Thanks are due to the ever-excellent Fighting Monsters, who tipped me off to watch this programme, which I’d somehow managed to miss in the listings. Thanks, as well, to the equally-excellent Pretty Like Drugs and Abysmal Musings, whose reviews I’ve also read (first part of the review, in the case of Abysmal Musings). Their thoughts have definitely influenced mine, and to be honest, you’d probably be better off reading what they have to say. As always when I review TV programmes, this is based on my memory of the programme, so I can’t guarantee I have every detail right.
Why Did You Kill My Dad? (available on the iPlayer for the next few days) is a TV programme made by a documentary filmmaker, Julian Hendy, whose elderly father was killed by Stephen Newton, a man with a history of mental health problems (I don’t say mentally ill deliberately, and for reasons that I’ll come on to). I want to begin by saying that I have enormous personal sympathy for Mr Hendy, and the other bereaved relatives shown in the programme. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to have experienced what they have, and I can have only the dimmest idea of the suffering they must have experienced. Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the personal sympathy I feel for the person making it and the other people appearing in it, I found the programme itself to be objectionable for a number of reasons.
Mr Hendy’s film is an authored documentary, which is to say one that has been directed and edited by the filmmaker to reflect his or her personal point of view. It is not intended to be an impartial or dispassionate look at the subject being discussed, and is in some ways closer to the kind of film that Michael Moore might make than a traditional BBC documentary, although Mr Hendy is certainly less of a polemicist than Moore is. The film was not wholly one-sided – in particular, statements by each of the MH trusts whose actions had been criticised by relatives were included, I assume for legal reasons – but the problem with any authored documentary is that it runs the risk of obscuring rather than clarifying the subject it discusses. I am saddened to have to say that this was unquestionably what happened in this case.
I can understand why Mr Hendy’s personal experiences led him to make the directorial decisions he did, but this does not change the fact that the film, no matter how well-intentioned, was hugely exploitative. Whole sections were included for no reason other than that they provided the viewer with an opportunity to vicariously experience the grief of people who have suffered through wholly terrible experiences. I do not need to see a grieving mother sobbing over a box filled with mementoes of her son’s life to know that the death of a child is the worst thing that any parent can experience. I do not need to see a hugely traumatised woman being encouraged to relive the horrific circumstances in which she discovered her boyfriend’s mutilated body to know that the friends and relatives of a murder victim will continue to suffer for the rest of their lives.
I think I was especially sickened by the inclusion of these scenes because the filmmaker had relevant personal experience. Julian Hendy must have known the enhanced suffering he was exposing the participants to, and must also have known that the exposure of their grief was entirely gratuitous, since it did nothing to advance the case he was making in his film. His decision to instigate, record and transmit the scenes anyway, simply to increase the emotional impact of his film, is ethically dubious, to put it mildly. In this regard, it saddened me to note that, while Mr Hendy did include footage of his research into his father’s death, he did not choose to broadcast footage of himself in intense emotional distress, reserving that very public indignity for the other relatives he interviewed.
It is very often the case that, when gratuitous emotion is introduced, it has the effect of distracting attention away from a lack of intellectual rigour and rational coherence in the argument being made. I would expect Mr Handy, as an experienced documentary filmmaker, to be well aware of this, so it perhaps needs to be pointed out that much of Mr Hendy’s argument was made against the backdrop of home movie footage of his father tending his allotment and doting on his grandchildren, the whole accompanied by tear-jerking piano music clearly designed to evoke an emotional rather than an intellectual engagement with the material. Perhaps the most blatant example of this was when he decided to investigate prior media reports about the man who murdered his father. Curiously, he did not do this from home via the internet, but instead travelled to a local library to look up the information on a microfiche copy of a local newspaper held there. Of course, the decision to do this may have simply been because footage of a microfiche machine in operation is more visually interesting than footage of a computer screen – but it also provided Mr Hendy with the opportunity to inform us, via narration, that his father used to bring him to this very library when he was a child, and for additional tear-jerking piano music to be played.
Thanks to all this emotional prefacing, the footage of Mr Hendy’s reaction when he discovered details about his father’s murderer was given great emotional weight, and this served to distract attention from the fact that what he had discovered was not especially damning. It turned out that Stephen Newton had previously been arrested and prosecuted for drugs offences, and had been taking (or, at least, had been prescribed) antipsychotic medication. There was also a suggestion that he had been found to be carrying a ‘bladed weapon’. (All the film showed was Mr Hendy reading out a section of the newspaper report which had the police asking the question, but it’s hard to see why this would have been included in the newspaper report if he had not been armed.) This was taken by Mr Hendy to be concrete proof that the MH trust should have known that Stephen Newton was dangerous, and that, had they done their jobs properly, his father might still have been alive.
