Category Archives: Blog

The Sunday Times: How it feels to … come face to face with Alesha MacPhail’s murderer

The evidence was harrowing. Details emerged in court that were so horrendous, I wished I had never heard them. I worried I was failing at my job because when it came to writing the news story, I couldn’t bring myself to repeat them. At times, people in the public gallery watching the trial held their heads in their hands and wept. Only one person seemed unaffected by the horror, and that was the boy in the dock.

It was last July when I first started covering the murder of six-year-old Alesha MacPhail. Her brutalised body had been discovered in woodland on the Scottish island of Bute, a day after she had gone missing from her bed. It seemed impossible that something so savage had taken place somewhere so gentle; on a tiny island where locals leave their doors unlocked and seals flop on mossy rocks by silver waves.

The island was on edge when I arrived. Police were warning locals to “be vigilant and look after each other”, as rumours spread. There was some nasty, unfounded speculation that Syrian refugees who had been relocated to the island might somehow be responsible for the little girl’s death, while others whispered that police had been checking ferry passengers and wondered about strange men from out of town.


Police forensic teams scour the Isle of Bute

It was shocking when we heard that a local 16-year-old boy had been arrested. I went to Greenock Sheriff Court to hear the charges read. When we heard these charges were rape and murder, I felt sick.

I returned seven months later to cover Aaron Campbell’s trial at the High Court in Glasgow. I don’t know what kind of person I expected to see, but it wasn’t the child standing in the dock. A teenage boy dressed in a smart, fashionable, grey check suit — an outfit I would later learn he had worn to his school prom. He had smooth, milky skin and neat black hair, which he occasionally swept back from his face.


The Sunday Times: Island idyll shattered by a teenage murderer hungry for online fame

Bute seems far from the dark side of modern life — but did Aaron Campbell bring video violence to the savage killing of six-year-old Alesha?

Like many young people, Aaron Campbell wanted to be famous online. Growing up on the Isle of Bute, the teenager dreamed of being as popular as PewDiePie, the world’s best-known YouTuber, whose channel has 86m subscribers. Online, Campbell had a plethora of accounts. It is hard not to look at them now in light of the verdict last week that found the 16-year-old guilty of the abduction, rape and murder of six-year-old Alesha MacPhail — crimes the judge overseeing his trial described as “the most evil in the history of the court”.


Alesha MacPhail

The pathologist who examined Alesha found 117 “catastrophic” injuries on her small body, which was found dumped in woodland on the island.

Now much of Campbell’s online footprint feels menacing: he held accounts on the gaming website Twitch, where his profile page shows a disturbing collage of images that include one of a girl with blood falling from her eyes and mouth, and another of someone standing in a wooden area looking down at a grave.

On YouTube, Campbell — whose moniker was Poison3d Appl3 — posted hours of footage showing himself playing dark video games. In one he creeps through the gloomy corridors of a virtual house, as a crackly radio plays a news report about a man shooting his wife, son and six-year-old daughter. In Campbell’s other grim videos, a girl is heard screaming for her mother, and a dying foetus shown squirming in a sink. On Reddit, Campbell posted a video commentary on a horror game he had created.

Watching these clips makes you wonder what impact such violent video games had on his young mind. Could watching such horror repeatedly have left him immune to violence or led him to commit his crime? Yet, Campbell’s intentions do not seem dark. He used his online platforms to get attention. In videos he begs people to follow him, asking them to “please appreciate the video”, emphasising how long he spent creating them.




The Sunday Times: County lines — a new form of modern-day slavery

Inner-city gangs are trafficking children to sell drugs in towns and villages across Britain — a practice known as “county lines”. Why are their victims being criminalised?

I used to worry about his education and what he’d want to be when he grew up. Now I worry he could end up dead.” Sarah looks down at her hands clasped tight on her lap and starts to cry. “I don’t know what it’s like to have a son pass away, but that’s how it feels — that sense of loss.”

Theirs had been a “calm, loving family”. Sarah and her son, James, had always been close. Her family doted on him. “Spoilt rotten,” Sarah says, remembering how “every weekend, without fail, we’d get together as a family for dinner and he’d be doing a little performance”. They had a good life in London. Sarah worked in the City. Sometimes James would join her at her office, playing on the spare computer, legs swinging under the desk. They took holidays at their second home in Spain and did things together every weekend. But when James started secondary school, things changed dramatically.

Well-mannered, bright and popular, it was in sports that James shone. He represented the school in rugby, basketball and football. In hindsight, Sarah wonders if her first warning should have been how out-of-character it was when, one week, James refused to go to practice. He just didn’t feel up to it, he told his mother, who reassured his coaches he would be back next week. Then he refused to go again. “Initially, I thought maybe he was doing too much, with training in the week and matches on weekends. I thought perhaps he needed a break.”

Then James started coming home late. “Really late for a 14-year-old — 8pm, 9pm, then, on a few occasions, after midnight,” says Sarah. He’d make excuses — claim practice had overrun, or he had been with mates. “He was getting older and I assumed it was the usual teenage stuff of wanting to hang out with friends. I got upset with him, but that only seemed to escalate the situation.” James started disappearing overnight, then for weeks at a time, returning dirty, dishevelled and anxious. He refused to say where he’d been. His mother tried “everything”. She grounded him, confiscated his mobile, questioned him: where was he going? Who was he with?

“Nothing worked — he would go out anyway,” says Sarah, explaining that, by then, James’s behaviour had drastically changed. “He would spit in my face and call me names. It’s so hard to expect anyone to imagine it. What I didn’t know then was that normal parental boundaries wouldn’t work, because he was under duress.”

One day when James was 15 he jumped out of a window at their home and disappeared for three months. Frantic, Sarah searched his bedroom, finding a train ticket to Norfolk. Not long afterwards, she heard that James had been spotted at a mainline station. Sarah reported her son missing to the police, but it would be months before she learnt the truth.

James had become a victim of an alarming and underreported form of modern-day slavery affecting British teenagers. Police and local authorities call it “county lines”. It involves young people being recruited by inner-city gangs, put in cars or on trains, and trafficked hundreds of miles away from their home to seaside towns and small villages. Once there, they are given a mobile phone through which to sell drugs, usually crack and heroin. By running these telephone lines in different counties, city gangs have expanded their operations outside the saturated markets into new territories.


Image: GETTY

The Sunday Times: Candice Carty-Williams: my Queenie speaks for a whole other Britain

Queenie opens with a woman sarcastically texting “Wish you were here” to her ex-boyfriend while she lies with her legs in the stirrups for a gynaecological examination. From that moment, the book is a whirlwind of WhatsApp chats, terrible OkCupid dates, maddening millennials, horrendous flat-shares, humiliating trips to the sexual health clinic, friendship, therapy and lots of casual sex. “I put more sex in it but it was cut out,” Queenie’s author, Candice Carty-Williams, laughs.

Queenie — the book’s heroine — is a funny, sensitive, 25-year-old black woman contending with modern life. At turns hilarious and reflective, the book is also an exploration of race, sex and shame among young women. Queenie’s is a rare and urgently needed voice. “I believe that this voice needs to be part of literature,” Carty-Williams says. She’s right.

I meet her at the Penguin Random House office in London, where she works as a publishing executive. The success of her debut novel has turned her overnight into a bright young thing whose name appears on influencers’ Twitter feeds, in Radio 4 debates, and who is No 6 in The Sunday Times hardback bestseller list. Queenie has already been optioned for television. Carty-Williams is writing the pilot.
“I’ve never thought I could be here. When I was growing up I didn’t have any aspirations for myself. I didn’t think I’d amount to anything,” she says.Carty-Williams, who grew up in south London, always loved books. “They were my saviours.” She wanted to study English but her school encouraged her to read media studies instead.

The Sunday Times: Killer Teens: The 14-year-old couple who committed murder — twice

killer teens

The defendants were so young that the court took the unusual decision to refer to them only by their first names: Lucas and Kim. The barristers and judge dispensed with their usual wigs and gowns. The baby-faced killers sat in the secure dock behind Perspex screens, separated by two security guards.

Kim, smooth-faced with fine blonde hair and a slight frame, wore a cardigan and leggings. She showed little emotion during the trial except when the verdict was read and she sobbed. Lucas never looked her way. Soft-mouthed, with sandy hair and a round, stubble-free face, he looked even more childlike than she did. The youngest couple ever convicted of double murder in Britain, they were 14 when they plotted and killed Kim’s mother and little sister.

The evidence was harrowing. Over five days last October, Nottingham Crown Court heard how, that April, Kim had watched as her boyfriend, Lucas, stabbed to death her mother, Elizabeth Edwards, 49, and her 13-year-old sister, Katie, as they slept. How blood splattered the walls and covered the floor and the beds. How they had planned for him to target their voice boxes, so they could not scream out. How Lucas had entered his girlfriend’s mother’s room and, kneeling astride her, pinning her down, held a pillow over her face and stabbed her through the neck. Cut marks that the pathologist found on Elizabeth’s hands showed how she had struggled to defend herself.

Next, Lucas crept into Katie’s room. Kim later told police how she had listened as her sister screamed “Get off me!” in a strange, frightening voice, sounding croaky. And “I can’t …” — but she couldn’t say the word “breathe”. Lucas had cut her vocal cords. Afterwards, Kim and Lucas shared a bath and watched the Twilight films. They were found two days later, when police broke into the house.

