The Philpott Trial, Welfare Reform and the Facialisation of Poverty

How emotive im­ages of vic­tims and per­pet­rators stra­tegic­ally di­vert at­ten­tion from sys­temic injustice

Daily Mail 4 April 2013The British Right cel­eb­rates the per­son­ality cult of its heroine Margaret Thatcher this week, at a time when an ob­sess­ively in­di­vidu­al­ised personality-​politics dom­in­ates the press and is in­creas­ingly re­de­fining the terms of polit­ical de­bate and prof­fering man­dates for legal change. The creep of the per­sonal ‘face’ (al­tern­ately vile, heroic or in­no­cent, but al­most al­ways sig­ni­fying some un­bear­able shock or out­rage) im­posed on a public de­bate or per­ceived so­cial problem has been in­si­dious and con­stant since Thatcherism sup­posedly re­defined Britain as a na­tion of in­di­viduals. This month, in an im­me­di­ately no­torious front-​page splash, a right-​wing British tabloid, the Daily Mail, showed Mick Philpott sit­ting sur­rounded by his six chil­dren (Duwayne, Jade, Jayden, John and Jessie Philpott, aged from 13 to 5) as he was con­victed with his wife Mairead of their man­slaughter. ‘VILE PRODUCT OF WELFARE UK’, screamed the head­line above: not only Philpott but the chil­dren them­selves were im­plic­ated in the gen­eral moral dis­gust (Dolan and Bentley 2013).

In an act of truly hy­per­bolic gen­er­al­isa­tion, Philpott was presented as ‘a per­fect par­able’ (Wilson 2013) for wel­fare claimants throughout Britain, when the facts of his life and crime (a bizarre re­venge plot de­signed to frame the ex-​girlfriend who had deserted him with their five chil­dren) make clear that he was rep­res­ent­ative of no one but his own ar­rogant and ab­usive self. His family was clearly highly un­usual both in its living ar­range­ments, with wife in the house and girl­friend con­fined to a caravan in the back garden, and the number of chil­dren Philpott had fathered (17 in all; only 8% of UK fam­ilies claiming un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits has more than 3 chil­dren [Observer 2013]). The ‘doomed brood’’s (Dent 2013) status as ob­jects of public mourning was thus am­bi­valent from the offing.

Unlike other fa­voured tabloid vic­tims such as Madeleine McCann or ‘Baby’ Peter Connolly, they rep­resent what Eggers (2002) has called the ‘less dead’ (quoted in Seal 2009, 61), to a reading public ap­par­ently it­self Baby Pvic­tim­ised by the so­cial evil of ‘scroun­gers’ and their ‘broods’. (In fact, com­par­ison with the tabloid treat­ment of Baby Peter, who died of abuse and neg­lect at the hands of his step­father, mother and a lodger, demon­strates how in a few years [Peter died in 2008] the de­bate sur­rounding fam­ilies on wel­fare has hardened and coarsened: Peter was him­self part of a family of four chil­dren raised on be­ne­fits, but press cov­erage gen­er­ally fo­cused on his in­no­cence, the per­ceived in­com­pet­ence of so­cial workers and doc­tors, and the tragedy of his loss — al­though press and polit­ical com­mentary on his mother Tracey [as de­tailed below] some­what an­ti­cip­ated the pil­lorying of Philpott as mon­strous scrounger/​criminal.)

The British Chancellor, George Osborne im­me­di­ately picked up the Philpott story, ob­liquely sug­gesting that state ‘sub­sid­ising’ of the family’s ‘life­style’ had somehow in­flu­enced the crime (Helm 2013). Prime Minister David Cameron swiftly backed up the Chancellor’s state­ment (stating that Philpott him­self ‘was to blame’, as if this needed em­phas­ising; ibid.); and former Tory party chairman, David Davis, took the op­por­tunity to make clear what the legal dis­cour­age­ment of ir­re­spons­ible breeding might mean in prac­tice, when he raised once again the idea of limits to the pay­ment of Child Benefit (prob­ably to two or three chil­dren). A lim­it­a­tion to two chil­dren has already been mooted by Minister for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith (Eaton 2013; Ramesh 2012).

