Let nothing I'm about to write in this blogpost take away from the horrific nature of the hate crime committed against Ian Baynham, because that would be to cheapen the life of the victim. What happened to him was a disgusting act that should sicken anyone, a casual and hateful act of violence committed against someone simply because of who they are. Regardless of what I feel about the Daily Mail and its attitude, the crime that took place against Mr Baynham was a terrible and disturbing thing, and those who took part in the attack should rightly be punished for their part in it.
The headline on today's article (accessible here via istyosty - it won't give any page impressions to the Mail) reads like this:
Portrait of a private school savage: What on earth could have driven this 17-year-old from an elite school to kick a man to death - without a flicker of remorse?
This sets the tone for the article. Let's leave aside the word 'savage' for the time being. People who go to good schools shouldn't be committing crimes, so what on earth went wrong?
Her homophobic attack on gay civil servant Ian Baynham, 62, in the middle of Trafalgar Square was the kind of nihilistic crime we normally associate with shaven-headed, bull-necked Neanderthals, not a pretty, smartly dressed teenage girl — especially not one from a seemingly comfortable background who has enjoyed the benefits of an expensive education.
It is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this deeply troubling case.
No. I would venture at this point to say that it definitely isn't the most disturbing aspect of this deeply troubling case. The most disturbing aspect is the casual, callous nature with which Mr Baynham's life was taken from him - not that one of the participants went to a good school. The idea that people with 'shaved heads' commit crimes is a foolish stereotype; I have one, Buddhist monks have them, it's just a nonsense. I don't associate violence with any type of person.
The background of the killer Ruby Thomas - 17 years old, and captured in a series of photographs for readers to see, including one of her in school uniform aged 14 - is looked into, including the behaviour of her violent father, who himself stabbed a neighbour to death. And then there comes this:
But Ruby Thomas was also undergoing a more alarming transformation. She began emulating the language and mannerisms — or, at least, what she and others mistakenly perceived as the language and mannerisms — of black urban youth culture.
‘She talked as if she was black and never realised how completely ridiculous she sounded,’ said the former Sydenham pupil. ‘She would call herself a “gangsta”. She was almost obsessive about it.’
Indeed, when a friend told Thomas that she looked ‘mixed race’ in one of her Facebook photographs (in fact, the result of copious amounts of fake tan), she replied: ‘WhoooooHooo.’
But the ‘ghetto culture’ she had become obsessed with is also intrinsically associated with violence and sex. Her photo album charts her transformation from sweet youngster to a teenager in provocative poses that were trashy, brash and displayed an aggressive sexuality.
Here's where I find the first whiff of something unpleasant about all this. It's the equating of black culture with violence and 'aggressive sexuality'. Now I'm not saying that there isn't that strand to some black culture; but I wonder what conclusions we're being asked to draw from all this. Does the teenager putting on fake tan become violent and 'trashy' because she wants to be black? Is that what 'black urban youth culture' is all about?
The appalling details of the attack are retold, including this nugget:
Remember, also, that the attack took place, not in a back street or some godforsaken inner-city ghetto, but in the middle of a capital city landmark, Trafalgar Square.
I know this is boilerplate Daily Mail pearl-clutching, but I just find there's a stench of something pretty nasty running underneath it. Not just the racial element, but the idea that the 'sexually aggressive' woman should also have become physically violent, as if those aspects are also linked - a slight whiff of misogyny to accompany the 'black urban youth culture' nods and winks.
And then there's that word 'savage' in the headline, as a noun. I don't know what to make of that at all. I'd like to think it's just hyperbole to describe what is a truly awful crime, the whole 'feral youngsters' tag that gets bandied around. But then I look at the other aspects to the story and I am not sure.
As I said at the beginning, nothing should take away any of the shock that people will feel over the sickening crime committed against an innocent man. Compared to which, it's easy to conclude that an undercurrent of mild racism and misogyny in a story about the crime isn't something to be concerned about. And of course, it is nothing as serious or grave in comparison. But, nevertheless, it is there. The idea that someone who went to a 'good' school (and who should therefore be middle class) is the most disturbing aspect of the case. The idea that 'black urban youth culture' is intrinsically violent. The idea that a 'sexually aggressive' woman is also a criminal. There's a whiff of something unpleasant there.