Apr 3, 2013

Vile Product: Mick Philpott & our cosy acceptance of male violence

The Daily Mail is doing what the Daily Mail does: taking a human tragedy & obscenely distorting it to score a cheap political point, in the process shedding or neglecting every semblance of decency or tact. Small things like the fact that children are born, not "bred" like piglets; or that if you plaster an enormous headline screaming "VILE" above a photo of six dead kids, people will assume that's what you're calling them.

The Daily Mail is, of course, interested in twisting this awful, incomprehensible event to have a dig at people on benefits. All of them, it implies, are morally bankrupt scroungers who would murder their own children to do the taxpayer out of a buck. Who's more morally bankrupt is of course a debatable point, but the debate wouldn't be very long or very interesting (hint: it's the Mail).

But almost as interesting is what the Mail is almost equally interested in eliding, turning away from, hiding. Reaching back into some unspecified past, the Daily Mail news team implicitly posit a scrounging attitude, engendered by reliance on benefits, that developed over an unspecified length of time to a murderous approach to benefit fraud. That's the implication of "product" - first there was the benefits system, then there was this murderous monster, so clearly the two are connected.

But we don't really need to engage in hand-waving and insinuation to offer an opening bracket to the kind of mindset that leads a man to set this own children on fire: we can go back to when Michael Philpott was 21, and broke in to the home of a 17 yer old woman who dared to leave him. He stabbed her 17 times, attacked her mother, and was sentenced to 7 (!) years imprisonment for attempted murder. When he was 21, he thought that the penalty for daring to rebuff his violent, controlling advances was death, whereas the penalty for trying to kill a woman was a few years bread & board at Her Majesty's pleasure. If he really is such a determined scrounger as the Mail makes him out to be, he must have been in heaven.

Is it any wonder, then, that a man who was allowed to go back out into society and inveigh vulnerable young women with a history of abuse or violence to give themselves over to his control would have drawn the conclusion that leaving him was a crime that should -and could - be severely punished? When Lisa Willis decided to leave him, is it really such a stretch that a man who'd been breezily getting away with abusing and nearly enslaving one teenage future wife after another would decide that she should be punished?

This man killed six children trying to get back at a girlfriend who dumped him. That's all there is to it. He didn't do it because he was on benefits (in any case, both of the women he'd been controlling worked, not that the Mail would care for such a detail of fact) or because he was particularly evil or twisted. He did it because that's what men get away with in society all the time.

Two women a week die at the hands of their abusers; the majority, while trying to leave or just after having left. The Philpott children are just another such statistics. You'd almost think that this unusual circumstance would lead us to ask: why? Why do we let men like Mick Philpott get away with decades of violence, abuse and exploitation? You'd almost hope we'd ask those questions instead of the inevitable "why did she stay with him" (look at happens when "she" does!).

But nope. Our leading daily newspaper uses this opportunity not to start a conversation that will possibly safeguard the lives of other children, other women, but to ram home a mendacious, rancid piece of propaganda that will probably endanger their lives even more.

I don't know whether the national conversation about the Philpott case can ever rise above the sexual prurience of it all and really get into the mechanics of how men such as him find, target, groom and control vulnerable women with our collective support and connivance. Certainly the Fred and Rosemary West case never gave rise to anything other than polite but ultimately ineffectual horror. But we can and should try; we can and should tell people when the topic comes up: no, he wasn't especially or uniquely evil. He was a common or garden variety abuser who had gotten away with it for a very long time, and thought he could get away with it yet again. We never gave him a  reason to believe otherwise.

ETA: Apparently Philpott only served just over 3 years for the attempted murder & GBH of his ex-girlfriend and her mother. If I were given to making up hysterical screamy outraged headlines for tabloids, that's what I'd be shouting about.

ETA II: Women's Aid have released an excellent statement highlighting the mechanics of "decades of domestic abuse".


  1. Thanks for this. Prof Liz Kelly pointed me here. Could not have expressed it more clearly.

    1. Thank you. Isn't she something, by the way?

  2. Thank you for this piece. It says what I was wanting to articulate but was too upset to be able to.

  3. Thank you for this article. I've been going blue in the face trying to counter arguments all over the internet that seem to focus on the fact he was on benefits. This man was a narcissist and a violent control freak. He suffered from entitled male attitude first and foremost and would have abused any system or person...because he felt it was his right.

    One positive that could have been taken from this story was that it could have been used to demonstrate how many ways domestic abuse can impact on lives. As provocative as it might be to say it so soon, his wife was also his victim. Of course she did as she was told and believed in him. If he hadn't managed over the years to force her to traumatically bond with him, and substitute her own judgement for his, he wouldn't be much of an abuser, would he? There could be valuable lessons learned about how persuasive and dangerous men like him can be but, no, everyone would rather focus on the fact he was on benefits.

    He didn't 'breed' kids for benefits - after all, not all of the 17 kids lived with him. He had them so that he had an audience...and there were more people in the world who had no choice but to worship him.

    I am just glad those poor kids will never know how their father valued his ego more than his children.

    Thank you again for this article. And for the chance to have a rant of my own!

    1. I shouldn't be surprised, but it turns out the Fail is lying from beginning to end - the family wasn't "on benefits", both women worked, the only benefits they received were child benefit & tax credits, not any kind of social security payments.

    2. Without in any way undermining your basic point about the Daily Mail's revolting reinterpretation of events to fit its ideological position, child-related benefits including tax credits are part of social security and are usually far greater than any direct benefits that can be claimed. The majority of cases that get cited of families on comparatively high benefit income are as a result of child-related benefit and additional housing support arising from the numbers of children in the family. That said, it is impossible to support the assertion that Philpott's actions were more motivated by financial gain than a determination to maintain his dominance over his former partner and her family. This was a case of a man who cared for no-one other than himself and nothing other than the manifestation of his own power over others, who bullied, coerced and manipulated to maintain his position as the top predator in his household. Although he had no compunctions about directing his violence against other men, he seems to have particularly relished exercising what can only be described as - and this is term I use rarely - a patriarchal authority over the women and children drawn into his circle.

      Your final paragraph sums up the situation more eloquently than I could hope to; I hope its message is seen and understood widely.

  4. Thanks for writing this. Loved it.
    How do I follow you on Twitter? Have lost the Tweet that sent me here!

  5. Very true and very sad, both your post and Women's Aid's statement.
    Domestic violence is so normalised that it takes something 'big' and 'unusual' to make the headlines. Then, however, what is talked about is anything but domestic violence: in this case, benefits scrounging.
    Add to this a current trend of pitying the 'broken careers' of men who abuse. Bleeeeh.