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Wednesday 3 April 2013

Feckless, reckless, shameless, and far from blameless

Philpott and the Mail The Derby tragedy is not about handouts 

Evil, wicked, tyrannical, depraved, twisted, stupid, boastful, manipulative, selfish, misogynist, vindictive, narcissist.
Arsonist, knife attacker, rapist, child killer.
Benefits scrounger.

So many labels apply to Michael Philpott; which is the worst you can think of? 

Philpott is, by all accounts, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.  He is violent, controlling and demanding. He requires the limelight, treats people as possessions and lashes out when he doesn't get his own way.
There are plenty who do that; rather fewer father fifteen children by five women; fewer still expect society to support them. Philpott is, thankfully, unique in setting fire to his home as five young boys and a little girl slept upstairs.

For the redtops and the 'broadsheets', the story is all about the darker sides of being human. About love and lust, sex and violence, heroism and villainy, betrayal and revenge and - most of all - about life and death.
If you are part of that conceit 'Middle England' and read the 'middle market' papers, it's much simpler - it  all comes down to money.

It's sweetly appropriate in a way, in that it reflects our perception of our class system. We are vaguely aware of an affinity between the aristocracy and the 'lower orders' - lots of sex, lots of children, lots of untidiness - while the prissy middle classes look up and down in despair and disdain, then look around to see who's cheating them out of something.
This is the mindset of the Mail and Express, the wannabe world of house prices and nannies.  They hate the toffs with their privileges, but wish they were part of that society, so dare not put the boot in beyond a little titter when a comely filly falls off her stilettos at Ascot. And they hate the poor, but they are terrified of joining them, so they go to great pains to prove that there is a malign underclass.

In Michael Philpott, they had a scrounger who lived off his wife and mistress's social benefits;  a man who had discussed his lifestyle on the Jeremy Kyle Show and been the subject of a documentary with Ann Widdecombe. It was cut and dried. Here was a man so determined not to lose a penny in handouts that he would risk six children's lives to win custody of another five and in the process secure a bigger house.
And for the Mail there was a bonus - the chance to have a dig at social workers who 'did nothing'.

But there was so much more to this story. Philpott had stabbed a former lover who had left him, spitting out the cliché 'If I can't have you, no one else will'. He had served time in prison for attempted murder and GBH, and police are investigating another woman's allegation that Philpott raped her. 
There was his play-acting and insouciance after the fatal fire; his grasping attitude towards money raised for the funerals; the plans to auction teddy bears that had been left among the flowers in the obligatory mawkish tribute outside the gutted semi.
All of this was covered in all the papers, as was Philpott's unconventional sex life: alternate nights between his wife and mistress, dogging expeditions, and threesomes with his best friend. And to cap it all, there was the sexual encounter between his wife and Paul Mosley - both convicted with him yesterday -  on the snooker table before the petrol was poured in the hall and set alight. Was this some kind of kinky farewell to the games room that had been built to provide extra accommodation for the huge family? How did the Mail fail to make that connection?

It's too easy to hate the Daily Mail, but there was just so much wrong with its coverage of this tragedy, starting at the top left-hand corner, even before the splash heading.

Man who bred 17 babies by 5 women to milk benefits system is guilty of killing 6 of them

This is not only offensive, it isn't even accurate. Michael Philpott has 15 children: three by his first wife, two by a former lover, five by his second wife, Mairead, four by the mistress Lisa Willis, and one by an unnamed woman.  Mairead and Ms Willis each had a child of their own before they met Philpott and these two were among the 11 who lived at Victory Road, Derby. Ms Willis, who had a caravan in the garden with her five, left the home early last year. The remaining six  died in the fire. So he did not 'breed 17 babies', and only (I write that word with a wince) five of his offspring were victims of the arson. And there is absolutely no evidence that any of these children was conceived 'to milk benefits system'.

Revealed: His past of attempted murder; schoolgirl sex and rape claim

Hurrah! This is all justified.

