Baby P: another round of prole porn

After the tragic death of Peter Connelly, underclass-baiting offers a relief for pundits in search of a moral crusade.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Share
Topics UK

There they were, finally revealed; their mugshots looming out of British newspaper front pages like underclass gargoyles. Steven Barker, aged 33, and Tracey Connelly, aged 28. ‘Out of the darkness’, announced one headline, ‘Baby P’s killers named at last’.

The revelation of their identities has been a long time coming. On 3 August 2007, a 17-month-old child known until now only as Baby P was found dead in his cot in Haringey, North London. Seventeen months, one investigation and one criminal trial later, his mother, her partner and their lodger, a then 36-year-old Jason Owen, were all convicted of causing the child’s death.

Combining wilful neglect and shocking abuse, it is a case that, given its infanticidal nature, would surely leave few unmoved even if they only knew the barest of details. Not that the public’s lack of knowledge was ever an issue. Instead, the story was seized, relished, and dwelt upon by media and politicians alike (1). Timelines of abuse proliferated across media outlets. Computer reconstructions of the boy’s broken, battered body littered the inside pages of newspapers. And shrill, moralising commentary reached a sense-deadening pitch. It seemed that no details were deemed too gruesome, no facts judged too excessive, no description seen as too lurid to be used for a morality tale in which one tragic case came to symbolise the fate of a whole section of society: the welfare-dependent, amoral underclass.

What no one knew then, aside from those excited enough to scour internet message boards or join relevant Facebook groups, was who these child killers were. That was until Monday at midnight, when the anonymity order, imposed by Justice Coleridge to protect Baby P’s four siblings, was lifted. And so, at long last, the media had the blank faces and unremarkable names of Baby Peter Connelly, his mother Tracey Connelly and her partner Steven Barker. It was also revealed that the lodger, Jason Owen, was in fact Barker’s older brother.

What has followed has been like a grotesque sequel to the original exploitation of Baby P’s death last November. All the elements, so successful back then, have been shamelessly recycled. The reports are adjective-heavy: cots are ‘blood-spattered’; homes are ‘flea-infested’. And, as before, nothing can be left unsaid. We learn once more of Peter Connelly’s missing ear lobe, of his extracted toe nails, of his broken back. We are also reminded of what the Daily Mail calls the ‘Squalid world of Tracey the Tramp’ (2). ‘Dead mice, chicks and dismembered rabbits were left lying around the house, along with his pornography’, reports The Times (London) (3). The Guardian goes a little bit further: ‘Inside Connelly’s home, evidence of the depravity in which she and the child lived was everywhere. There was faeces, both animal and human, on the floor, the dismembered corpse of a rabbit on the kitchen table, a flea infestation and a layer of filth on every surface.’ (4)

Like a gift from the Gods of sensationalism, the protagonists are also in focus. Barker, we are told in the The Times was a 15-stone ‘knife-obsessed’ sadist, ‘who not only enjoyed torturing animals but people as well’ (5). In the Sun he’s a ‘six-feet-four, 18-stone monster’ who, when he wasn’t abusing the child, was skinning frogs to feed to his pet snake (6). Barker might be bigger and scarier in the tabloids than he is in the broadsheets, but the obsessive focus on the horror of the Baby P story is consistent. The portrait of his partner Tracey Connelly is no less gleefully detailed. ‘Instead of nurturing her baby son’, the Guardian reports, ‘she spent here days drinking vodka, watching pornographic films and having sex with her new boyfriend’ (7). This, it is implied, is how the underclass lives now.

Little wonder that, with Barker’s and Connelly’s back stories now accessible, a broader picture is drawn, one in which the notion of a cycle of deprivation, of lives of generational depravity is readily and eagerly pursued. Neglected by her mother, the young Tracey’s home life is made to prefigure that of her children and, tragically, Baby P’s in particular. As we learn in the Daily Mail, ‘A friend who visited [the young Connelly’s] filthy home said there were no sheets on the beds and dog mess on the floor’ (8). Elsewhere, we learn that Barker was himself abused by his older brother, Jason Owen.

The point writ salaciously large is that Connelly and Barker are not just abusers; they are victims, too. Victims, that is, of the environment in which they subsisted. Their depravity, relayed to the public in inglorious technicolour, is not exceptional but representative. In its sloth, in its neglect, in its casual cruelty, it is simply part of the cycle of behaviour typical of a whole part of society: the underclass.

