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Murdering the dead

As the Socialist Standard went to press, it was confirmed that the two bodies found in a Suffolk field on the weekend of 17 August were those of the missing ten-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. If this was a normal newspaper or journal, you would now expect us to condemn the outrage, and describe in emotive language how sickened we feel about the death of two innocent children; children who might so easily have been our own. We might even pass judgment on the murderer/s: surely evil bastards, for whom a painful death would be far too kind and humane a punishment. We would, in conclusion, denounce the murders as a crime against humanity, and demand that something be done.

But as the antidote to the capitalist press, we don’t need to state piously what is obvious to absolutely everyone who has even a shred of human feeling left in their bodies. Nor do we need to pretend to have all the answers when no one yet even knows exactly what happened, and therefore what the questions raised actually are. What we can do is say how sickened we feel, not just by their deaths, but by the conditions in which their deaths occurred – the barbaric and violent society we analyse in these pages every month – and the way in which the deaths were covered by the media.

Because the deaths weren’t all bad news. For newspaper editors and their proprietors, for example, they were a godsend. Against the background of the economic crisis where they have been losing advertising revenue, and in the midst of their silly season, here at last was a paper-selling story to fill those pages. And pages and pages. As an added bonus, it was a story that had all the ingredients of a good soap opera. They were just waiting for Morse or Inspector Jack Frost to arrive and clean up the loose ends. Through their repetition of stereotyped plots (the tearful press conference, going live to a reporter standing outside a church where prayers were being said for the families, etc) and its characterisation of villains and victims, the media could organise mass sympathies. It was just like when Diana died – or when Deirdre from Coronation Street was sent to prison.

But the circus was not just for fun and for profit. It served a useful propaganda function too. It helped to work up scapegoats for the fear and anxiety that is part of everyday life for the working class and to make us all paranoid and suspicious of each other. It helped, in other words, to justify those same newspapers’ previously stated attitudes on how to deal with child abuse and crime in general, and to exploit our emotions and fears for their own ends. In the two weeks that the media were devoting page after page to what we should think and how we should feel about this individual tragedy, 40,000 children died of diarrhoea for want of clean water. Add to that those, child or adult, who have died of starvation, say, or in capitalism’s wars, and we can begin to put the media’s concern for children in some sort of perspective.

The tabloid and so-called quality press linked hands to weep their crocodile tears, and offered their analysis and opinion, but this amounted to nothing but an apologia for the murders. After all, they are constantly telling us that brutality and violence are an intrinsic part of the human condition and that there is nothing to be done but more of the same (more prison, more punishment, more death, more violence). Their concern and their eulogies are not touching but revolting. They are not the expression of genuine human warmth and concern, but commodities to be sold for the profit of parasites. As scientific Marxists, we offer only this brief outline of our views for the simple reason that no one yet knows what happened beyond the vaguest details. Most people, of course, from the man on the Clapham omnibus to the hacks of the bourgeois press are already experts on the matter. It should therefore come as no surprise that these commentators, for all their froth and anger, have nothing to offer but their pious hopes, prayers and pathetic demands for a bit more legislation here, a bit more violence there.

The hope is gone. Now anger wells in its place, said the Observer . A similar sentiment was to be found in most of the papers on the weekend that those bodies were found. Actually, we hope that anger does surge in its place. But that anger must be directed where it belongs: against our exploiters, and those who cheat us of the truth with their propaganda lie machine. What outrages us as socialists is the systemic whole of barbarity, of one kind or another, are but an integral part. Others may rightly be angered by these individual acts of murder but, stripped of a proper grasp of their real context, they are left, with former prime minister John Major, condemning a little more and understanding a little less.