Social workers did nothing despite his boasts on TV of sordid lifestyle

Derby social services have instigated a serious case review in the light of yesterday's manslaughter convictions. This appears to be par for the course, as you'd expect when six children die at the hands of their parents. The Mail makes much of the Philpotts' depravity, of their spending taxpayers' money on such luxuries as the snooker table, the two 50" TVs, the Nintendos  and PlayStations, the 'full Sky package'. All this was apparently to the detriment of the children, who were left to live on a quarter share of a hamburger and some chips.
And, glory be! Philpott was a fully paid-up member of the Great Unwashed. We are told he bathed only once a  month, and that he showed no hint of shame when he claimed in court  that petrol was on his clothes because he hadn't washed for months.
Yet all of this is at odds with other accounts, from the  school for example, that the children were happy and well-turned out and well-behaved. Pictures of the children laughing on a trampoline or cuddled up to Philpott show them nicely dressed and with clear-skinned round faces that do not suggest malnutrition or neglect. Spruced up for the cameras? Maybe. But from the outside, what was there to alarm the social services? Why should they have shown any particular interest in this large but apparently coherent family?

The Derby house fire was one of those stories that required no embellishment. Every detail uncovered through the trial added to the horror, as has the background that has emerged since the verdicts. Yet look at the language of the Mail splash:

He treated his 17 sons and daughters like cash cows - generating a staggering benefits income of £60,000 a year.
Yesterday Mick Philpott remained shameless to the last....

From there we are force-fed adjectival hyperbole, so that in seven front-page paragraphs we have
  • drug-taking layabout, who embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state... 
  • an appalling attempt to frame Philpott's former live-in lover...
  • the cramped three-bedroom semi...
  • the cynical trio...
  • incredibly, the tragic Philpott children...
  • not being regularly monitored by social workers despite dangerous living conditions...
  • father's notorious appearances on national television...
  • boasted of his sex-obsessed and benefits-funded lifestyle...
  • 'Shameless Mick'...
  • plotted to 'get rich quick'...

Please, please stop. This is formulaic journalism built on the unsubstantiated premise that Philpott wanted Ms Willis and her children under his roof simply because they represented more money in his bank account.
In a thoughtful, but instantly ridiculed, column for the Independent, Owen Jones predicted even before the Express and Mail went to press that some would see the case as an indictment of the welfare state. 

The Philpotts say nothing about anyone, except for themselves, just as the serial murderer GP Harold Shipman says nothing about middle-class professionals...the Philpott case relates in no way to people on benefits in this country...

He was dead right. Venture inside the Mail and after the pages of prurience about Philpott's 'depravity', we come to A.N. Wilson, who makes the preposterous assertion:

The trial spoke volumes about the sheer nastiness of the individuals involved. But it also lifted the lid on the bleak and often grotesque world of the welfare benefit scroungers - of whom there are not dozens, not hundreds, but tens of thousands in our country.

You may recall we are living in austerity Britain; people are losing their jobs in alarming numbers, for those in work, wages do not keep up with inflation. Times are tough and the poorest in society are the most squeezed. There is, or should be, no blame attached to claiming benefits to which you are entitled. The suggestion that tens of thousands are doing so to finance a selfish and debauched lifestyle is ridiculous and repellent.
(For a more relevant set of figures, take a look at this database on the Guardian website. It puts it all in better perspective.)

There is, sadly, an underclass in this country; there are, sadly, people who play the benefits system, just as there are those who play the tax avoidance system. We have seen Shameless and Skins and Skint and Jeremy Kyle, none of it pleasant viewing. 
But this knee-jerk attack on the 'benefits culture'  politicises the personal and turns the deaths of six children into a stick to beat the poor, wilfully ignoring the most pertinent facts.

