The Curious Case of Mary Bale

Posted on October 20, 2010

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Imagine a crime committed here in England so grotesque that not only the national media but international news sites are united in shock.  The Deputy Prime Minister is called upon to comment publicly: ‘Quite rightly people don’t understand how [this] could possibly happen’, he says.  Global media outlets waste little time broadcasting the appalling truth, which soon hits the news in Australia, New Zealand, China, Lithuania, Slovenia, Canada, America, Finland, Turkey, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Germany, Hungary, Portugal and Spain.  Some give full vent to their fury, calling on readers to ‘Get Revenge’ on the perpetrator, whilst others plead for the general public not to become involved in vigilante attacks.  Thousands of people unite in condemnation by joining internet groups calling for the wicked individual to be killed, flogged, and burnt, whilst experts are invited to speculate on the possible motivation for such an unspeakable act of evil.  One psychologist opines that the criminal must be ‘extremely disturbed’ and ‘may have been abused’.

Yesterday, hapless Mary Bale was fined £250 for putting a cat in a wheelie bin.  Now, whilst putting someone else’s cat into the rubbish is certainly not a pleasant thing to do, it is difficult to deny that this poor woman has already suffered enough, having been made the subject of an international hate campaign.  It is true to say, however, that the incident raises a number of questions, although perhaps not the kind of questions raised in the mainstream media.  What does the outrage over the Mary Bale ‘case’ say about British society?

Recent years have seen the manufacturing of moral outrage with increasing regularity by the mainstream media, usually over the most insignificant events.  This can take the form of a ‘comment’ made by an individual in the public spotlight which ‘sparks a row’ in the judgement of the media, or, as in the Mary Bale ‘case’, the direct reporting of events in a way which appears to be crudely calculated to enrage the reader.  Such reporting appeals directly to a natural sense of moral justice, yet often refers to events which have little or no moral significance.  When one considers that children are now exposed to the news media from a young age and from a variety of sources, it can be easily appreciated that irresponsible reporting by the media – especially, perhaps, crude appeals to base emotion – has dangerous potential for deforming consciences, and threatens to distort the ability of society to distinguish between right and wrong.  In a democratic country this has serious implications for policy-making and judicial sentencing, since elected officials are likely sooner or later to bow to public pressure and to prescribe penalties which are proportionate to public outrage over a given act.  Thankfully, Mary Bale did not get sent to prison, yet it is profoundly disturbing to reflect that many of those who joined groups calling for her to be killed probably had the democratic right to vote, and that even a figure such as the Deputy Prime Minister felt it necessary to dignify this non-event with a public comment, rather than calling upon people to focus their sense of righteous indignation on something which merits it instead of on such nonsense.

It is sad to consider that if Mary Bale had killed and dismembered another human being and had put the remains in a wheelie bin, it would probably not have been considered nearly so newsworthy.

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