Brianna Ghey’s father, Peter Spooner, had no wish for his daughter’s killers to be named in the media. He wanted them “forgotten about and locked up”, he said. “They’re nothing.” Frances Crook, former head of the Howard League for Penal Reform, commented on X (formerly Twitter): “As soon as the children who killed Brianna Ghey are named they will be the entire prurient focus of the media. The victim is passed over,” and that was borne out: immediately after the names dropped, images of the killers were all over social and mainstream media, described as the “faces of evil”.
Explaining her decision to lift the reporting ban, Mrs Justice Amanda Yip said last year that “the shock generated by Brianna’s murder and the circumstances of it has spread well beyond the local community, across the nation and indeed internationally”. She accepted that to name the killers would cause distress for their families, but said the purpose of an anonymity order was not to protect the relatives of the convicted. But exactly what is the point of anonymity orders for under-18s? Why did a government review of the youth justice system recommend lifelong anonymity for children in 2016 (it is currently lifted when they turn 18)? And conversely, what social purpose does it now serve to know the identities of Ghey’s killers? What conversation does it start, and what other conversations does it shut down?
With the names have come grim details: the psychiatrist who saw Scarlett Jenkinson after the murder said the teenager felt “satisfied and excited” during it; while the judge has said that Eddie Ratcliffe was driven in part by transphobia, Jenkinson has said she was more threatened by the idea that Ghey might stop being her friend. Inevitably, with details and photos of the perpetrators emerging, the story becomes both personalised and generalised. It descends into analysis and speculation about Jenkinson and Ratcliffe’s mental states, while at the same time conjuring questions about the nature of evil. The social benefit of putting these two teenagers in the petri dish and extrapolating from the scrutiny any solid principles about human nature is very hard to divine. Most likely it will be, as it was after the killing of James Bulger, a self-soothing exercise, in which the heinous criminals are demonised to the extent that the society in which their crime happened doesn’t have to ask any questions about itself.
Yet there are urgent questions to ask: at the time of the murder, the police were very careful with the label “hate crime”, and it has taken Justice Yip’s sentencing remarks, nearly a year later, for transphobia to be acknowledged as an aggravating factor. We already knew from Ghey’s own TikTok account, and numerous testimonies from her friends and their parents, that she had been abused online for years for being trans. We know that her teen years, brutally cut short, were defined, marred by this persecution. We know that transphobic hate crime reports quadrupled between 2015 and 2020; we know from individual police force data how dramatic the rise over 20 years has been. The Met released figures showing 23 transphobic hate crimes across London in 2001, and 428 in 2021.
We know that when the rightwing media selects a hate group and constantly demonises it, it has real-world consequences. We can see so plainly how language gives licence to real-life violence – the judge highlighted the “dehumanising” language Radcliffe used to describe Ghey prior to the murder – and yet it is somehow still considered melodramatic to say so.
It’s time to recognise that so many vocal opponents of trans people know no such restraint; they are not afraid of melodrama, they are untroubled by incomplete information, they don’t care if they sound obsessional or disproportionate. No issue is too niche, or too distant, or too petty, or too illogical, for their fury. A child having to use a toilet cubicle previously occupied by a trans woman is apparently the right-thinking parent’s most pressing fear. A teacher who refuses to use a pupil’s chosen pronouns is the Achilles of the culture wars. Mediocre politicians get the attention they crave by making puerile remarks about trans people’s genitalia. Where does it end? Do all the trans people of the UK have to detransition? Or would it be enough if they just went into hiding?
The condition of being trans in this country at the moment is one of being subject to constant negative scrutiny, sensing oneself collectively blamed for every action by any trans person, anywhere in the world, considered ridiculous by definition while simultaneously the cause of the nation’s most serious problems. The intense drumbeat of peril and surveillance is the hallmark of paranoid delusion: but they’re not being paranoid. Trans people have been used instrumentally as a muster point for the right, and the far right, in media and in politics, and this has concrete, foreseeable results.
The reason for that 2016 finding that young offenders should have their anonymity protected in perpetuity was that it makes it very hard to rejoin society when your grave and repugnant crime is in the public domain for ever. That relatively obvious point must have occurred to the judge, who – weighing it against the public interest – decided their social exclusion was a price worth paying. Maybe it is: but only if we use this moment to think seriously about the world these teenagers grew up in.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist