Whilst recently watching the ITV drama Des, based on the serial killer Dennis Nilsen, I was shocked to learn that institutional homophobia was perhaps the reason that Nilsen’s crimes were hidden for so long. Although a very different case, I saw similar themes emerging within Chris Wilson’s BBC Two documentary series The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story, which reported on the horrific crimes of notorious serial killer Harold Shipman.
Shipman was a family GP who killed of a large number of his patients over several decades – after the biggest murder trial in British history, in January 2000 he was convicted of the murders of 15 people, yet it is thought that there were approximately 250 victims over his long career. It is believed that Shipman would visit his patients at their houses and inject them with a lethal dose of diamorphine, before certifying their deaths as natural causes. But as well as recounting the events of the famous case, Wilson’s hypothesis – backed up by various experts – is that it was the profiles of the victims, primarily elderly women, that made it easier for Shipman’s murders to go undetected for so many years.
Despite allegations of malpractice from a fellow GP and a brief investigation from Greater Manchester Police, it was only when the daughter of the recently deceased Kathleen Grundy reported her will (which left all money to Shipman) as suspicious, that a case against the doctor was formed. Within weeks, the police were investigating over 100 deaths in relation to Shipman, much to the disbelief of the town of Hyde where he worked. As a trusted GP, Shipman was effectively above the law, and the ages of the victims made it easier for him to get away with these callous acts, as their deaths were not seen as particularly suspicious, even by their families – ‘old age’ itself tends to be treated as a deadly disease. But there is also much to say about the way in which these murders were reported in the media; the emphasis was on the vast quantity of deaths rather than the individual cases, and there was an assumption that Shipman’s victims were weak and frail, despite many being perfectly healthy.
In terms of the series itself, I feel that three one-hour episodes was arguably too long a running time, and some parts did feel repetitious, but as someone who wasn’t familiar with the finer details of the Shipman case, I was gripped from beginning to end. Rather than Shipman himself, the documentary puts his victims at the heart of the story, and the interviews with their families and friends are the parts I found most compelling to watch. Towards the end of the series, the focus begins to shift from the Shipman case to a broader discussion about the way in which we view and treat our older population, and this is the aspect I found most interesting of all.
Shipman’s victims, just like the victims of Dennis Nielsen, were failed – not just by the cruelty of their deaths but by the prejudices of their society; prejudices against vulnerable groups that allowed these serial killers to go unnoticed for so many years. Furthermore, the documentary argues that, although we have learnt from the Shipman case, societal attitudes towards the elderly haven’t changed – and this is evidenced in the way in which the older generation have been treated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the elderly making up the majority of UK COVID-19 deaths, care homes appear to have been neglected by the government and the media has implied that deaths of the older generation are somehow less of a tragedy. Shipman’s killings were described in the series as a ‘silent massacre’, and although these are very different circumstances, it appears we once again find ourselves in a situation where victims remain faceless and invisible.
The recently appointed UK trade advisor Tony Abbott said last month, to my horror, that the government needs to ‘assess (the) value of life’ of elderly coronavirus patients. Perhaps Chris Wilson is right in his suggestion that, sadly, society does not view all its citizens equally, both in life and in death.
– Erin Zammitt
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