The Considered Judgement of Joan Smith on the Milly Dowler Murder Trial

Joan Smith, not to be confused with the dead Labour leader John Smith, is an occasional columnist for The Independent. Her personal website,, hints at a self-deprecating tendency; she’s consciously subverting that stereotype of a ditzy fem with haystack hair who doesn’t know her arse from a shallow grave in the woods. But this is a disastrous miscalculation, because Joan Smith is an imbecile and today she left us without a reasonable doubt.

Her Sunday column tackled the incendiary question of whether Jeffrey Samuels QC, was right to interrogate the father of Milly Dowler with the zeal of a defence barrister…which he is. Samuels, obliged to provide the best defence for Levi Bellfield possible, went to town on the murdered girl’s family, just as his sadistic client had instructed.

Bellfield, already serving two life sentences for murder, might have concluded that there was nothing to gain in denying the charge that he’d abducted, killed and dumped Dowler in woodland, leaving her to the elements. He’d never be released after all, and the circumstantial evidence against him, that he’d lived 50 yards from where she was last seen alive, that he turned his mobile off on that particular day, that he disposed of his mattress and bedding and that his car, never found but glimpsed on CCTV a few hundred yards from where Milly was last seen, notably weighed down at the back, suggested his guilt so strongly that forcing an already bereaved family to relive it all and face questions about their parenting skills and personal morality, would compound the cruelty he’d already shown. He might have thought that but he didn’t and subsequently the Dowler family found themselves as the unlikely key plank of their daughter’s killer’s defence.

That defence centred on the sexual behaviour of Bob Dowler. Milly’s Dad liked pornography you see. This was 2002 so not everyone consumed it online back then, some employed old school methods like stockpiling fetish magazines, keeping a bondage kit in the loft and occasionally, when the mood might take them, stopping at a service station to thumb through the latest issue of Latex Wives, before going home to what passes for normal family life in this deeply hypocritical society of ours.

It was Bob Dowler’s initial misfortune to do the latter on the day his daughter was snatched and killed. Murder detectives are trained to look closely at a victim’s family. This isn’t because they’re cynical bastards, it’s because statistical evidence tells us that it’s the people you know that are most likely to kill you. That’s right, contrary to your Crimewatch fuelled fantasies, few are just offed on a whim by strangers. That this can happen, rare though it is, was the Dowler family’s tragedy.

When the Surrey force’s finest, or something like it, asked Mr Dowler where we was during the time his daughter vanished, he was shamed into lying about his whereabouts. That understandable knee jerk reaction, informed by those sympathetic to Joan Smith’s worldview, briefly made him a suspect. When police uncovered further evidence about his taste for sadomasochistic intercourse and the, with hindsight, uncomfortable revelation that Milly had discovered the magazines earlier in the year, causing some upset, it became a legitimate line of inquiry for the plods.

Bellfield’s defence team used this plus notes from the dead girl confessing to some small measure of personal insecurity and the odd dark mood, somewhat uncharacteristically for a teenage girl, and conflated it all into a noxious counterfactual; after all, it was the only sliver of doubt they could present to a jury. Milly, distressed by her Dad’s preference for a gag in his mouth and a knee in his crotch, had bolted. Thereafter she came to some unknowable misfortune. Bob Dowler had created the circumstances of his daughter’s death.

Joan Smith, taking great pains to express sympathy for the family, which I’m sure will be a huge comfort to them, argued that Bob Dowler’s sexual tastes made him a legitimate target for the defence. Technically, given the evidence, she’s correct and had she left it at that all would be well. Of course, Samuels had to use this material, his client’s not guilty plea left him with no choice. The prosecution’s case was compelling, overwhelming. His job was to do the best he could and it’s all he had.

You may hate that, it might leave a bitter taste in your gullet, but it’s a fundamental principle of the judicial system and if you were on trial for murder, you’d demand no less. Evidence must be tested and it must be tested aggressively, because a charge of murder is rather serious.

Smith, however, didn’t leave it at that. Her politics wouldn’t allow it. She saw something rotten in Bob Dowler’s no longer private life and she wasn’t going to let something as trivial as the murder of his daughter put a stop on self-righteousness and making a leap of Richard Littlecock proportions.

Littlecock, a hero to Daily Mail readers, has a trademark tick that separates him from more moderate hacks. He starts with an observation about something, a reasonable proposition, and just when you might be inclined to agree with him, takes a leap into the maelstrom of right wing madness – the politics of intolerance and hate, from which there’s no return.

Immigration, he’ll say, is putting pressure on national infrastructure. Well Richard, that might be true, tell us more, ‘so,’ he’ll continue, ‘we should only let in 200 people a year and deport half of those already here.’ Ah, and there’s the leap.

Joan Smith, the political blonde, who was doing so well and striving for a considered assessment of the defence strategy, finally snapped when her fear of Bob Dowler’s sexuality became too much.

“Even if Milly hadn’t disappeared,” she wrote, “it is hard to see why possession of such material by the father of two teenage daughters should ever be treated as an entirely private matter.”

What? Under any circumstances, Joan? That’s a bit of a sweeping judgement isn’t it? Would it have been better if he’d had sons? They’re less vulnerable aren’t they? Oh, and it’s entirely legal. Still, sorry, you were saying?

“Looking at extreme pornography and acquiring restraints for use during sex are worrying behaviours, and it isn’t hard to imagine circumstances – a custody battle for example – in which they might be interpreted as potentially abusive.”

