The hacking of Milly Dowler: £3M worth of bad?

First things first. Milly Dowler’s murder was unspeakable in its wickedness. The interception of her mobile phone messages, and the cruel way in which their deletion gave unwarranted hope to Milly’s family, was almost equally wicked.

This was the moment when the phone-hacking scandal moved from an intrusion into politicians’ and celebrities’ privacy that few people thought was right, but few really thought was wicked, into a public moral outrage. When phone hacking moved from an almost intrinsic hazard only applicable to the famous few into a sickening exploitation of grief for commercial advantage that could happen to anyone. The demise of the News of the World was a dramatic, but probably fitting and proportionate, consequence for a newspaper which had finally lost all semblance of moral compass.

It is now reported that News International will be making a payment of £2M to Milly Dowler’s family, along with a “personal donation by Rupert Murdoch” of another £1M to charity. The BBC reported this morning that the deal was close to being confirmed, but was still subject to “negotiations” by the Dowler family hoping for more. The sums involved would never have been awarded by a court. They dwarf the payments made to “routine” victims of crime. They do not pay, perhaps as is the case in the frequently large payouts in medical negligence cases, for a life-time of care, or a whole career of missed salary.

I have no idea what the Dowler family intend to do with this windfall, and they may spend it wisely, and do much public good with it. But that’s hardly the point. Presumably it will be open to them to fritter it away on fast cars and extravagant holidays, just as so often do the winners in massive lotteries. But in what kind of grotesque calculus does £2M emerge as the appropriate “compensation” for having been deceived into thinking your daughter might be alive when she was sadly already dead? An appalling thing to endure, but is it really £2M worth of awful? Compare it with, say, the maximum bereavement grant of £25,000 paid to families of fallen servicemen. Of course that grant is not the only money which such families receive, but it’s paltry in comparison with this payout.

In all these compensation cases there’s an element of the unsavoury attempt to tot up the monetary value of some ghastly occurrence. But where those calculations refer to some concrete, real compensation such as care costs, salary replacement, or whatever, in which the event in question leads to expenses that would otherwise not have occurred, or to dependants deprived of income that they would otherwise have received, at least some semblance of dignity remains. But trying to come to some sort of monetary equivalence for a loved one lost or, as in this case, a trauma exacerbated unnecessarily is surely fraught with more difficulty that that of simply accounting for costs.

In the same news bulletin that reported on these “negotiations”, yet more terrifying information about the plight of Somalian drought and civil war refugee victims emerged. Is it too churlish of me to wonder if that £3M could not have been better spent? To wonder, also, if the “thousand shocks that flesh is heir to” are worth more if the flesh in question is Western and rich?

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