The Spectator

Parliament must act

Parliament must act: The search for a privacy law resembles that of the lost city of Atlantis

No matter how glamorous the guest-list, or how luxurious the food photographed sliding down the hostess’s gullet, there is an occasion which, deep down in his thoracic cavity, the average tabloid editor knows he would rather snoop on than the wedding of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It is the 19th birthday party next month of the daughter of Mary Bell, who as an 11-year-old killed two children in Newcastle upon Tyne, and became for a while the nation’s favourite figure of hate.

Since her release from custody on licence in 1980, the reformed and renamed Ms Bell has led a life of anonymity. This week she went to the High Court to ask for that privilege to be extended for life. She has already had a taste of the future she faces should she fail. In 1998 she co-operated with Gitta Sereny in a book, Cries Unheard, which revealed the depravity of her upbringing: repeated sexual abuse and no fewer than four attempts by her mother to murder her. Had Mary Bell expected sympathy, or at least understanding of her crime, she was cruelly awakened. Unwisely, she had accepted a payment of £50,000 in return for her help with the book. On this pretext, reporters were dispatched to track her down to the seaside town where she was then living and to set up an encampment outside her home.

So far, Mary Bell has escaped having her cover blown, thanks to court orders protecting her daughter. Now her daughter is an adult, those orders have expired and Mary Bell may face exposure as soon as the judge in her case, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, announces a verdict next month. In Mary Bell’s favour is the fact that two years ago Dame Elizabeth granted lifelong anonymity to Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the killers of James Bulger, who had been threatened with murder upon their release from custody.

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