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OPINION - We must beware the knee-jerk reactions to Lucy Letby’s evil

Screen grab taken from body-worn police camera footage of the arrest of Lucy Letby (Cheshire Constabulary)
Screen grab taken from body-worn police camera footage of the arrest of Lucy Letby (Cheshire Constabulary)

There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” observes the trusting King Duncan on the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor — a betrayal which will foreshadow the many ahead in Macbeth.

How horribly true that has proved in two cases casting their pall over the news in the past days. The Lucy Letby conviction on multiple counts of murder and attempted murder feels the more shocking, because the woman we see in photographs, cradling infants or drinking cocktails at a hen night at the height of her murder spree, looks not only normal, but downright attractive and pleasant.

Personally, I was, like many others in the London journalism parish, a professional acquaintance of Peter Wilby, the veteran editor and columnist revealed to have been a voracious serial consumer of child pornography — much of it in the most serious category.

Politicians are now being led to dabble in solutions which bring problems of their own

They are cases which display the uneasy relationship between the need to trust others around us and the ability of evil to hide in plain sight. And in their different ways, they show how people who have started to do dreadful things become confident in the power that brings — the feeling that they will not be intercepted. Letby, even after suspicions were raised by colleagues over the heightened number of deaths at the Countess of Chester neonatal unit, convinced her bosses of her innocence and carried on her deadly work.

In Wilby’s case, a rather terse statement from the New Statesman makes clear colleagues had no idea of the charges and that they are “shocked and appalled”. He had been accessing child pornography, including while at work, activity the court heard which “bordered on the obsessive”. How chilling then to remember Wilby was also an education correspondent (for The Observer) — a man by turns amusing and mordant, who wrote lofty columns about the need to end “educational apartheid”, vaunted himself as a feminist and critic of the US on ethical grounds. I have no doubt that he was able to compartmenalise this jarring contradiction: believing himself to be a trenchant socialist improver of society, while indulging in behaviour which, the National Crime Agency reminds us, produces a market in child exploitation and years of damage that brings.

Trust is the second casualty when crimes are committed for some warped sense of entitlement and self-gratification by those who have power. It is one reason why corporate and media rankings which have boasted their trustworthiness as an asset always instil in me a desire to point out that an excess of trust is a risk too. The failures to detect these perpetrators remind us of the need to review safety and prevention systems more effectively. And in the Wilby case, it strengthens the case to keep working at how online harms can be detected and pursued, with a pattern of crime continuing, in his case, for nearly a decade.

It’s a shaking experience for colleagues and families to discover that terrible things have been committed by someone they had experienced as ordinary or indeed affable. This helplessness leads politicians to dabble in solutions which bring problems of their own. A Labour Party social media campaign this week demands that the Government hasten plans to have convicted serious criminals forced into the dock for sentencing. It speaks to a need to see justice done and the offender confronted with their action. That is a stance presently favoured by the Tories on similar grounds, so the shouty message from the Opposition “no more Lucy Letbys” (really?) feels too close to exploiting a grim situation to be worthy of Keir Starmer, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, who might otherwise be claiming difficult-to-enact measures were being rushed through Parliament.

Letby refused to be present at sentencing. Should she be dragged into court, and what about those who would behave aggressively or disruptively if compelled to do so? The practical implications do not focus on whipping up more anger. They focus on reviewing the way risk registers and pattern-spotting work.

In pursing more online safety, the slog is of weighing up benefits and unintended consequences. And no, it is not at all easy to limit access to abusive material, without increasing all-encompassing surveillance infringements on broader digital freedoms worth defending. But these cases remind us that harms are real too. It’s the hard, necessary slog of learning lessons and finding new better ways to protect the vulnerable that mark progress: not the easy hit of the knee-jerk response.

Anne McElvoy is executive editor at Politico