That’s true, if a legal team were trying to make mischief, as Smith was now doing, they could appeal to the prejudices, and indeed latent hypocrisy of most judges and jurors by wilfully conflating a private sexual fantasy and parenting skills, inferring that anyone who liked to dress in latex and be whipped was causing his children harm, irrespective of how he’d brought them up and the efforts he made to keep it in the bedroom.

“Indeed,” she continued, righteous ire building to body bursting proportions, “what is so extraordinary [my italics] about the outpouring of sympathy for Bob Dowler [the father of a murdered 13 year old] is that so many commentators have been willing to overlook what this might imply [again, my italics] about his feelings toward women, while rightly denouncing Bellfield’s misogyny in the strongest possible terms”.

Not so extraordinary Joan, you see many commentators took the view that Bob Dowler hadn’t committed a crime, that he was in fact, a victim of crime, as his daughter had been abducted, likely raped, murdered and left to rot in a wood, and that subsequently, his fondness for porn wasn’t strictly relevant.

In fact, one could argue, and I hope Joan wouldn’t consider this to be vomit from the mouth of patriarchy, that contrary to her contention, what Bob Dowler did in his own time was entirely a private matter. That’s right, absolutely none of our fucking business. You see Joan, if the Dowlers are an unhappy family now, that’s got a little something to do with Milly Dowler’s murder, not Bob Dowler’s back issues of Cockring.

Joan, whose blonde hair must have had extra shine as she typed those words, lives in a strange parallel world in which people cease to have unusual or extreme sexual desires because they have children. Perhaps in Joan’s household growing up, she imagined that parents, because they were parents, were inherently conservative in the bedroom. Being tied to a bed, having your willy wrapped in sandpaper or your balls bitten, that was something that deviants and hedonists alone enjoyed, not respectable lower-middle-class families who settled down to have kids.

This la la land of the imagination aside, it’s appalling that Bob Dowler should be judged by anyone, least of all a chattering class prig like Smith. Did she imagine that poor Milly was forced to watch her Father have his scrotum dipped in wax, or listen as her Mother consensually slid a mousetrap under his glans, asking the question, ‘does Mr Mouse want to go for the cheese?’

Dowler, it’s clear, kept his taste for BDSM private. Milly was upset because she was surprised when making the chance discovery of some stashed magazines. She was surprised because it had been hitherto hidden from her and her sister Gemma. Oddly enough, it wasn’t something Bob Dowler made a show of. Everything he did was legal and discreet.

The implication that his taste constituted “worrying behaviours” and that consequently he was a bad Dad, exposing his kids to potential harm, seems especially cruel in light of what subsequently happened. Still, that’s not the worst of it. By conflating his taste in sex with deep-seeded misogyny, Smith consciously and deliberately placed the murdered girl’s father on the same spectrum of deviance as the man who’d killed his daughter.

Of course, there are many gradations between porno mag and rape, fetish mask and murder, but how could we all judge Bellfield, a serial rapist and murderer of women in isolation, while ignoring the gateway deviance indulged by Bob Dowler? Sure, all the evidence suggests that Milly and Gemma were happy kids with two loving parents, but can we really take that on face value now we know that Bob endorsed the objectification of women for the purposes of arousal? Like Joan says, if his daughter hadn’t been murdered, it would have been necessary to call social services and have her removed from the family.

So pity poor Bob Dowler. Not because his daughter was killed you understand, I’m sure he’s sick to the back teeth of being on the receiving end of our cloying sympathy; no, pity him for falling victim to a thoughtless hack who imagined she had something to add to his distress.

Joan, though already an expert on male sexuality, may need some additional information on a few points so I’m going to write to her. I’m going to point out that sexuality is complicated. It’s possible you see, for a man to hold more than one idea about sex in his head simultaneously. No, really. Sometimes we refer to these different spheres of interest as reality and fantasy. I hear that women do that too, though that might just be feminist propaganda.

What counts, I’ll suggest, is how Bob Dowler treats the real women in his life – his wife and surviving daughter. I’ll put it to Joan that having an outlet for his fantasies, complexed fantasies that clearly centre on being dominated, in contrast to Bellfield’s hatred for and desire to brutalise women, was harmless. Women also consume this material of course. In Smith’s mind, they must loathe their own sex. I mean, I know Freud thought sexuality was complicated and rooted in all sorts of childhood antecedents but it isn’t, is it? Sexuality is simple. We’re lucky to have experts like Joan Smith out there to remind us of this fact.

I’ll finish my letter to Joan by making the most important point of all; Dowler’s sexuality was based on the principle of consent. He enjoyed what he enjoyed without feeling the need to hurt anyone else. Pornography may be harmful to society as a whole – yeah, thought I’d toss that in there as a bone to delicate readers, but that’s a different argument and it doesn’t make Bob Dowler a bad Father. To draw any sort of moral equivalence between the poor man and Levi Bellfield, who drugged, raped and murdered women, is morally reprehensible and shows the same lack of consideration for him and his family as Bellfield did when he made his not guilty plea. You like that Joan? That was a Littlecock leap. I’ve just said you and Levi Bellfield are the same. You see how easy it is? Hurtful I’m sure you’ll agree…and he hasn’t even murdered your daughter!

Ah fuck it, maybe I’ll save a stamp and just blog all of that instead.

One Comment

  1. I met the Dowlers and even had a very very nervous Gemma stay at my house one night. The family was ripped apart by murder. I met Bob – had no idea of his sexual preferences and quite frankly now I know – I don’t care! He was a loving dad who was ripped apart. Hr and Sally stayed together – a true showing of love in a couple and believe me there is love there – a lot of it.
    Your blog was wonderful – and said what needed to be said

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