Declaring war against ‘domestic terrorism’

What Karen Matthews did to her daughter is obscene. So is the implication that such cruelty is widespread in ‘feral Britain’.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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On 19 February this year, a nine-year-old girl called Shannon was reported missing by her mother, Karen Matthews. Twenty-four days later, after the widest police search conducted by the West Yorkshire constabulary since the 1970s, Shannon was found drugged, frightened, but alive in the flat of Michael Donovan, her stepfather’s uncle.

The joyous reaction, particularly on the Dewsbury estate in which Shannon and her six siblings lived, was unabated. It was also to be shortlived. With each passing day that Shannon was not returned to the family home, it became clear that something was wrong. The arrest of stepfather Craig Meehan for accessing child pornography was merely the prelude to the deeper tale of dysfunction, cruelty and conniving that was shortly to become public.

On 8 April, Karen Matthews was charged with child neglect and perverting the course of justice, and then, on 5 September, alongside Donovan, with false imprisonment. By this point, what had at first seemed to echo the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, prompting much guilt-tinged commentary, quickly came to be seen as its exploitative parody. From the slightly hollow demand for national mourning to the relatively small search fund, it was like the ‘Our Maddie’ phenomenon, only impoverished. And then there was the final sting: it was little more than a Madeleine McCann-inspired scam.

Over the course of the three-week trial, a thoroughly depressing picture of Shannon’s life emerged, from being routinely drugged and sedated throughout her young life, to the tribulations of the kidnap itself, including being tethered to a roof joist with just enough slack in the rope so that she could reach a toilet. Thankfully, last week the conviction of both Karen Matthews and Michael Donovan brought the months of spewed innuendo, ill-informed prejudice and, more recently, macabre fact, to an end.

Or at least it should have done. Unfortunately, the sad life (so far) of Shannon Matthews has proved too politically useful to be treated as it is in itself. It has become, like the tragedy of Baby P, a means of elite-fostered illumination, a revelatory tool to show the welfare-dependent immorality lurking in our midst.

The metaphors have at least been thematically consistent: curtains have been drawn back; windows opened; doors pulled ajar. ‘The case of Karen Matthews’, ran the Daily Telegraph’s leader, ‘convicted of kidnapping her own daughter in order to claim a reward, has again pulled back the curtain to allow us a glimpse of this netherworld of taxpayer-funded fecklessness’ (1).

Writing of ‘the broken children of Dewsbury Moor’, Andrew Norfolk in The Times sounded almost thankful for the enlightenment offered by the case of Shannon Matthews: ‘But for that fateful act, no spotlight would have fallen on the streets of ugly 1930s red-brick semis clinging to a hillside on the western edge of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.’ (2) And Jeremy Vine, narrating the BBC’s Panorama special, was just as grateful: ‘The family’s chaotic nature, five fathers, seven children and the whole benefits culture that went along with it, opened the eyes of the country to an underclass that many of us choose to ignore.’ (3)

This was not a peep show exclusive to the media. Former Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, felt it was as though ‘a door on to another world has opened slightly and the rest of Britain can peer in’ (4). Smith’s successor, David Cameron, clearly enjoying the masturbatory delights on offer, finished himself off by condemning ‘an estate where decency fights a losing battle against degradation and despair; a community whose pillars are crime, unemployment and addiction’ (5).

The frequent recourse to the vision metaphor is no accident. It is related to the nature of the thing supposedly being observed – the ‘underclass’. As we have argued before on spiked, this is not a sociological category, an objective aggregate of criminality, depravity and ‘tax-payer funded fecklessness’. The underclass is created in the act of seeing, of being perceived. It is an extrapolation from particular, sometimes tragic cases projected on to communities as a whole, an object forged in the angst-ridden eyes of political beholders. Sanctimony about the ‘bad society’ stands in for a vision of the good society.

