Baby P: Inside a Sensational British Criminal Case

It is against the law for us to tell you who killed Baby P, although we know, and even though they have now been convicted of the crime in the British courts. One of them is his own mother, a 27-year-old from north London, but we cannot legally identify her any further. Another is his mother's boyfriend, a 32-year-old who lived with her in their publicly provided house in the Haringey Council area, but we cannot identify him any further, either. The third, like the others convicted of causing or allowing the death of a child, is another man, age 36. He at least can legally be identified as Jason Owen, but we cannot disclose why he lived in the house or what exactly his relationship was to the other people in the house, or even whether Jason Owen is his real or only name, although we know. We cannot even disclose Baby P's real name, even his first name, although we know that too. Baby P's sister was also subjected to abuse in the house, serious abuse, although no further details are allowed about that whatsoever. Nor can we tell you how many other children Mother of Baby P had, although it is known that she gave birth to one in jail after her arrest, and authorities took it away from her. Finally, we can't even legally tell you why we can't tell you any of this information, because to do any of this would be to violate a contempt-of-court order issued by the judge in the case, Stephen Kramer QC at the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court.

Anyone who wants to know this information, however, can find it with a few clicks on the Internet, where nonmainstream news sites, social-networking groups and countless blogs and posts have revealed not only the identities, but also purported photographs and full addresses of the people involved, as well as Baby P's real name. Online petitions for investigations and sackings, and even executions, have attracted literally hundreds of thousands of signatures. Facebook sites devoted to naming and attacking the mother and her boyfriend by name go up as fast as Facebook can take them down. And for those who don't have ready access to the Internet, cell-phone users have been circulating a text message with the details, and asking recipients to pass it on, which untold thousands of people have done. "The papers may be banned from naming and shaming the cruel vile killers of baby p but I aint," one such text reads. "They r [Mother of Baby P's full name] and [full name of her boyfriend] of [full street address]. Jason Owen living with them. I urge everyone to pass this on."

The passion the case has attracted is understandable. Baby P, age a year and a half, died on Aug. 3, 2007, after many months of shocking abuse by the three, ending up with a broken back and 50 other wounds and injuries; upon autopsy, a tooth that had been knocked out of his mouth by a blow was found in his colon. The fatal injury was a blow to the head. What has made the reaction even worse is that this all took place despite 60 visits to his home by social workers, police and other authorities, earlier arrests of the mother for abuse, and visits to hospitals and doctors—one of them while his back was actually broken, an injury that witnesses said could only have been caused by the application of extreme force, such as being hit by a car. Under Britain's strict laws preventing the publication of details of a crime until after the trial is complete, none of this detail came out until the three were convicted last week—and then it gushed out in a torrent, accompanied by often deeply personal attacks on the social workers and their supervisers in Haringey Council, a Labour Party bastion with a reputation as a far-left refuge and some of the worst neighborhoods in the city. Haringey's child-care authorities, it emerged, had overruled police advice that Baby P be removed from home, instead sending the mother to parenting classes. One social worker on a home visit only a week before the child's death was fooled by the chocolate the mother had hurriedly smeared all over his wounds, to hide them during the visit. And since Haringey was the same council that missed equally horrific abuse of an 8-year-old child, Victoria Climbie, seven years before, the outrage ran even deeper.

The result has been an explosion of press coverage—all of it carefully following the legal requirement not to name the mother and boyfriend—and an even bigger explosion of Internet outrage, with little such compunction. Posts on some sites with information on the case go into the hundreds and thousands. A Facebook page called "In Loving Memory of Little Angel Baby P…x" drew 7,000 wall posts in a week and 103,000 fans. A Facebook group called "Death is too good for [Mother of Baby P's real name], torture the bitch that killed baby P" quickly attracted 50,000 members by Nov. 20; Facebook has taken down several similar sites that identify the killers. When an obscure satirical Web site posted their identities and pictures, it lit up the blogosphere, and drove unprecedented traffic to the site, according to a man who was reached on the phone and identified himself as the editor. "The crime is so heinous and disgusting, if I go to prison for this, so be it." He didn't want his name used, however, in case of prosecution. When another more circumspect Facebook group was started, "Campaign to get justice for Baby P," promoting a petition demanding an investigation of the case, the group had to enlist 15 moderators to pore over its 60 discussion boards among 178,000 members, removing repeated posts disclosing the identities, according to group spokesman James Menhenitt. "Fortunately some of the moderators are in Australia so they can keep at it when we're asleep." On the group's Facebook page is a notice to posters: "We feel as passionately as you that these people should be named, however doing so would break the law and could have implications for other members of Baby P's family … We CANNOT RUN THE RISK OF HAVING OUR CAMPAIGN CLOSED!"

If prosecutors enforced the contempt-of-court order (citing the U.K. Contempt of Court and the Children and Young Persons Acts) against all the myriad online violators, they'd quickly clog the courts with cases. "This case is a very powerful example of an issue we continue to raise, that it's quite clear the law of contempt is inadequate to deal with 24-hour global Internet and media," says Bob Satchwell of the British-based Society of Editors, which has asked the British attorney general to review the court's contempt powers.

Usually when there's an Internet sensation, people are at least able to cross-reference the information they're getting with what mainstream media are running—though not necessarily in this case. "People have come over many years to trust the media they know, and they can't do that here," says Satchwell. Indeed, much of the information circulating on the Internet about the case is in error—though it would be hard to correct it without violating the court order. On one Facebook site, when someone posted a very tentative defense of the Mother of Baby P, other posters quickly identified her as the mother's sister, based on a supposed physical resemblance, and she was subjected to a torrent of abuse, even though it wasn't true. "You people are pathetic," wrote someone identifying himself as Tom Kitchen. "This girl is just some random girl … enough with your witchhunt." Then however another poster outed Kitchen as a member of an abhorrent Facebook group called "dead babies make me laugh," devoted to posting "dead baby jokes." To which Kitchen replied by posting a dead baby joke, saying, "who are dead baby jokes hurting?"

It gets wild out there in cyberspace. There were so many online Baby P petitions that some huckster jumped on the bandwagon, and when anyone clicked to sign his petition about Baby P, they were bounced instead to a gay porn Web site. When the mass-market tabloid The Sun ran a petition campaign—this one demanding the firing of key Haringey child-care officials—they attracted 450,000 signatures in a couple days, 350,000 of them online.

Adam Wolanski, a barrister who represented British media outlets that applied to the court to be allowed to publish pictures given in evidence at the Baby P trial, says the news organizations didn't even try to be allowed to name everyone in the case. "That was absolutely unarguable," he said. Exactly why it's unarguable is, however, unmentionable. So far, that particular unmentionable hasn't yet made it to the Internet, and if some of those namers and shamers knew what Wolanski knows, they might actually think twice before posting. On the other hand, they might not.

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