A quick take on the media feeding frenzy over Lucy Letby and Great White Defendants
The British media is currently in frenzy mode over the jailing of Lucy Letby, a nurse who Sky News tells us will ‘‘Die in jail after receiving 14 whole life sentences’’. Letby has been found guilty of murdering seven babies in Chester Hospital while also being sentenced for the attempted murder of six more. Letby maintained that she was innocent until the bitter end while on social media people are talking of a stitch-up wherein Letby is actually innocent. Letby's crimes have been deemed to be so heinous that the debate on whether to bring back hanging was astroturfed back into the newspapers. The guilt or otherwise of Letby is not for me to speculate on and I’m sure there will be all manner of theories and arguments for years to come on the case.
Nevertheless, it is hard not to recognize and acknowledge a media-feeding frenzy when one sees it. Whatever the truth of the case the media relishes and salivates at the prospect of splashing their thumbnails and headlines with Letby’s plain but pretty, innocent-looking white, 33-year-old face. Arendt’s banality of evil concept is misunderstood and butchered with wild abandon as everyone lines up to lash the witch out of the village and throw rotten cabbages at the incarnation of pure, unadulterated, and irrational evil smiling back at them. A normal, non-descript white woman has been revealed to be a psychopathic loon, and in the attention economy media that equates to the Alaskan salmon run during those all too brief summer months.
Everybody comes out to feast on the story. The Skintellectual race grifters wail indignantly that she was not scrutinized because she was white. The Guardian leans into the comparisons with other female white murderers embedded within the cultural psyche such as Rosemary West and Myra Hindley while also cannily running cover for the NHS. GB News and the center-right containment zone get in on the action by zoning in on death; should she be put to death? what if she kills herself to avoid the sentence? She may have ‘‘enjoyed hearing the families suffer’’ howls one thumbnail. Meanwhile, out in the badlands of social media people are asking why the number of baby deaths went up after Letby was removed from her position.
It is difficult to avoid once more invoking the great Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and his passage on the ‘‘Great White Defendant’’
Every assistant D.A. in the Bronx, from the youngest Italian just out of St. John’s Law School to the oldest Irish bureau chief, who would be somebody like Bernie Fitzgibbon, who was forty-two, shared Captain Ahab’s mania for the Great White Defendant. For a start, it was not pleasant to go through life telling yourself, “What I do for a living is, I pack blacks and Latins off to jail.” Kramer had been raised as a liberal. In Jewish families like his, liberalism came with the Similac and the Mott’s apple juice and the Instamatic and Daddy’s grins in the evening.
….Captain Ahab was obsessed with the Lamb case, and he, Kramer, still had the case in his hands. He still had a shot at that much-prized, ever-elusive, and, in the Bronx, very nearly mythical creature, the Great White Defendant.
In Wolfe’s novel, the New York legal system is helmed by bored lawyers and prosecutors who view their careers as ‘‘waste management’’ topping up a meatgrinder with Latinos and blacks every day. To break the tedium and advance their careers they all pray for a well-heeled and influential white man — preferably with connections —to fall into their web.
The trope of the everyday white woman who commits heinous acts is not new and precedes the age of political correctness and multiculturalism. Indeed, it could be argued that it goes all the way back to witch burnings. Letby, like Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, defies our common conception of how white women are supposed to behave. Nurse Ratched is at least a tentacle of institutional power and technocratic processes, but Letby is an individual, acting alone. Lucy Letby could be your sister, girlfriend, wife, or daughter, and she murdered babies. She is thus an aberration, something inscrutable and unknowable, and it is precisely her mundanity and relatability that add the macabre allure and dramatic tension.
The media are speaking of Letby in terms reserved for John Christie and Jack The Ripper, knowing full well what the cultural touchstones are being activated in the minds of their content-consuming mass. The Evil Other, is suddenly us, the postman, Mr Christie from 10 Rillington Place, or the nice nurse in her attractive uniform.
However, in an age of multiculturalism and political correctness, the Letby story takes on a new slant, quite literally ‘‘The Great White Psycho’’. What Wolfe’s rich, White Anglo Saxon Protestant is to the New York justice department, The Great White Psycho is to the media grindstone. The Great White Psycho can be wheeled out regularly in the future as proof that the supposed societal norms are profoundly twisted and that even the banalest of white demographics is no better than any other.
London’s knife crime barbarism will therefore be framed as nothing in comparison to the insidious evil of the smiling white nurse in her 30s because, well, we’re all sneakily aware of who does the knifing anyway. The Great White Psycho transcends the mundane meatgrinder of diverse inner city murders, brushes aside the outrages of politically correct client groups, and instead takes on a certain element of the fantastical, the Dracula, the Cruella, and Hannibal Lector. It is a riddle, a puzzle to be pondered over and horrified by, rather than simply another mugshot or more iPhone footage to be scrolled past.
The semi-mythological entity of The Great White Psycho is all things to all media pundits, a sign that we need to bring hanging back without looking like we want dead people of colour, a vindication that whites are evil and privileged or a bourgeois dalliance with psychology.