ because viewers are ‘literal-minded creatures: to believe something we need to see it; dry statistics will not do’ (10). This reveals the media’s loss of faith in true objectivity (those dusty old ‘dry statistics’) and their lack of belief in the audience’s ability to deal with well-presented and well-ordered facts and complex arguments. In the Baby P case, too, we have been given ‘graphic violence’, even ‘blood and guts’ in the continual publication of the child’s blood-spattered all-in-one, by a media that clearly believes we need a moral jolt.
The combination of pornography and morality in the Baby P coverage is most reminiscent of those Victorian ‘newspapers’ that reported in graphic detail on the scourge of child prostitution. Those reports, too, contained both salacious amounts of information and pompous moral outrage. Indeed, our era has some striking parallels with the Victorian era: 2008 is also a time of fin de siècle fears, when there is a palpable and powerful sense of moral and familial breakdown which must be stemmed, or simply fretted about. Both in Victorian Britain and late twentieth/early twenty-first century Britain, the vulnerable child – The Next Generation in danger – has become a metaphor for all sorts of fears about the future and for justifying interventions in family life. The case of Baby P has revealed two things: 1) there was a house in Haringey where depraved cruelty was carried out; 2) our elite is so discombobulated it needs to moralise a terrible tragedy in order to reassert its decency and moral rule.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) So sweet: tragic Baby P at a year old, News of the World, 16 November 2008
(2) Words fail, The Times, 13 November 2008
(3) The world around Baby P is wrong, Independent on Sunday, 16 November 2008
(4) The world around Baby P is wrong, Independent on Sunday, 16 November 2008
(5) Welcome to Britain, land of the rising scum, Daily Mail, 14 November 2008
(6) Baby P and the pornography of child violence, The Times (London), 15 November 2008
(7) What is a Child? Popular Images of Childhood, Patricia Holland, Virago Press, 1992
(8) They’re ALL guilty, News of the World, 16 November 2008
(9) Sack them for sake of all kids, News of the World, 16 November 2008
(10) Michela Wrong wants more corpses on television, New Statesman, 26 April 2004