Unfortunately, the extent to which Karen Matthews has been cast as a typical estate dweller has been shockingly widespread. Writing in the Independent, Deborah Orr defined Matthews as the classic sociopath, a woman entirely lacking in empathy or guilt. Matthews is undoubtedly a calculating woman, who is now receiving her punishment. But from what is probably a fair description of someone described by the social services as ‘unable to put the needs of her children above her own’, Orr proceeds to suggest that sociopathology is not the exception but the norm: ‘The way many people live now provides easy camouflage for the seriously disturbed.’ (6)

Matthews is not typical, however. She is not typical of society in general, and she’s certainly not typical of the council estate on to which so much blinding light has supposedly been shed. How else to explain the mobilisation of an entire community to help the police search for a missing girl? How else to explain the revulsion felt towards Matthews, from former friends and family, when it became clear what had happened? This was not a community infested with the feral and the scrounging. It is one in which people, though impoverished, behave, by and large, decently.

It seems, however, that the ever-erring gaze of commentators and politicians sees moral decay where there is only life. Reflecting on the moment when news emerged that Shannon had been found, Jonathan Brown in the Independent concluded that it’s a ‘dark world’ where ‘an entire community would celebrate Shannon’s eventual discovery by dancing in the streets swigging from cans of lager’ (7). Come again? What exactly is so ‘dark’ about people celebrating by drinking alcohol? At a time when commentators bemoan broken Britain, and the disappearance in particular of a sense of community, they also demonise the spontaneous expression of community spirit.

These hellish portraits of the underclass bear the stamp of a moralising consciousness of which an eighteenth-century methodist would be proud. This neo-Puritanism, building on decades of disenchantment with the amoral toleration meted out by the welfare state, blindly cleaving swathes of sinners from the repentant, carries with it a dangerously authoritarian intent. ‘Unless a far tougher approach is adopted’, declares the Telegraph, ‘another generation of children will be born into this cycle of state-sponsored hopelessness’ (8).

With whole communities perceived as dens of endemic iniquity, they become objects ripe for pre-emptive state intervention. Iain Duncan Smith, alongside Graham Allen, a Labour MP, declared it his aim ‘to get all political parties to recognise that there must now be a programme of identifying the most dysfunctional parents and intervening early, even before the child is born, to work with them to change their children’s life chances’. Leftist commentator Beatrix Campbell goes further. Citing the Lancet report that asserts that one million children experience some form of maltreatment, she urges the state to take the side of children: ‘We should bring to the care and protection of these children the same institutional intensity and imagination as we bring to tackling terrorism. Because they live with a kind of domestic terror.’ (9)

The same ‘institutional intensity’ that has gone into fighting terrorism? Would that involve instituting kneejerk new laws, spying on people, restricting free speech, and using force to defeat the ‘demons’ in our midst? Treating the home as a cesspit of ‘domestic terror’ that must be opened up to the interference of ‘counterterror’ social services is the logical conclusion of the hysteria that has been unleashed by the Baby P and Shannon Matthews cases. The prospect of the strong arm of the state replacing the weak liberalism of welfarism seems a drastic overreaction to these tragic but rare incidents. But then, that is the problem with prole porn – it does not illuminate; it merely makes people blind.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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) Karen Matthews and the underclass thrive on Labour’s welfare state, Daily Telegraph, 6 December 2008

(2) How one case exposed the grim reality of life for thousands in the poorest communities, The Times, 5 December 2008

(3) Panorama: Shannon – The Mother of All Lies, BBC, 4 December 2008

(4) Shannon Matthews abuse shows we will all pay the price for broken Britain, Daily Telegraph, 6 December 2008

(5) Parties clash over Shannon case, BBC News, 7 December 2008

(6) Society can easily hide the likes of Karen Matthews, Independent, 6 December 2008

(7) Public grief and private greed of kidnap mother, Independent, 5 December 2008

(8) Karen Matthews and the underclass thrive on Labour’s welfare state, Daily Telegraph, 6 December 2008

(9) The shame we will not name, Guardian, 6 December 2008

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

Topics Politics


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