Philpott is a controller, a manipulator. He stole his first wife from his brother, who had come to visit him in prison. The other women in his life were all young and vulnerable. 
  • Heather Kehoe, mother of two of his children, was 14 when he started 'grooming' her;
  • Kim Hill, the lover stabbed 27 times for daring to leave him, was 15 when they met;
  • Mairead, his second wife, was 19 and 'at rock bottom' when they got together, 
  • Lisa Willis, the caravan lover he tried to frame, was a 16-year-old unmarried mother when Philpott invited her to live in Victory Road.
He controlled these women to the extent that it took the utmost courage for Ms Willis to leave. Mairead was so under her husband's spell that she stayed with him even after his stupidity had killed her six children. She stuck to their ridiculous account of events, declining to change her plea even when it was clear that no jury would believe such a pack of lies. And she paid for her gullibility with the deaths of six children, a 17-year jail sentence and a lifetime of remorse.

This is not a tale of benefits; it is a tale of a misogynist bully with paedophile tendencies. He forced 'his' women to go out to work and to do all the household chores for no reward. Their wages and state benefits went into his bank account, and if they dared question him, they were beaten and abused. This is the behaviour of the street walker's pimp. 
Or think of Josef Fritzl, who created an apartment complex in his basement  for his 18-year-old daughter Elisabeth and then lured her into it by asking for help with a door.  He kept her prisoner there for 24 years, regularly abusing her and fathering seven children.  Like Philpott, Fritzl was wicked and controlling and abusive and had a skewed idea of family loyalties; but it was his strange 'love' of his family that led to exposure when he allowed Elisabeth to take her sick teenage daughter to hospital and was exposed. 
Then there was the 'British Fritzl' of Sheffield, who abused his two daughters over decades, so that they became pregnant 19 times between them. And the Scottish father who repeatedly raped his three daughters - again fathering children - and was brought to justice when two of the three persuaded the third to go to the police many years later. In childhood and adolescence, each had believed herself to be the only victim.
And then there is the most extreme example of Fred West, whose wife Rosemary was a teenager when they met. The mother of many children, she stuck by him as he pulled her so far down into the gutter that she murdered her own child among others and is now in jail for life. 
Nobody mentioned benefits in any of those cases.

We are all driven by so many influences that it is facile to suggest that anyone is motivated by a single aim or concern. Michael Philpott undoubtedly had a liking for money - look at his demand that he be given leftover funeral cash in Argos vouchers  - and he will not have liked losing the cash  that Ms Willis and her children brought in.
But to suggest that these children were born for their state benefits potential or that he torched his house for a few more quid is to ignore all the shades of grey. He revelled in being the centre of attention; he did not tolerate rejection - as Miss Hill learnt  the hard way -  and he wanted total control of his children. 
His mind was almost certainly on all three as he plotted to wreak his vengeance on Miss Willis; he could see himself as the victim who became the hero of the hour, with all the attendant television coverage he could expect - rather like that American couple who hid their son in the attic and told the world that he'd been swept away by a hot-air balloon they'd built in their garden. 
Philpott's scheme would exact revenge, win him back his children, get him a new house and bring him the fame he craved. Any extra welfare payments  were likely just fringe benefits. 
The domestic violence and sexual antics that went on behind closed doors define his warped approach to life far more sharply than the public view of an idle man brazenly living on the backs of others.
And no, A.N. Wilson, this is not a 'perfect parable for our age'.

A few real products of 'welfare UK' that we take for granted
(Please add to this list)
  • Free healthcare for everyone, whatever their income or status
  • Children with fewer fillings
  • Vaccination and nutrition programmes to beat rickets, measles, TB, polio, whooping cough
  • The end of ancient poor laws
  • Pensions for widows and widowers
  • Full-time education for everyone to the age of 16

A little game of  Guess the Paper

These are the intros from the main Philpott story in our national papers this morning. Can you spot which is which?

1 Seemingly overwhelmed by grief during an appeal for information about the killer of six of his children,  Mick Philpott buried his face in a tissue and wept.

2 A man with a history of violence and controlling younger women was convicted yesterday of killing six children in an 'evil, stupid, shameful act' as part of a twisted attempt to frame a former lover who had dared to defy him.