As the Daily Mail puts it: ‘[Baby P’s death] casts light on a section of society that gives the lie to Labour’s claim that British society is not “broken” – the country’s ever-burgeoning underclass of welfare junkies, drug addicts and single mothers’. (9) Or, in the words of the Evening Standard: ‘Baby P’s background, of which we are now reminded, constitutes an unlovely picture of the British underclass.’ (10) Similarly Carol Midgley in the The Times writes: ‘The sadistic end result for Baby P is mercifully rare but the foetid landscape in which he lived is more common. It might be uncomfortable but the worst thing we can do for these children is to shudder and to look away.’ Midgley continues: ‘We have a moral obligation to examine not only how he died, but also how he and his “carers” lived.’ (11)

And that, it seems, is the justification for what Midgley herself admits has a whiff of ‘prole porn’ about it. The forensic focus upon the tragic life of Baby P, replete in fleas and excrement, abuse and neglect, does nothing more than supposedly capture the sights, sounds, and smells of Britain’s underclass. Baby P’s short life and death, if the commentators and critics are to be believed, has served a purpose: it has opened society’s eyes to the moral rot at its margins.

That is the whole problem with the exploitation of Baby P’s death: it is used to create a perception of widespread immorality. The moral uncertainty in society at large, the want of a vision for how society ought to be, draws commentators far too easily towards horrific examples of how social life ought not to be. The coverage of Baby P’s life is not part of a search for the edifying truth, for the context and facts that might go some way to making sense of this one horrible event. Rather, it is driven by a search for horror, a need for immoral extremity. The pornographic approach to Baby P’s death, and the lives of Connelly and Barker, is not objective, despite its factual basis; it is magnified and extrapolated. It wants to horrify, to shock. In doing so, it plays upon, creates even, not just an other world, but a nether world of unspeakable, hidden evils. Within a moral vacuum, the underclass fills the void as an object of moral revulsion.

Sadly, however, far from allowing a discussion of how to improve the ramshackle, sometimes dysfunctional lives of a certain part of society, the easy Baby P-exploiting, approach impedes it. More worrying still, the calls for a more pro-active approach to the demonised underclass, with a state empowered to right underclass wrongs, will do nothing to avert tragic but rare cases such as that of Baby P. Visited over 60 times during his 70 weeks of life, it was not for want of official suspicion that the abuse of Baby P was missed. As Ken McLaughlin pointed out on spiked at the time of the Baby P verdict, the shifting definitions of abuse, a desire not to miss any signs of alleged mistreatment following the case of Victoria Climbié (the eight-year-old killed by her guardians, also in Haringey, in 2000) and the changes implemented under the banner of Every Child Matters, saw the number of children ‘of interest’ to the child protection services rise from 100,000 to four million. It created a situation in which the rare, genuinely serious cases of abuse can easily be missed (12). If those social workers charged with keeping an eye on Baby P’s welfare suffered from incompetence, it was institutionally induced incompetence. With so many routinely under suspicion, judgement itself becomes routine.

While it might provide the stage on which commentators and critics can righteously posture, the morally titillating coverage of the Baby P case will do nothing to restore the moral purpose for which those self-same commentators and critics yearn. What it will do, however, is make the lives of those deemed, indeed demonised, ‘underclass’ more difficult than ever before.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Declaring war against ‘domestic terrorism’, by Tim Black

How the abuse industry is exploiting Baby P, by Brendan O’Neill

Why moral opportunists are exploiting this tragedy, by Frank Furedi

Dead baby porn, by Brendan O’Neill

Is it P for ‘prole’?, by Tim Black

A needle in the haystack, by Ken McLaughlin

Targeting teenage mothers, by Jan McVarish

Don’t turn this tragedy into policy, by Jennie Bristow

Read more at spiked issue: Baby P.

 

(1) See Dead baby porn, by Brendan O’Neill, 18 November 2008

(2) Baby P killers unmasked: Evil mother who stood by as son was tortured… and the neo-Nazi boyfriend who abused him, Daily Mail, 11 August 2009

(3) Out of the darkness: Baby P’s killers named at last, The Times, 11 August 2009

(4) Tracey Connelly: the story of a woman defined by abuse, Guardian, 11 August 2009

(5) Out of the darkness: Baby P’s killers named at last, The Times, 11 August 2009

(6) Addicted to torture, The Sun, 11 August 2009

(7) Tracey Connelly: the story of a woman defined by abuse, Guardian, 11 August 2009

(8) Baby P grandmother: ‘I hope my daughter rots in hell’, Daily Mail, 11 August 2009

(9) Baby P was betrayed by our broken society, Daily Mail, 11 August 2009

(10) It’s right that we know who killed Baby P, Evening Standard, 11 August 2009

(11) The worst thing for Baby P is if we turn away, The Times, 11 August 2009

(12) See A needle in a haystack, by Ken McLaughlin, 18 November 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Share
Topics UK

Comments

Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Become a spiked supporter
Share