The BBC made the decision to broadcast Hilary Mantel's short story. Photo: Getty
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The BBC is right to broadcast Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

The fictional account of an IRA sniper targeting the Conservative Prime Minister threatens no one and shows the Corporation is in good shape.

"Froth and bile” neatly sums up Tory criticism over the BBC’s decision to broadcast Hilary Mantel’s short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

The author herself came up with the above quote as a response to the anger of Norman Tebbit and others over her work being serialised in Radio 4's Book at Bedtime.

Tebbit – himself badly injured in the 1984 IRA bombing of Brighton that Thatcher survived – went as far as to say the decision was the product of a “sick broadcasting company”.

That is quite wrong and I’d suggest the former Tory Chairman and cabinet minister knows it. Certainly having worked for BBC News for a dozen years it is not a description I recognise.

The funny old thing about the BBC is, given its size and scope, it’s pretty hard to define as a single entity, “sick” or otherwise.

The corporation – despite internal PR spin of "One BBC" – is a place where people work in silos. On the shop floor of news, radio rarely talks to TV, and just about no one talks to online (even in the open plan newsroom at New Broadcasting House).

The Book at Bedtime producers are not journalists, and are not dealing with politics every day. Rather they are in their jobs because they love bringing words to life.

They would not have been thinking of some grand anti-Tory conspiracy in airing the work of the two times Man Booker prizewinner, nor most likely the attendant fallout.

In the wider BBC, decisions would then have to be made about what had become a story in itself once Tebbit and Lord Bell had waded in. These are never taken lightly in my experience, and always in the knowledge that the establishment is watching. 

“Should we do it?” and, “how should we do it?” would be among many questions asked by editorial teams working on programmes and news bulletins of all shapes and sizes, with plenty of knockabout before an outcome is reached. 

The truth of the matter is the BBC is no nest of socialists fomenting revolution. Despite longstanding claims of left-wing bias, it has folk of all political persuasion, and none, in its ranks; alumni include Ben Bradshaw (Labour MP), Craig Oliver (communications chief to David Cameron) and Paul Lambert (the political producer who recently jumped ship to Ukip).

Perhaps the most illuminating tale of conservatism at the Corporation was that of a chap – well known to old soaks who ran the newsroom when I joined – who stood in silence with a pint at the bar every lunchtime.

Apparently he was the MI5 man permanently placed inside the BBC, with the full knowledge of the Director General. When recruits arrived, their files would be sent to the spook for vetting. Deliciously this took the form of a stamp in the shape of a Christmas tree.

If the tree was the right way up you were cleared for promotion at a later date, if upside down, however, you had been identified as a subversive. Worthy of Mantel herself? Perhaps, but it was always told as plain fact by aged and wise colleagues.

I rather suspect the Book at Bedtime row shows that the so often embattled BBC is now a bolder beast than in the years immediately after the death of Dr David Kelly where fear of original journalism stalked the corridors of Television Centre.

Mantel’s detractors should realise, in stamping their feet, they are merely adding to public interest in a story they foolishly seek to suppress.

They would also do well to welcome a BBC that, though cut to the bone, remains determined to stick to the "Reithian Values" of education, information and entertainment.

It would be a strange political animal indeed who cried foul over such noble objectives. So let’s snuggle up in January and enjoy The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (a work of fiction).

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London.

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Levi Bellfield, Milly Dowler and the story of men’s violence against girls

Before she was so inextricably connected to the phone hacking scandal, Milly Dowler was one of many women maimed and killed by a violent man.

The name Milly Dowler has meant phone hacking since July 2011. The month before that, Levi Bellfield (already imprisoned for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy) had been convicted of killing her, nine years after her death. But almost immediately, she became the centrepiece of Nick Davies’s investigations into Fleet Street “dark arts”, when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had accessed her voicemail during the search for her.

Suddenly her peers were not McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy, but Hugh Grant, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. People she could only have known from TV, now her neighbours in newsprint. Victims of a common crime. She had attained a kind of awful fame, and remains much better known than McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy.

There is a reason for that: with Milly Dowler, there was hope of finding her alive. Weeks of it, the awful hope of not knowing, the dull months of probability weighing down, until finally, in September 2002, the body. McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy were attacked in public places and found before they were missed. It is not such an interesting story as the schoolgirl who vanishes from a street in daylight. Once there were some women, who were killed and maimed by a man. The end.

Even now that Bellfield has confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing Milly, it seems that some people would like to tell any story other than the one about the man who kidnaps, rapes, kills and maims girls and women. There is speculation about what could have made him the kind of monster he is. There must be some cause, and maybe that cause is female.

Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (who worked on the McDonnell and Delagrange murders) has said insinuatingly that Bellfield “dotes on his mother and her on him. It's a troubling relationship.” But it was not Bellfield’s mother who kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed girls and women, of course. He did that, on his own, although he is not the first male killer to be extended the courtesy of blaming his female relatives.

Coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper accused his wife Sonia of driving him to murder. “I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his head,” said a detective quoted in the Mirror, as if the crimes were not Sutcliffe’s responsibility but Sonia’s for dodging the violence properly due to her. Lady Lucan has been successfully cast by Lucan’s friends as “a nightmare” in order to foster sympathy for him – even though he systematically tried to drive her mad before he tried to kill her, and did kill their children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Cherchez la femme. Cherchez la mom.

I know little about Bellfield’s relationship with his mother, but one of his exes spoke about him earlier this year. Jo Colling told how he had terrorised her while they were together, and stalked her after she left. “When I knew he was with another woman and not coming home it was a relief, but now I know what he was capable of, I feel guilty,” she said. “I did get an injunction against him, but it only made him even angrier.”

Colling fears that she could have prevented Bellfield’s murders by going to the police with her suspicions earlier; but since the police couldn’t even protect her, it is hard to see what difference this could have made, besides exposing herself further to Bellfield’s rage. Once there was a woman who was raped, beaten and stalked by the man she lived with. The end. This is a dull story too: Colling’s victimisation is only considered worth telling because the man who victimised her also killed Milly Dowler. Apparently the torture of a woman is only really notable when the man who does it has committed an even more newsworthy crime.

Throughout his engagements with the legal system, Bellfield seems to have contrived to inflate his own importance. Excruciatingly, he withheld his confession to murdering Milly until last year, leaving her family in an agony of unknowing – and then drew the process out even further by implicating an accomplice, who turned out to have nothing at all to do with the crime. He appears to have made the performance into another way to exercise control over women, insisting that he would only speak to female officers about what he did to Milly.

It is good that there are answers for the Dowler family; it is terrible that getting them let Bellfield play at one more round of coercions. And for the rest of us, what does this new information tell us that shouldn’t already be obvious? The story of men’s violence against girls and women is too routine to catch our attention most of the time. One woman killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK. 88,106 sexual offences in a year.

Once there were some girls and women, who were tortured, stalked, kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed by a man. Dowler, McDonnell, Delagrange, Sheedy, Colling. More, if new investigations lead to new convictions, as police think likely. All those girls and women, all victims of Levi Bellfield, all victims of a common crime that will not end until we pull the pieces together, and realise that the torture, the stalking, the kidnaps, the rapes, the killing and the maiming – all of them are connected by the same vicious logic of gender. Then, and only then, will be able to tell a different story. Then we will have a beginning.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.