Shorn of the emotional context the film made such heavy use of, it’s easy to recognise that this previous conviction was not for a violent offence, and that the details provided by the film also do not seem to suggest that Mr Newton was dangerously psychotic. This information was highly relevant to the case the film was making at this point – namely that, in the words of one of the forensic psychiatrists briefly featured, it’s ‘not hard’ to predict that a mentally ill person will become violent again if they have been violent on previous occasions when they were ill. Clearly, if Mr Newton did not have a history of violence, but only a record of petty criminal offending, and that connected with drug use, it’s not necessarily reasonable to assume that the MH team involved in treating him should have been able to predict that he would become violent in the future.
As it happens, this was not the only occasion on which I had the uncomfortable feeling that Mr Hendy, because of the way he chose to emphasise certain details and allow others to pass by almost unnoticed, might be presenting an inaccurate record of events surrounding his father’s murder. In particular, I find myself questioning whether Mr Newton was in fact mentally ill at the time of the murder, or, if he was, whether his mental illness was of sufficient intensity to explain his actions.
It is a matter of established fact that Mr Newton had been in contact with the local MH (Mental Health) trust for several years prior to the murder, and (unless I am muddling him up with one of the other perpetrators discussed in the film) that his family had contacted a crisis team shortly before the murder because they were concerned about his behaviour. The film also gave great prominence to an interview with a witness to the immediate aftermath of the stabbing, who indicated that, in her opinion, the perpetrator was ‘away with the fairies’. All of this tends to support the assertion in the film that Mr Newton was mentally ill. On the other hand, we were informed that Mr Newton had been sentenced to 16 years in prison for the offence. I am very, very far from being an expert on this kind of thing, but the details of his sentence seem, to me, to suggest certain things.
Firstly, the fact he was sentenced to serve a predetermined length of time suggests to me that he was not confined under the terms of the Mental Health Act (such sentences are, if I understand correctly, unlimited), which in turn suggests that the court did not consider him to be so unwell that he bore no responsibility for his actions. Secondly, the length of the sentence seems to be broadly in line with the ‘tariff’ (minimum time to be served) handed down to those who are given a life sentence for murder. If Mr Newton was convicted of murder then this would mean that he was not found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, as we might have expected if his mental illness had been a factor in the crime. Thirdly, the fact that he was sentenced to serve his time in prison, rather than a secure hospital, suggests that, at the time he was sentenced, the court did not believe that he had a mental illness that would benefit from treatment. Taken together, all of this suggests to me that there is a distinct possibility that, although Mr Newton had been in contact with MH services for a number of years, this was not a relevant factor in the murder he committed. We should not forget that all kinds of people suffer from mental ill-health, including people who would be violent criminals and murderers even if they weren’t mentally ill.
There were a couple of other occasions when I felt that Mr Hendy’s entirely understandable sense of grief and grievance may have led him into unfortunate misrepresentations of certain things. For example, at one point he played a short excerpt of an interview with a forensic psychiatrist. Without access to the full interview, it is, of course, not possible to tell what, if any, distortions may have been introduced by the editing process, but what I can say is that the overall effect of the film was to suggest that whole swathes of clinical psychiatrists know nothing about the possibility that some patients with certain types of illness may present a risk to the public, or that an assessment of such risks should form a part of the management of the mentally ill. This seems to me to be wildly unlikely, not least because I would expect all psychiatrists to have a working knowledge of the Mental Health Act, which requires that a person be compelled to receive treatment against their will if they are thought to present a danger to themselves or to others. In fact, I find it exceptionally hard to believe that a psychiatrist could qualify without coming into at least some contact with patients who are being detained in hospital under the terms of such treatment orders.
The programme as a whole seemed curiously unclear about the way in which a mentally ill person can be committed for treatment against their wishes. Again, I must stress that I understand that Mr Hendy’s personal involvement in the matters he discusses must have made it hard for him to think clearly about them. Despite this, it’s unfortunate that he spoke at one point about his incredulity at hearing that, when a doctor and nurse (presumably a crisis team) had visited Mr Newton at the request of worried relatives, they had not treated him because he had declined treatment. The filmmaker very strongly suggested that this was a serious failing on the part of the team, and that they had mishandled the situation by paying attention to Mr Newton’s wishes rather than the concerns of his relatives. He gave the impression that the team who had visited Mr Newton would have had the authority to treat him against his will, and that it was only a mixture of ‘political correctness’ and a failure to take personal responsibility that resulted in him being allowed to refuse treatment. This is a shame, because even a very little research would have revealed that a visit by a crisis team and a formal meeting to ‘section’ a patient are radically different scenarios, and that the latter is regulated by legislation. It is more than a little unfair to suggest that staff have failed in their responsibilities when their hands are tied by legislation that has been put in place to protect the rights of those who are believed to have a mental illness.
