Philpott fire: Shamelessly exploiting dead children

The conviction of Mick Philpott for killing six of his kids has sparked a shroud-waving contest between enemies of welfare and a free press.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Free Speech

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Michael Philpott – or ‘Shameless Mick’ as he was known after his appearance on ITV’s Jeremy Kyle Show – has been universally condemned for exploiting his children in both life and death. Since Philpott and his wife Mairead were convicted of killing their six children by setting fire to their Derby home, however, many others have appeared keen to use those dead kids for their own purposes.

For some, the jobless child-killer Philpott embodies the evil that is produced by the welfare state, proof that it must be slashed to the bone, if not abolished altogether. For others, the media coverage of the tragedy is typical of the evil tabloid press, proof that it should be controlled, if not closed down completely.

Both sides of this shroud-waving contest have effectively been exploiting the children’s deaths as an excuse to push their own pre-existing agendas. Mick Philpott came under suspicion after the house fire when police observed him play-acting and showing phony grief in a press conference. Perhaps we should be suspicious of what motives lie behind the expressions of pseudo-grief from some other quarters. Philpott does not appear to have a monopoly on the ‘shameless’ moniker here.

It would, of course, be hard for anybody to invent a more graphic cartoon ‘underclass’ villain than Philpott. He lived with and dominated two women and their 11 kids, forcing them to pay their wages and welfare benefits into his bank account. He was the father of 17 children by five women, children who he reportedly saw as ‘cash cows’ that could provide more state benefits to fund his ‘layabout lifestyle’. When one of the women understandably tired of this servitude and left with her five children, the prosecution claimed that the Philpotts and their friend Paul Mosley plotted to stage a house fire, rescue the remaining six children, frame the departed lover for arson, win back custody of her kids and hopefully get a better council house. The idiotic fantasy scheme went tragically wrong and the Philpotts’ six children died in their beds.

After the three were all convicted of manslaughter this week, it was reported that Philpott had a history of violence towards women that had been kept from the jury for legal reasons, including a jail sentence for attempting to murder a former girlfriend and allegations of rape. He had appeared as ‘Shameless Mick’ on Jeremy Kyle’s talk show and in the papers, demanding a bigger council house for his ‘brood’. Neighbours also reported that, even after the six children died, Philpott had tried to ‘get rich quick’ out of them by having a funeral fund turned into Argos vouchers for his benefit, and selling off teddy bears people left outside his burnt-out house. The term ‘lowlife’ might appear like too high praise for Mick Philpott.

It was hardly surprising that the media went to town on this extraordinary case. What was striking was the extent to which some sought to use the tragedy as a vehicle to push their anti-welfare state agenda. The Daily Mail splashed a picture of Mick Philpott and the six children he killed across its front page, under the banner headline ‘VILE PRODUCT OF WELFARE UK’. The argument was that, although Philpott himself did not claim any state benefits, the ‘drug-taking layabout’s’ reliance on his wife and lover’s benefits demonstrated ‘the pervasiveness of evil born out of welfare dependency’.

Now, as spiked has argued previously, there are many problems with the culture of welfarism in the UK, notably the way that it helps to trap many in lives of poverty, low expectations and state intervention. One thing that the welfare state cannot reasonably be blamed for, however, is the manslaughter of children by arson. There seems no obvious reason why the working tax credits, housing benefit and child benefit paid to the Philpott household should have turned ‘Shameless Mick’ into a violent, misogynistic control-freak and killer. The coverage looked like an emotive-but-irrational lashing out to push the pre-set goal of demonising the welfare state, using children’s deaths to add some moral weight to a political agenda.

In this, the Mail was only copying the defenders of welfarism who try to oppose the government’s reforms by claiming that benefit cuts are killing people. A political debate is thus reduced to a ghoulish competition to see who can claim the highest body count.

The outraged reactions to the Mail’s coverage confirmed that others are at least as willing to use the deaths of the Philpott children to further their own agenda. In this case, the aim was not merely to defend the welfare state but more vehemently to pursue the post-Leveson agenda of demonising and taming the tabloid press.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media exploded in outrage at the Mail’s frontpage treatment of the Philpott case. For many on the left, it seemed that this offensive coverage proved that something-must-be-done about the ‘evil’ popular press. In the true You-Can’t-Say-That spirit of the age, the critics did not merely want to argue with or condemn the Mail; they wanted to silence and punish it for daring to print things they disagreed with.

So some posters and tweeters wanted the Mail to be sued for the ‘mass defamation’ of welfare recipients, apparently imagining that the UK’s execrable libel laws, those legal defenders of the rich and powerful, could somehow be converted into the champions of the poor. Others declared bluntly that the ‘evil’ newspaper should be ‘shut down’ in punishment for its front page, presumably by the (thought?) police. Some hysterics went further still and announced that the scandalous coverage of the Philpott case proved that the ‘private media’ should be banned altogether, presumably replaced by a public – that, is state-run – press.

This follows on from the campaign to force the Mail to sack its star columnist, Richard Littlejohn, for writing an offensive column which critics ludicrously blamed for the suicide of a transgender schoolteacher. It looks like another cynical attempt to exploit the deaths of those children as the substitute for a political argument – in this case, to promote the post-Leveson tabloid-bashing agenda rather than the Mail’s welfare state-bashing one. Trying to use the fact that the Mail is a right-wing newspaper as an argument against the freedom of the press seems just as stupid as trying to claim arson as an argument against child benefit.

As always, such attacks on the ‘vile’ tabloid press are a thin cover for the fear and loathing felt towards those who read it. As Brendan O’Neill points out elsewhere this week, research shows that working-class people and even benefit recipients are far less keen to defend the welfare state than middle-class liberals. How do the radicals explain this apparent contradiction? By insisting that these people have effectively been ‘brainwashed’ by the tabloids, of course. Once again, the attack on the ‘popular’ press quickly reveals itself as a coded assault on the populace.

It would be good if everybody could stop trying to use corpses as ventriloquists’ dummies to get their own message and agenda across. Politics should be an argument to persuade the living, not exploit the dead. The death of the six Philpott children in a fire set by their own parents is an unprecedented crime. It can tell us nothing about the society in which we live, nor can it provide the moral basis for new rules either to cut welfare spending or to curb the freedom of the press.

There is a pressing need to challenge the grip of welfarism, painful though that might seem for some, and to defend the freedom of the press, offensive though that might be to others. These debates are too important to be degraded into a shroud-waving competition staged on the coffins of children.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

Picture by: Rui Vieira/PA Wire/Press Association Images

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Topics Free Speech


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