Tim Cooper: Lavinia Woodward's treatment tells its own story about the flawed 'Great Meritocracy'

Tim Cooper
Controversy: Would Lavinia Woodward have been treated differently if she was not white, privately-educated and a would-be heart surgeon?: Facebook

Let me tell you a story.

Jermaine, a young footballer in a Premier League youth team, meets Shanelle, a hairdresser, at a nightclub in Essex on a Friday night. Jermaine, who is temporarily out of the team because of injury, buys her a bottle of champagne and gives her some cocaine. They dance, they have a few more drinks in the VIP area, he takes her home.

Back at his place things begin to unravel. They’ve both had too much to drink and they’ve both done too much coke. Shanelle thinks it would be a laugh to call up Jermaine’s manager and Skype him. Jermaine knows that would be curtains for his career if he’s seen in that state, so he tries to stop her. She doesn’t read the signals and Jermaine, desperate to prevent her doing something that might ruin his career, grabs the nearest object - a bread knife from her kitchen counter.

Shanelle, still high and still thinking they’re having a laugh, taunts him with the laptop, threatening to start the Skype call, and Jermaine loses his temper. He punches her, then slashes at her with the knife. Still she doesn’t get the message. He stabs her in the leg with a knife. He snatches the laptop and throws it at her. He chucks a glass at her, then a jam jar.

It all ends badly. Police are called. They arrest Jermaine and he’s charged with unlawful wounding. As a footballer with a bright future – he’s been on the bench a few times and is on the verge of the first team - his picture is splashed all over the newspapers, along with all the gory details of the charges against him. “Drug Shame Of Premier League Star” reads one headline. “Footballer Arrested After Frenzied Attack On WAG” reads another.

When the case comes to court, the prosecution makes much of Jermaine’s background, growing up on a council estate in Harlesden, and leaving the local comprehensive school at 16 with no qualifications. The prosecutor brings up the estate’s reputation for gang violence and cites statistics for street crime in the area, even though Jermaine has never been arrested or even questioned by police before now.

Jermaine’s defence barrister tries to explain that the incident was a one-off moment of madness. He is a future football superstar, says the barrister; a young man of impeccable character and “extraordinary” talent. He has had a “very troubled life” and an abusive background, hence his drug habit. But he is an example of how a young black man from the wrong side of the tracks can make something of his life through hard work and dedication, and become a role model for others.

His football club supplies glowing testimonials. Reports from psychiatrists recommend not sending him to prison. A team-mate tells the court of Jermaine’s exceptional football skills, saying: “He might play for England – he’s that good.” His barrister says that if he receives a custodial sentence his lifelong dream of playing football at the highest level will be “almost impossible” to achieve.

To jail such a promising prospect, says his barrister, would be unfair on a young man making something of himself and send the wrong message to society. It would also be counterproductive, he says, because sentencing is intended to protect society and help to rehabilitate offenders. His plea for compassion falls on deaf ears. The judge has no mercy: Jermaine is sent to prison for five years.

The papers revel in his shame. Editorials are written, saying his club must set an example by firing him for assaulting a woman. He will never play for England. His dream is dead.

This story is not true. But the bones of it are.

Imagine that Jermaine was not a young black footballer from a troubled background but a pretty young white medical student from a privileged background, who was educated at a £16,000-a-year private school. Imagine that she was called Lavinia, with a previous boyfriend called Inigo, and that her seat of learning was not the training ground of a Premier League football club but Christ College, Oxford, and that her ambition was not to become a footballer but a heart surgeon.

Imagine that she found her date – a Cambridge PhD student - on the dating app Tinder, took him home and, high on drink and drugs, lost her temper when he threatened to Skype her mother. Imagine that, just like the imaginary Jermaine, she picked up a bread knife and slashed at him with it, then stabbed him in the leg, threw a laptop, a glass and a jam jar at him.

Because she did.

Now imagine that, after Lavinia Woodward is charged with unlawful wounding and brought to court, her barrister tells the court how her college is going to allow her back to complete her studies in October “because she is that bright” and has had articles published in medical journals.

And imagine that the judge listens to the evidence, including heartbreaking accounts of her “very troubled life” and an abusive ex, and concludes thus: “It seems to me that if this was a one-off, a complete one-off, to prevent this extraordinarily able young lady from following her long-held desire to enter the profession she wishes to would be a sentence which would be too severe. What you did will never, I know, leave you but it was pretty awful, and normally it would attract a custodial sentence, whether it is immediate or suspended.”

Because he did.

It was not just Judge Pringle’s language that was interesting; it was the reporting. Lavinia “suffers from drug addiction,” said The Times whereas Jermaine, had he existed, would almost certainly have been “addicted to drugs” – making his habit his own fault rather than Lavinia’s sounding like an unfortunate illness. She has now been “given time to conquer her drug habit” while he, one suspects, would not have had that opportunity: he would simply have been locked up and left to go cold turkey inside.

A “source” (unnamed, naturally) told the Daily Telegraph that Lavinia’s ambition is to cure heart disease - something that reminded me of those beauty queens who announce that theirs is “world peace” - and that she had come top in pre-clinical tests. A different unnamed source told The Sun: “She might win a Nobel Prize – she is that intelligent.”

The Sun emphasised Lavinia’s braininess by illustrating the story with a photo of her in a revealing swimsuit (and rubber gloves), cleaning a boat.

Judge Pringle, understandably anxious not to deny Lavinia that trip to Oslo, or perhaps himself the potential to avoid a coronary arrest, issued a restraining order, ordering her to stay drug-free and not to re-offend. She responded by boarding a plane for Barbados, according to press reports.

I’m not going to go on about how Lavinia should be in prison rather than on a beach in Barbados. My question is not about whether or not she should be jailed for her crime, just whether that decision should be influenced by the fact that she’s a pretty, privileged, privately educated, white would-be heart surgeon at one of the world’s most famous seats of learning.

Until we reach a time where Jermaine the imaginary footballer gets judged in exactly the same way as Lavinia, we still have work to do on that Great Meritocracy we keep hearing so much about.

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