This leads on to what is perhaps my biggest single criticism of the film – that it presented a hugely ‘dumbed down’ version of events and situations that are in fact extremely complex and, by definition, uncertain. The cumulative effect of the film was to suggest that it is a simple matter to establish which mental patients will go on to commit serious acts of violence, and the fact that there are more than a few murders by mentally ill people each year can only be the result of widespread failures. There seemed to be no acknowledgement of the fact that while, with hindsight, it’s possible to identify with 100% accuracy which of the hundreds of thousands of people with serious mental illnesses will become violent, identifying the same thing in advance is a lot more difficult. Much was made in the film of the fact that a number of individual perpetrators had followed a ‘characteristic pattern’ – which is to say, involvement in minor acts of violence prior to committing a serious act of violence, and a propensity for going off their meds – but there was no acknowledgement of the fact that there will also be many who fit this ‘characteristic pattern’, but never go on to commit a serious act of violence. There was no discussion of the possibility that, when a community treatment team fails to keep accurate tabs on someone who is believed to be a risk if they go off their meds, it is more likely to be the result of a lack of resources than ‘political correctness’ or a deliberate attempt to shirk responsibility. There was no discussion of the very real ethical dilemmas involved in the idea of locking people up indefinitely, not on the basis of something they have done, but on the basis of something they might do.
I suspect there was no discussion or acknowledgement of this last issue because, for Mr Hendy and the other relatives in the film, it isn’t an issue. I suspect, for them, it’s a ‘no-brainer’, that, as they see it, it’s entirely appropriate to curtail the rights of mentally ill people – that’s to say, lock them up and pump them full of drugs that make them diabetic and docile – in the interests of preventing the deaths of people like their relatives. This is, of course, a point of view, and one that should certainly be paid attention to given the extraordinary suffering of the people expressing it, but it should also be presented honestly. If such a policy were instituted it wouldn’t just be the future perpetrators of violence who would be locked up. Very probably, the majority of those held for involuntary treatment under such a regime would never have gone on to commit any crime, let alone kill someone. Despite the impression this film repeatedly gave, there simply is no hard-and-fast way of telling in advance whether or not a particular individual with mental illness will go on to commit serious acts of violence.
I should say that, while I disagree, I don’t particularly blame Mr Hendy or the other relatives for the views they expressed. They have suffered through an incredibly traumatic event, and they are, quite naturally, looking for someone to blame. When the perpetrator is mentally ill, blaming them is difficult, and so the next natural target are the people or the system who ‘allowed’ the perpetrator to commit the act. This was most obviously the case with one couple who said that, so far as they were concerned, the MH trust, rather than the person wielding the knife, had murdered their son. This is an utterly unreasonable point of view, of course – they are essentially demanding that the people working for the trust should be able to predict the future, not to mention be able to control events when they are not present – but it’s also one that’s very easy to understand. It’s also a perfect demonstration of why, although we must certainly listen to people who have been affected by events such as these, we shouldn’t necessarily allow them to dictate policy (any more than I, as someone who sometimes suffers from mild psychosis, should be allowed to set the policy for treating people with severe psychotic illness).
The truth is that being killed by someone who is mentally ill is an exceptionally rare event, and, thanks to the policies already in place, is becoming rarer. Of course, the death of even one person is a death too many, but that doesn’t mean that any action, no matter how draconian, is justified in order to reduce that risk. Every year, many more people are killed by sane people than are killed by the mentally ill, but no-one would suggest that it would be appropriate to lock up every sane person who looked like they might be a murderer. It would be universally understood that, although the intention to prevent murders was good, the proposed solution was out of all proportion, and hugely unjust to the majority who would not have committed any crime.
I have, as I said at the beginning, enormous sympathy for Mr Hendy. I cannot begin to imagine what he must be feeling, or the emotional suffering that he has endured. I appreciate that he has endured a truly horrific experience, and that this will have profoundly affected his opinions on this issue, and also heavily influenced the decisions he made with regard to his film. That does not change the fact that this was an emotionally exploitative film that presented a hugely unbalanced and excessively simplistic view of a complex situation, and all of it done in support of a hugely draconian solution to what is, statistically if not emotionally, a minor problem. In light of his terrible personal experiences, I don’t want to criticise Mr Hendy too heavily, but it is regrettable that wiser and more disinterested heads at the BBC didn’t put more thought into whether it was a good idea to broadcast this programme.