Rise of the celebrity victim. After the Dunblane massacre, the suffering of the bereaved was seen as a qualification to pronounce on society's ills. Mick Hume on the dangers of a new emotionalism

Dunblane: never forget

Mick North <em>Mainstream Publishing, 303pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 1840183004

Who wants to be a celebrity victim? Anthea Turner, for one. But most of the growing band of celebrity victims are genuine people caught up in real tragedies, who are now being given the star treatment by the media and courted by the great and the good. It is not their fault; after all, none of them auditioned for the role of victim. It is, however, an indictment of our low-horizoned, anti-heroic age in which, it seems, people are celebrated less for what they have achieved than for how much they have suffered.

Dunblane: never forget is, in part, about the making of celebrity victims: how, in death, some ordinary children "became public figures", and how some of their parents were transformed into globe-trotting crusaders for gun control. As I finished reading the book, another victim entered the headlines: the woman the papers call "Paddington crash survivor Pam Warren" had been invited to join Railtrack's new safety body.

Why must we now turn that terrible label "survivor" into a full-blown identity, treating a tragic incident as the defining experience of an entire life, as if we want people to remain trapped for ever in a burning train carriage? And, while Warren is reported to have turned down the role, why did Railtrack imagine that being badly burnt in a train accident entitled her not just to sympathy or compensation, but to a role overseeing safety on the national railway system?

It has become accepted, from Whitehall down, that victims and their relatives deserve some privileged status in public debate. One argument used to support this notion is spelt out by Mick North, a former lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Stirling, in his book Dunblane. On 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 children and their teacher in the gymnasium of Dunblane Primary School. North's five-year-old daughter, Sophie, was killed in the massacre. He says that he wrote the book because this most bitter experience has given him "unique insights" into important issues - in particular, the need for ever-tighter gun laws.

In truth, however, the one thing North has unique insight into is how it feels when your only child is murdered by a madman, an experience that deserves our unreserved compassion. But no personal trauma (and I write as a father of young daughters) can qualify him to determine matters of public interest such as the country's firearms legislation. Similarly, the haunted parents of Sarah Payne are in no position to decide our paedophilia laws; the angry mother of Damilola Taylor does not have the answer to inner-city blight; and no one caught in a train crash deserves to be considered an expert in rail safety.

North is scornful of any suggestion that the law should be "objective and detached". "This is an issue which calls for an emotionally informed response," he says. "Any sane person would respond emotionally and would want their gun policy to continue being informed by the horror and despair occasioned by shooting." However, some of us who think of ourselves as reasonably sane would like to make a distinction between our emotional response to the murder of children and, yes, the coolly "objective and detached" consideration of justice and the law. That is why victims are not allowed to act as jurors or judges when a case comes to court - at least not yet, although Jack Straw may have a white paper in the pipeline.

Nowadays, it seems that the loss of a loved one can automatically gain you the kind of moral authority that politicians crave. As the media hang on every word from the parents of James Bulger, Stephen Lawrence or Sarah Payne, it is hard to resist the conclusion that these hapless people have been turned into human shields, from behind which others fire off demands for more authoritarian laws. With the endorsement of victims' relatives, campaigns for a public paedophile register, or for a ban on handguns or hate speech, can assume the force of a moral imperative. The message is that to challenge views espoused by these relatives is to disrespect the memory of their loved ones, almost to dance on their graves.

On 5 October, the anniversary of the Paddington rail crash that left 31 dead, Pam Warren protested that, in failing to learn the lessons, "the authorities in this country have not shown respect to the people who laid down their lives" - as if those passengers had died in a battle for rail safety, rather than an accidental collision. North's book echoes this mantra. "There are wider lessons," he concludes. "When tragedies like this happen, we want to recognise the warnings, face the implications of what has happened, and draw out of them something new, something better than we've had."

However, who says murder must have a meaning? No doubt some clues to the behaviour of Thomas Hamilton could be found by retrospectively trawling through his life story. But such a unique horror as Dunblane always seemed unlikely to yield any "wider lessons" for society. The truth is that nobody can legislate for the murderous actions of a singular madman, just as it is impossible for parliament to abolish rail accidents. To attempt to do so would mean reorganising society as a kind of open mental hospital, on the assumption that all of us are potential psychopaths. Indeed, it sometimes appears that this is the real "lesson" that North and others want us to learn from Dunblane, as they demand a ban not just on all guns, but on images of guns, and complain that the police can't arrest anybody until after a crime has been committed. (Jack Straw is certainly sympathetic to them on that one.)

Nobody can blame those who have lost loved ones in brutal circumstances for wanting to find some meaning in such senseless deaths, to convince themselves and the world that "they did not die in vain". But while the victims' grief must find its own outlets, the rest of us should do our best to hold a line separating personal feelings from public discourse. That did not happen after Dunblane, when the grief of those who had lost loved ones was nationalised in what North calls a "public private tragedy". Politicians, church leaders and others stepped in to colonise the tragedy for their own purposes. The stage-managed appearance of the Snowdrop anti-gun campaigners on the platform of the 1996 Labour Party conference became a formative moment in the politics of "New Labour, New Emotionalism". With the public joining in the new post- traumatic rituals of flower-laying, ribbon-wearing and record- buying, the reaction to Dunblane prefigured the national grief-fest inspired by the death of Princess Diana the following year.

"It was comforting that so many shared our sorrow," writes North, "but this meant that part of our grief had been taken over, a portion of our children's memories had perhaps been hijacked." Or, as Ron Taylor, the headmaster of Dunblane Primary School, put it a year after the massacre: "It's very difficult to tell people that if I see another teddy bear I'll bloody scream."

There is pressure on those in the media to indulge the celebrity victim game. Hardened journalists still wince at the memory of how Kate Adie was publicly lambasted by a BBC executive for her excessively "forensic" reports from Dunblane, presumably because she focused on the facts about the dead and injured instead of providing the desired mawkish effusion about good and evil.

Yet, whatever one thinks of an issue like gun control, one "lesson to be learnt" from the regimented response to a tragedy such as Dunblane is that curtailing discussion and railroading through laws in the name of child victims is foolish and wrong. In a telling passage, North cites approvingly the response of Ann Pearston, from the Dunblane Snowdrop campaign, to criticism of her in a local newspaper. "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," she said, quoting Thumper from the Disney film Bambi.

We should resist such codes of censorship, even when they are authored by a cartoon rabbit backed up by an army of commemorative teddy bears. In his introduction, North responds to those who he says did not want his book published by reminding them that "discussion must never be suppressed because of oversensitivity towards distressing circumstances". None of us should ever forget that.

Mick Hume is a former editor of LM