3 Britain's most evil scrounger Mick Philpott faces life behind bars for killing his six children in a desperate bid to get an extra £1,000 a month in hand-outs.

4 Evil Mick Philpott and wife Mairead were found guilty yesterday of killing their six children in a blaze.

5 Michael Philpott was a man who ruled his house like a 'kingpin', disrespecting the two women he lived with and revelling in beating the system, a former government minister has said.

6 He treated his 17 sons and daughters like cash cows - generating a staggering benefits income of £60,000 a year.

7 For the past 11 months, Mick and Mairead Philpott have lied, play-acted and sought to connive their way out of responsibility for their six children's deaths. Yesterday, a jury found that the married couple had started the blaze which killed their young family.

8 An ex-lover of child-killing monster Mick Philpott yesterday revealed he tried to murder her in a frenzied knife attack - but spent just three years and two months in prison.

1, Telegraph; 2, Guardian; 3, Express; 4, Mirror; 5, Times; 6, Mail; 7, Independent; 8, Sun

And finally...

If you really want to read the Philpott story in its entirety, balanced coverage, sober writing, and some real insight, the best place to look is the Derby Telegraph. The paper has put on extra pages and turned out a stunning website. The 29-page supplement may have been a bit over the top, but after swimming through the morass of slime that has been published today on the subject, the 40 stories published on the Telegraph's website today and the many more produced through the trial have been a breath of fresh air. Many congratulations to Editor Neil White and his team, most especially crime reporter Martin Naylor, fellow reporter Caroline Jones and online publisher Julie Bayley.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.


  1. Sloppy journalism, lazy journalism, regurgitated press releases, news mixed with comment - the answer must be for us all to be more selective in our choice of reading matter. Maybe it would be an idea to cut out the offending features/news pieces and post them back to the appropriate editor. That may pave the way for the good, accurate, honest, hard-working journalists - of whom there are many - to gain the ascendancy.

  2. This affair is horrific, perhaps the kids are well out of it, my sympathies are with the other children. That said, one of the really bad things to come out of this, is the effect on those who are 'existing' on benefits through no fault of their own. They were suffering insults before these events, and now they are being further vilified, as though Philpot is typical. Adding to the problems that put them on EXTRA benefits in the first place, most of us draw benefits in some form or another, without even thinking about it - state pension and the NHS to name just two. Thanks Liz for the link, I know it has already been said, but thought I would put in my abbreviated bit.

  3. Another great take on the best and worst of journalism, and delighted to see it in the Press Gazette.

  4. I see that George Osbourne has now jumped on the benefits bandwagon regarding Philpott. Osbourne must be a Daily Mail reader. PHILPOTT WAS A SEXIST, EGOTISTICAL, CONTROL FREAK, Mr Osbourne. Benefits were not his main obsession.PB

  5. Agree this stereotyping of people who need welfare support is disgusting. What's the simple conclusion this man is evil he draws benefits so all people who draw benefit are evil! Is it so bad that people who need help get some from the welfare state? I thought that was why we pay national insurance. Does this also apply if someone "freeloads the state" by visiting a doctor, dentist, maternity ward, goes to a state school, uses a library, drives on a road without paying a toll, gets their bin picked up etc By Osbourne's logic we are all free loaders even if we pay tax on just about everything! EL

  6. maureen graves5 April 2013 at 13:29

    Once again Liz you have shone a light on all the FACTS and analysed the reality of the situation, bringing some coherence amidst all the hysteria. A perfect example of the latter appeared on my timeline only seconds ago "Please share and pray for these poor Angels ..murdered by the people they should have trusted the most THEIR PARENTS ....may the parents rot in hell !!!"
    l could share your blog but not sure if l can face any "hate mail"!? l watched A.N. Wilson and Owen Jones on BBC News yesterday afternoon and wondered if OJ had read your blog??? He was so in tune with you. Another good one Liz!!