In October, Lucas and Kim were ordered to serve a minimum of 20 years in prison each, later reduced to 17½ years. Handing out the sentences, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave said the case had “few parallels in modern criminal history”. “They should lock them up and throw away the key,” said one neighbour from their home town of Spalding.


The Sun: How come chattering classes get praise for airing their problems… but the working classes get only snobbery and derision?

THE decision to end The Jeremy Kyle Show, after the suspected suicide of one of its guests, raises important questions about aftercare on reality TV.

But equally telling is how much criticism of Kyle’s show has revealed a snobbishness about the people who watched and appeared on it.

Tory MP Charles Walker called it “unattractive television”. A columnist at the left-leaning New Statesman magazine described it as curating “a morbidly chaotic picture of a British underclass — for those watching at home to scoff and sneer”.

Over at the self-appointed moral compass of Britain, The Guardian, an editorial complained it preyed on “vulnerable, unhappy people”, turning “a blind eye to mental health problems”.

Guardian writer Zoe Williams had previously claimed: “Jeremy Kyle has created the cultural spectre of this feral underclass, none of whom has the smallest amount of emotional restraint.”

Such bile aimed at a show loved by so many — the final episode, on Friday last week, drew over a million viewers — reveals as much about Kyle as who our commentariat feel has the right to speak, and how they are meant to do it.

I didn’t watch Kyle to sneer. I watched with relief that some people were truly open about the madness of life. What happens to them now?

When I watched Kyle’s show I didn’t see a “feral under-class”. I saw people I know. I saw real life, which is messy, dysfunctional and chaotic, which does not always come out in well-formed sentences, memoirs or documentaries made by people with posh accents for Radio 4.

I didn’t watch Kyle to sneer. I watched with relief that some people were truly open about the madness of life. What happens to them now?



The Sunday Times Magazine: Is veganism the future of food or a cynical marketing fad?


Plumes of pink smoke engulf men holding megaphones and women with purple hair. “Fur trade, torture trade,” they chant, marching down London’s Piccadilly in a blockade, sending pedestrians fleeing. “What do we want? Animal liberation! When do we want it? Now!” Whistles screech, drums bang, placards punch the air. “Fur is worn by repulsive heartless hags”, “Compassion not fashion”, “Your pompom had a face”, read the slogans.

Opposite Fortnum & Mason (where they sell 17 types of foie gras) the protesters stop. Some jeer a passing man, others heckle passengers on a bus. One group surrounds a heavily pregnant woman, Sarah, who is with her five-year-old son. She appears to be wearing a fur bobble hat. Berating her, they wave posters of a skinned rabbit at the child. When I catch up with her, she is shaking and red. “I just want to get back to our car,” she blusters. “I respect the right to protest, to have an opinion. I don’t respect … as ever, there are factions within any movement who are stronger than others and I think we just came up against a rather unattractive side of it.” It is certainly a very different scene to the one I encountered six months ago, when my adventures in veganism began.

vegan 2

At the launch party for the new vegan menu at the Real Greek restaurant chain, women in knee-high boots and boys in biker jackets are dancing to Lionel Richie’s All Night Long. Paparazzi gather outside. Inside, celebrities drink while waiters ferry meat-free canapés: béchamel-less moussaka, beetroot-and-lentil salad, honey-free baklava. Why vegan, I ask the manager, brandishing a tray of filo pastries. “It’s healthier,” he declares. Why vegan, I ask a girl by the crudités. “It’s fashionable to follow a plant-based diet,” she concludes, almost straight-faced.

“It’s amazing, it’s a great change,” says Jo Wood, ex-wife of the Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie. Her Jo Wood Organics range includes vegan beauty products. “When I first went organic in 1991, everyone thought I was potty. With veganism it was the same. Now things have totally changed,” she says, stopping to pose for photographers in a jumper that says “Rock & roll” — and a pair of leather trousers.

There was a time when nothing was less hip than a meat-free diet. In the 1980s it was sad Neil from The Young Ones espousing “vegetable rights”. By the 1990s, when my mother was dabbling, it still meant lentil lasagne and plastic Jesus sandals. The 2010s saw increasing interest in veganism, a stricter kind of vegetarianism that excludes all forms of animal-derived products, including milk and eggs. Now, miraculously, veganism is cool. There are vegan cocktail bars, “plant-based” food festivals, vegan-friendly holidays, restaurants, pubs and club nights. On social media there are plant-based influencers such as Sean O’Callaghan, writing the Fat Gay Vegan blog, and BOSH!, the trendy vegan cookery channel on YouTube that has more than 1.8m Facebook followers.