The swift and polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated per­son­al­isa­tion of per­ceived so­cial prob­lems is a form of politics and law­making most strongly as­so­ci­ated with the Republican right in the USA, al­though it is not en­tirely un­pre­ced­ented in the UK. Serious crimes in­volving chil­dren, such as the James Bulger and Peter Connelly murders and the Shannon Matthews kidnap, have been used by Tony Blair (in a speech to the Wellingborough Labour Party in 1993) and Cameron him­self to make sweeping state­ments about the ‘moral chaos’ (Blair) of our ‘broken so­ciety’ (Cameron 2008), with Cameron in Parliament in­cor­rectly la­belling 27-​year-​old Tracey Connelly a teenage mother, as if that might have ex­plained some­thing about her crime (Sparrow and Glendinning 2008). Blair’s very well-​received speech, high­lighting the need for the state to de­mand moral ac­count­ab­ility and re­spons­ib­ility from its cit­izens, an­ti­cip­ated a raft of quint­es­sen­tially neo­lib­eral ‘re­spons­ib­il­ising’ re­forms mostly aimed at a re­cal­cit­rant un­der­class, not­ably the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003.

According to Berlant, “the con­tinual pla­cing of a per­sonal, in­di­vidual ‘face’ on an oth­er­wise ab­stract issue” res­ults in a ‘fa­cial­iz­a­tion’ of in­justice that “en­ables fur­ther de­ferral of con­sid­er­a­tions that might force struc­tural trans­form­a­tions of public life. Such ‘fa­cial­iz­a­tion’ of public, sys­temic crisis “can only sym­bolize (but never meet) the need for the rad­ical trans­form­a­tion of na­tional cul­ture” (1997, 187, 220). The lure of fa­cial­isa­tion is com­pounded in the legal arena, since ‘‘law’s in­sist­ence on re­du­cing events to man­age­able cat­egories has the ef­fect of col­lapsing their com­plexity and plur­ality’’ (Aristodemou 1997, 46): thus, al­though fre­quently one-​dimensional and sim­pli­fied, the official, legal and medical/​psychiatric defin­i­tions and dia­gnoses of dis­order and crimin­ality tend to the bur­eau­crat­ic­ally impersonal.

In re­sponse, col­ourful im­ages of evil and vic­tim­hood with direct and tit­il­lating ap­peal to emo­tions such as fear, pity and dis­gust come to cir­cu­late in the fields of spec­u­la­tion and con­tro­versy gen­er­ated by signal trials such as the Philpotts’. As Sparks notes, “ques­tions about cul­ture and rep­res­ent­a­tions are es­sen­tial for grasping how struc­tural forces or factors be­come mo­bil­ised within the polit­ical arena” (2001, 196) and it is thus that we must ur­gently ques­tion how emotive and gen­er­al­ising media and polit­ical rep­res­ent­a­tions of ‘risky’ people and groups ap­pears to have be­come in­ex­tric­ably bound up with state law­making and reg­u­la­tion, as the public are por­trayed as in various forms of im­me­diate danger — whether from people with ‘per­son­ality dis­orders’, ter­ror­ists, ‘feral youth’, wel­fare ‘skivers’, ‘failing’ NHS hos­pitals, etc.

There is a troub­ling con­tem­porary syn­chrony between stories of in­di­vidual danger and vic­tim­isa­tion, vivid scare­mon­gering in the media and ac­tion within Parliament or gov­ern­ment agen­cies. The Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorders pro­gramme (Seddon 2011, 135 – 148) in­spired by isol­ated but heavily-​reported crimes such as the murder of Lin and Megan Russell by Michael Stone in 1997, is one ex­ample, as is the sus­tained rise in chil­dren taken into care fol­lowing the Peter Connelly murder (CAFCASS 2009).

