Thatcher’s legacy, baby-faced dictators and funny women

Helen Lewis-Hasteley on Maggie and legacy-building, tots with lethal toys and the press and the publ

Amid a sea of tributes to Christopher Hitchens - including the invention of a genre of journalism, the "then I woke up with a terrible hangover, while the Hitch had already filed a 3,500-word essay on G K Chesterton" article - there was one that stood out.

It was by Salon's Glenn Greenwald, and it used Hitchens's death to ask: when is the appropriate moment to question the career and legacy of divisive public figures?

Noting how the Hitch had been one of the few to speak ill of Ronald Reagan during a fiesta of Republican-patrolled grief in 2004, Greenwald wrote: "To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems - enforced by misguided . . . notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts - is not a matter of politeness; it's deceitful and propagandistic."

It's a question that left-wingers must ask themselves about Margaret Thatcher, who will apparently be awarded a state funeral when the time comes. There will be huge pressure not to criticise her actions - and point out their effects today - in the days after her death. Show some respect. Think of her family.

It's a tempting argument, but wrong. Politicians are public property. They must submit to being pilloried by cartoonists and columnists in office and having their legacy fought over once they step off the stage. Their death should not be a signal for immediate canonisation but one for unblinkered reflection on their life.

I was only seven when Thatcher left power so I don't have any visceral feelings about her (although the mere mention of her name is enough to send my mother, a woman so mild-mannered she uses "Bugs Bunny" as a swear word, up the wall; I suspect my coal-miner grandfather would have a few choice words, too). And if I'm honest, if she were a left-winger, I'd probably argue she deserves a state funeral as our first female prime minister. So I can't get worked up about that: let the right give her a state funeral, as long as the left doesn't have to pretend to be sad that she's gone.

Bah, humble

A scan of the words that entered the dictionaries gives you a flavour of 2011: Merriam-Webster has "bromance", while Collins has "clicktivism" and "unfollow". As portmanteaux are all the rage, here's my nomination for next year: humblebrag, or boasting under the cover of humility. The Humblebrag Twitter account is full of US reality stars saying, "SOOOO weird to see my ugly face on a billboard LOL," and thespians sighing, "Damn, the last time I cried I was paid for it." My favourite is this, from Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz: "Just involved in a major car accident . . . In my own driveway . . . Involving two of my own cars." Tiny violin time.

Young guns

When I heard that North Korea was to be ruled by the 27-year-old Kim Jong-un, my first thought was: great, there's a leader of a nuclear power who's younger than me. More ammunition for my mother this Christmas. Over in Pakistan, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto is co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party with his father, President Asif Ali Zardari. His birthday is 21 September 1988 (1988! Surely only actors in Skins were born in 1988!). As the sun sets on my twenties, I've had to get used to pop stars and footballers, then novelists and TV presenters, being younger than me. Next on the list, it seems, are the people with access to weapons of mass destruction.

Private lives, public deaths

A few years ago, an acquaintance committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a restaurant in the City. This spectacular exit ensured that his death was reported in every national newspaper - making what was already an agonising time for his family and friends even harder, as reporters sniffed around for any hint of sex or drugs or dodgy dealings to explain why a talented young man would choose to end his life. On 27 November, another man with seemingly everything to live for - the football manager Gary Speed - was found dead at his home.

Aside from a long-lens picture of his house printed on the Mail website, I had thought the media were showing commendable restraint in their reporting. Then, two days before Christmas, the Times ran an extraordinary editorial (which, even more extraordinarily, was re­printed in full in the next day's Daily Mail) arguing that the Leveson inquiry into press standards was inhibiting the tabloids from fully exploring the circumstances of his death. "Mr Speed was a person of power and influence . . . Suicide is, or at least should be, a matter of public concern. And, since his death, the internet has lit up with unsubstantiated rumours."

To which the rejoinder must be: we have coroners' courts for a reason; by and large, they do the job of investigating causes of death a lot more carefully and soberly than newspapers. And if the Times believes this to be a matter of such burning public interest, why should it be left to the tabloids to investigate it?

A woman's wit

Last year, I wrote about the paucity of funny women on TV. Three bits of good news: the first is that Sarah Millican's latest DVD, Chatterbox, has sold 150,000 copies - a record for a female comedian. The second is that the BBC devoted 90 minutes to a Victoria Wood retrospective in a prime Boxing Day time slot.

The last is the continuing success of the columnist Caitlin Moran, whose autobiography, How To Be a Woman, was the book I referred to most in conversation this year. For the first time I can remember, here was not just a funny woman but a funny mother. Mums are many things in popular culture - organised, put-upon, loving, harassed, nagging - but I can't recall one being hilarious before. Things are looking up.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.