27 JULY 2002, Page 30

The alarming correlation between serial killing and reading liberal newspapers


I t has somehow emerged — that is, it was in a couple of newspapers over the weekend — that Harold Shipman is a Guardian reader. Apparently, he is given the paper over breakfast at 7.30 every morning.

What drove a serial killer to become a Guardian reader? What drove this mass murderer to gloat over, say, Mr Hugo Young's column? Probably, Shipman thought that — given Mr Young's superiority to most of the elderly, provincial Conservative voters who must have made up a fair proportion of Shipman's victims familiarity with the column gave him a sense of power over ordinary people.

We shall never know. We just do not know why liberal journalists commit these mass columns. But perhaps it was the other way about. Perhaps it was the Guardian which drove Shipman to become a serial killer. For years, the paper has been inciting impressionable people against elderly, provincial Conservative voters. Doubtless Mr Young continues to proclaim his innocence of what happened to so many of them in Shipman's area. But so does Shipman. Mr Young's activities seemed to have gone unnoticed for a long time. Inexplicably, the inquiry did not go into them.

The news about what paper Shipman reads reminded me of a conversation I had some years ago with an acquaintance who, for professional reasons, had occasion from time to time to visit another serial killer in prison. The serial killer in question was Dennis Nilsen: the civil servant who was in the habit of inviting young men to his north London terrace house of an evening, and murdering them after dinner. Meeting me by chance, my acquaintance said he had just come from one of his visits to Nilsen. What did Nilsen talk about? I asked.

Apparently he said something along the lines of: 'You know, i was very much disposed in the Independent's favour when it was launched, and immediately started taking it. But it's become so boring. I've now gone back to the Guardian.' This was, at the time, standard liberal dinner-party patter. In many aspects of their lives, liberal, newspaper-reading serial killers were, it seemed, no different from any other liberal newspaper-readers. Yet liberal newspaperreaders probably think serial killers are right-wing Tories. They tend to assume that all unpleasant people arc right-wing Tories.

Yet the only information we have about serial killers' newspaper-reading suggests that the two men, in the sample, are liberals. To paraphrase one of those statistically unconvincing paragraphs which all newspapers print to put the best face on the latest sixmonthly ABC circulation figures, more than twice as many serial killers read the Guardian as all other newspapers combined.

We need more information to confirm this pattern of serial killing's tendency to provoke liberal newspaper-reading, or possibly vice versa. We need to know what newspaper is taken by Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. Unfortunately, we shall never know about Fred West, since he hanged himself while on remand. 1 had him down as a Sunday Sport man, or possibly Daily Star.

Where does this leave the daily for which I write, the Telegraph? My prose, and indeed photograph, appears in it more often than those of any other contributor — five days a week when Parliament sits. It could be argued that I must bear a large measure of the responsibility for the paper's failure to attract serial killers. I am just no Hugo Young.

What about Nicholas van Hoogstraten, the property developer this week convicted of an exceptionally wicked manslaughter and warned by the judge that, when he returns for sentencing in October, he is likely to go to prison for a long time? In addition to his criminal activities, he made the news a few years ago for his staunch opposition to the right to roam, and the resolute defence of his property. Aha! Almost certainly a Telegraph reader.

Perhaps in prison he will pronounce Conservative commonplaces in the way that Nilsen does liberal ones. 'Face it,' he would tell his visitors, `David Davis was hopelessly disloyal to IDS, and lain was quite right to move him. I personally would have preferred using a hitman on him, but there you go. I'm not sure, incidentally, that Theresa is the answer. I would have taken a punt and given it to Boris. Who cares what the whips would say?'

The trouble is Unit Hoogstraten used to

work for the late Tiny Rowland, and Rowland used to own the liberal Observer. One of this week's articles after his conviction quoted him as having defended Mugabe's right to seize white land; this could have been because he shared Mugabe's interest in property development, but it is certainly contrary to the Conservative line on Zimbabwe. Among famous convicts in Britain's prisons, that leaves — for the Tories — only Jeffrey Archer. The trouble is that people who go into jail as Tories tend to come out as liberals. Since ours is an increasingly criminal society, this is one of the reasons why the circulations of the Guardian and the Observer are constantly going up.

Ihave only just bought Peacemakers, by Margaret MacMillan, winner of this year's Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, and much look forward to reading it. I bought it because of its high reputation and because of a now almost lifelong interest in its subject, the 1919 Versailles Treaty.

The reviews suggest that the author rejects the standard belief that the treaty was too harsh on the Germans; the belief which attributes Hitler's coming to power and the second world war to the injustices which the treaty allegedly perpetrated on Germany. I have always rejected that belief, and have argued against it in these pages. I am sure that Margaret MacMillan argues it with much greater authority and scholarship than I could, But I would risk a prediction: she will have scarcely more effect on broad, educated opinion than I have had. Such opinion will continue to blame Hitler and the second world war on the allegedly harsh treaty.

Why? The answering of that question may require the skills of the psychiatrist rather than the historian, still less the journalist. The problem seems to have something to do with educated opinion's need to blame the world's ills on its own country or society, perhaps as a mark of sophistication, a sign that one is not gripped by the chauvinism of the mob. In the matter of Versailles, the only educated opinion which does not blame its own country or society is German. The Germans of all classes are happy to blame the treaty, and by implication Hitler and the second world war, on Britain, France and the United States: one of the few cases of educated opinion blaming disaster on someone else's counny.