Thus, in fa­cial­ised policy-​making, the ‘scare story’, often or­gan­ised around the image of a suit­ably pho­to­genic victim or vic­tims, is de­ployed as an ur­gent and ap­par­ently in­ar­gu­able basis for reg­u­latory change. The meth­od­o­logy of legal and polit­ical fa­cial­isa­tion is both mawk­ishly sen­ti­mental in its ap­peal to the in­no­cent vul­ner­ab­ility of the victim(s), and ut­terly ruth­less in the way that the im­agery of vul­ner­ab­ility (or evil) may be mar­shalled to com­mand re­stric­tions of liberty or with­drawals of rights from en­tire groups tainted by the spectre of harm­ful­ness. The ‘face’ of the victim or per­pet­rator rep­res­ents the ma­ter­i­al­isa­tion of an un­bear­able risk. In the case of Philpott and his chil­dren, the faces are those of joint victim-​perpetrators: ‘we’, the tax­paying public, are the (fu­ture) vic­tims of Philpott and his ‘brood’, born to die be­cause of their overly sub­sid­ised existence.

Through fa­cial­isa­tion and re­lated pro­cesses such as ‘celebrity cul­ture’ and the dom­in­ance of the owner/​consumer as limit-​point of polit­ical or­gan­isa­tion (Hall et al 2008), the sig­ni­fic­ance of cer­tain bodies and ‘per­son­al­ities’ ex­pands to fill cul­tural space left empty by the re­treat of col­lective politics and any con­cepts of so­cial, rather than in­di­vidual, power and re­spons­ib­ility (Hall et al 2008; Lasch 1979). The “com­plex of mar­ket­iz­a­tion, auto­nom­iz­a­tion and re­spons­ib­il­iz­a­tion” which ab­sorbs con­tem­porary sub­jects (Rose 2007, 4) is re­in­forced not only through law­making and penal pun­ish­ment but through subtly powerful nar­rat­ives and im­ages of toxic ir­re­spons­ib­ility. It is in this troub­ling polit­ical con­text that the most vul­ner­able par­ents are con­figured as the most dan­gerous to their own chil­dren and, given that chil­dren born and raised by them will carry the sup­posed taint of dan­ger­ous­ness, to the na­tional fu­ture.

Since the fin­an­cial crisis of 2008, polit­ical and journ­al­istic scare-​stories on the ‘de­pendent’ of the West have in­creased in fre­quency and volume, with the sup­posedly use­less and pro­lif­er­ative poor and dis­abled por­trayed as ‘be­nefit scroun­gers’. It is hardly a novel polit­ical move to identify poverty with de­pravity and de­gen­eracy, and wel­fare pay­ment has long been deemed to cause the poor to ‘breed’ out of con­trol (Wintour and Dodd 2013). Inadequate par­enting, iden­ti­fied with poverty, has been iden­ti­fied as at the heart of the ‘cycle of depriva­tion’ within the ‘problem fam­ilies’ iden­ti­fied by post-​war British gov­ern­ments (Welshman 2012). Failures of par­enting are now por­trayed as im­me­di­ately harmful, not only to the child but to others, and to what is left of the so­cial fabric. Legislation aimed at re­forming ‘in­ad­equate’ par­ents ex­panded greatly in the era of New Labour (1997 – 2010), and in that era, risk-​management was tar­geted at fam­ilies living in the re­cal­cit­rant mar­gins of British so­ciety: lower-​income, single par­ents, usu­ally mothers, in so­cial housing, per­ceived as the usual pro­gen­itors of ‘anti-​social’ chil­dren (Holt 2008).

The Coalition gov­ern­ment has made far less noise about ending poverty than its pre­de­cessor did, and has in­stead launched a massive pro­gramme of wel­fare cuts, en­acted in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and passed through a protesting House of Lords using ‘fin­an­cial priv­ilege’. The strin­gent wel­fare re­form meas­ures — many of which came into force on ‘Black Monday’, April 9th, just be­fore the Philpott story con­veni­ently broke — have been ac­com­panied by a no­tice­able pro­lif­er­a­tion in the pop­ular media of tales of in­di­vidual mon­strosity and ab­jec­tion, rep­res­ent­ative of an un­der­class deemed ever more ir­re­spons­ible, para­sitic and toxic. Other cases picked out by Cameron (2008; Sparrow and Glendinning 2008) — those of Tracey Connelly, mother of murdered ‘Baby’ Peter, and Karen Matthews, who with an ac­com­plice or­gan­ised the fake kid­nap­ping of her daughter Shannon — were touted as symp­to­matic of the moral de­cline of ‘Broken Britain’, and the mothers them­selves por­trayed as de­gen­erate monsters.

