Thursday, January 9, 2003

Natasha Walter

All victims of murder should be treated equally

In a video game for young men, the fun includes picking up prostitutes and then killing them

Death comes equally to us, as John Donne said. That is true, but even in death people are not equal. In the public domain, there are only certain murders that really count, while others are simply part of the background noise. There are the victims who really matter: especially the children.

Those are the ones that we can never forget: the two beautiful young girls walking through a quiet village in a summer evening, or the young boy dancing and jumping through a square on his way home from the library.

Those murders, the deaths of innocents, haunt our dreams with images that cannot be dodged. The killings of adults, too, can suddenly crack through our usual indifference to violence. The deaths of two women in a shoot-out at a New Year's party shocked much of the media into fury. "Innocents", read the whole front page of one tabloid the following day over a picture of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare.

No one would begrudge the families of these dead women the possibility of voicing their anguish, of seeing their grief reflected in the newspapers.

The tales of these lives cut short demand to be told. What is more mysterious, however, is why other deaths go almost unheard.

The tragic tale of the young women whose body parts were found in Camden Town over the New Year holiday is one that might have been expected to hold our attention for some time. Yet there has been no mourning expressed for their lives, only a salacious recounting of certain details. When the first body was identified, the tabloids trumpeted the central discovery: "Body in bag was hooker". Not mother, daughter, or 29-year-old single woman. Being a hooker, or a vice girl, or a high-class tart, as other versions put it on the same day, was Elizabeth Valad's defining feature.

Elizabeth Valad was not, however, a streetwalker, and she came from a middle-class family. That meant that the newspapers could find something almost sympathetic to say about her life, making much of the disappointment of her mother and her Chelsea neighbours that she could have ended up selling sex.

No such tragic fall could be discerned when the third victim was named earlier this week. For Bridgette MacClennan, no tragic note was discernible. The news of her identity was touched on briefly well inside the newspapers, and the facts of her life were stated without a smidgeon of sympathy. "Men used to arrive at her dingy home in a rundown council block at all times of the day and night," one newspaper explained, and neighbours were questioned to provide a bleak commentary. "She was the neighbour from hell," said one.

Already "from hell", somebody like Bridgette MacClennan is not seen as wholly innocent. And if she is not really innocent, can she be a true victim? And without a true victim, can this be a real tragedy? And if this is not a real tragedy, then it will never become a focus for grief or anger.

In reality, there is always something unique about such a tragedy, and if we knew more about the stories of Bridgette MacClennan or Elizabeth Valad we would understand their uniqueness, the uniqueness of a particular woman's life and death. But without some sympathy with the victim, there is nothing new about a prostitute dying a violent death on a city street.

Indeed, if it were not for the staggeringly gruesome way in which their bodies were found, cut into pieces in bins in north London, one can confidently say that most of us would never have heard about their murders. Last year, the investigative journalist Maggie O'Kane looked into the deaths of women working as prostitutes. She found that more than 60 prostitutes had been murdered in the past 10 years, and that most of these deaths were only given a tiny paragraph in the national press. No appeals for witnesses, no front pages of newspapers, no probing of the public memory for clues to their demise, no grand calls for their killers to be hanged. These deaths do not spark outrage.

It is only when the murders occur in groups that there is anything newsworthy about such stories. A few years ago there was much talk about the possibility that a serial killer was stalking the prostitutes of Hull, and for a time the media staked out the streets where the women walked on a Saturday night. I was there too, talking to the women, and then seeing my fellow journalists depart, as I did, as soon as it became clear that there was no serial killer in Hull, only the grim round of violence to which prostitutes are always exposed and which had become fatal for three of them.

When I talked to those women in Hull, what struck me was that there was not a single one who did not have her tale of the client who turned nasty, and in these situations they did not see the police as allies. One told me what happened the first time she was beaten up by a client and went to the police. "They said there was nothing they can do. They said, what do you expect, standing out there every night?"

But if the police are guilty of indifference, then so are the press and the public. As one police officer, Max McLean, told Maggie O'Kane. "The first decision police make when they find a prostitute who'd been murdered is whether to tell the press she's a prostitute. Because you think, right, if I go to the press and say that a single mother has been brutally murdered in the street, then I'm going to get the shock, horror, I'm going to get people interested. Your general man in the street, I think, genuinely doesn't care if a prostitute gets murdered."

In this indifferent culture, prostitutes are even seen as acceptable targets of male violence. A popular Christmas present for many young men this year was a video game called Grand Theft Auto, in which part of the fun to be had includes picking up virtual prostitutes, and then, to increase one's score, killing them. There is said to be a choice of weapons, from chainsaw to screwdriver to baseball bat. Apparently the images include those of blood spattering from the body of the female victim on to the male figure, the player, as he beats the woman to death.

Is it partly because of this indifference about their victims that so many men get away with murdering prostitutes? Although the vast majority of all murder cases in Britain are solved, this is not the case with prostitutes.

In a third of cases where a prostitute is found murdered, the killer is never found. This is chilling, because of course a man who has killed a stranger once and got away with it may well do so again.

It is telling that police are now investigating whether Anthony Hardy murdered at least two women other than those found in bins or who died in his room — one whose dismembered body was fished out of the Thames in 2000, and one whose body parts were found in holdalls by Regents Canal in 2001.

There is a fatal tendency for us to shrug our shoulders at such tragedies, and put them all down to an endemic urban violence that can never be combated or confronted. But there are measures that can be taken to make prostitutes, and other women's, lives safer; from more proactive police investigations to less tolerance of low-level violence against women who sell sex. Perhaps the first step is for all of us to see every victim of violence as equally human.

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Created: January 22, 2003
Last modified: January 22, 2003
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