Philpott’s case demon­strates a par­tic­u­larly vi­cious as­pect of con­tem­porary class hatred in that, like Connelly and Matthews, he is clearly coded as a ‘chav’ (Tyler 2008); a working-​class or un­em­ployed person who as­sumes the right to con­sume con­spicu­ously, or at least re­fuses to look re­spect­ably and in­vis­ibly in­di­gent. Visual markers of ‘in­feri­ority’, such as obesity and cheap clothing, have be­come per­haps the most loaded sig­ni­fiers of so­cial mar­gin­ality or poverty and as such, people (usu­ally women) demon­strating such stig­mata of failure and ir­re­spons­ib­ility are con­signed to the useless/​dangerous residuum, who re­fuse to self-​improve.

Beverley Skeggs (2005) writes in­triguingly about the public shaming and dis­cip­lining of such cit­izens on reality TV, re­ferred to by Henry Giroux as neoliberalism’s ‘theatre of cruelty’ (2008, 611) — a phrase fit­ting the drama made from Philpott’s crime. Media art­icles on the un­nat­ural mothers Connelly and Matthews em­phas­ised not only more tra­di­tional fea­tures of ab­jec­tion, such as their ap­par­ently vo­ra­cious sexu­ality and lack of do­mestic skills, but their weight and clothes (thus, bizar­rely, the Telegraph cri­ti­cised Tracey Connelly’s ‘ill-​matched’ wed­ding outfit in an art­icle de­scribing, among other markers of de­pravity, her weight gain in prison [Gammell 2009]. Philpott as un­der­class ‘breeder’ is also, un­usu­ally for an able-​bodied male crim­inal, de­scribed in terms of phys­ical dis­gust and ab­jec­tion as a person of vo­ra­cious and ‘de­praved’ sexu­ality [Robson 2013] and du­bious hy­giene: ‘house blaze sus­pect Mick Philpott ‘did not bathe for 12 WEEKS be­fore fatal fire and wore the same boxer shorts every day’ [Bentley and Robinson 2013]).

The flat­tening of de­bates about per­sonal mor­ality and so­cioeco­nomic status into ca­ri­ca­tures of bodily ab­jec­tion, and the con­tinual in­tru­sion of this sort of dis­course into the re­porting of crime, is one of per­haps the most powerful con­tem­porary ways in which depriva­tion is in­di­vidu­al­ised, in eco­nomies where buying power and bodily at­trib­utes mani­fest worth; the fa­cial­isa­tion of so­cial class in a country where ‘class’ is rarely named as such, and is rather co­di­fied as a series of per­sonal fail­ures (Gillies 2005).

Philpott had par­tic­ular form to be­come the ‘face’ of wel­fare re­form: he was already a minor celebrity, known as ‘Shameless Mick’ after a British tele­vi­sion char­acter. He had ap­peared on the Jeremy Kyle chat show to jus­tify his ‘life­style’ and been the sub­ject of a doc­u­mentary star­ring Tory politi­cian Anne Widdecombe. The ‘life­style’ was in fact based on for­cing his wife and mis­tress to work for him, sub­sid­ised with tax credits for low-​earning in­di­viduals in work. If he was a vile ‘product’, the vile­ness was pro­duced by a fantasy of be­coming famous and powerful without ef­fort, which is con­tinu­ally mar­keted to those cit­izens who have least hope of ‘making it’ through more con­ven­tional chan­nels (Hall et al 2008).

As well as being a fan­tasist and attention-​seeker, Philpott was a serial and vi­olent ab­user of younger, vul­ner­able women, a point which was clearly noted by Mrs Justice Thirlwell at his trial. When he is looked at in de­tail, the claim that he is rep­res­ent­ative of wel­fare claimants en masse is com­ic­ally un­ten­able. Thus, we can see that the fa­cial­isa­tion of the in­di­vidual victim or per­pet­rator is about ‘in­di­vidu­al­isa­tion’ only in­sofar as a story about that in­di­vidual can be de­ployed to ‘prove’ un­prov­able gen­er­al­isa­tions. Attention to the really per­sonal de­tails of stories of ‘evil’ too often res­ults in trouble­some nu­ance and complexity.

A better term for the polit­ical use of in­di­vidu­al­ising nar­rat­ives might be stra­tegic atom­isa­tion, as the in­di­vidual has con­text stripped away from him/​her and is made to per­sonify polit­ic­ally ex­pedient risk. It is pre­cisely when the so­cial con­text is be­coming more per­ni­cious to the most vul­ner­able that fa­cial­ising nar­rat­ives at­tain their greatest polit­ical expediency.

Nonetheless, the am­bi­valent status of Philpott’s chil­dren as ‘doomed be­nefit brood’ marks per­haps the greatest in­con­sist­ency in this fa­cial­ised nar­rative of ‘wel­fare evil’. In a stark il­lus­tra­tion of what Giroux (2008) calls the new ‘bi­opol­itics of dis­pos­ab­ility’, their very ex­ist­ence it­self is called into ques­tion — not only in the de­per­son­al­ising rhet­oric which dis­misses them as Philpott’s ‘meal ticket’ (Dolan and Infante 2013), but in the pro­posed le­gis­la­tion called to public at­ten­tion in their name, with its clear eu­genic overtones.

Restrictions to be­ne­fits for large fam­ilies would have de­prived all but two or three of Philpott’s chil­dren of what little they had. The faces of these un-​victims are thus hy­po­crit­ic­ally and con­fusedly in­voked to jus­tify the pro­posed ex­pul­sion of ex­cess chil­dren of the un­der­class to a form of eco­nomic il­le­git­imacy. The neo­lib­eral vision of a state freed from the evil of wel­fare de­pend­ency would have res­ulted in the Philpott chil­dren never being con­ceived at all; or, the life fol­lowing their ‘il­le­git­imate’ con­cep­tion would have been one of in­tense hard­ship and poverty.

We can only spec­u­late as to the fu­ture which awaits eco­nom­ic­ally il­le­git­imate chil­dren, and others cur­rently af­forded the (lim­ited) sup­port of the wel­fare state who will find them­selves without suit­ably sup­portive fam­ilies or work op­por­tun­ities in a shrinking eco­nomy: the ‘ad­vanced mar­gin­ality’ de­scribed by Loïc Wacquant (2007), who has out­lined the pre­carious ex­ist­ence of the poorest US cit­izens cyc­ling in and out of prison, un­em­ploy­ment, and con­di­tional and lim­ited wel­fare sys­tems, is one likely long term result.

Philpott the de­praved criminal/​scrounger is thus the ‘face’ of a crit­ical his­tor­ical and legal mo­ment in which the UK switches from so­cial se­curity to a con­di­tional wel­fare re­gime backed up with in­creasing sur­veil­lance, mor­al­ising and pun­ish­ment. His com­panion ste­reo­type, the ‘striver’, rep­res­ents an equally men­dacious at­tempt to re­vive the Protestant work ethic in a con­text where la­bour will be in­creas­ingly pre­carious, and de­creas­ingly rewarded.

As to the chil­dren, in this grot­esquely flattened de­bate they be­come de­per­son­al­ised avatars of Philpott’s trans­miss­ible sins of eco­nomic in­ad­equacy and ir­re­spons­ib­ility. The moral out­rage at their ex­ist­ence (and their deaths) play-​acted by a gov­ern­ment eager to de­hu­manise those due to suffer most from wel­fare re­form warns of a new kind of sub-​citizenship awaiting its most vul­ner­able ‘products’.

Show References

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Dr Ruth Cain is Lecturer in Law at Kent Law School, University of Kent

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