Ian Brady’s lack of remorse for Moors Murders guaranteed the media’s enduring fascination

Ian Brady in police custody in 1965. PA Wire/PA Images

The death of Ian Brady – the Moors Murderer – who with his partner Myra Hindley abducted, sexually violated and murdered five children, Pauline Reade, John Kilbride, Keith Bennett, Lesley Anne Downey and Edward Evans in the 1960s, in and around Manchester, has died at the age of 79.

Brady and Hindley were arrested in 1965 after her brother-in-law David Smith phoned the police, having witnessed the murder of Evans at their home in Wardle Brook Avenue, Hattersley. They had also taped the sexual torture of ten-year-old Lesley Anne Downey at this house. In 1987, Manchester Council having unsuccessfully tried to let the property, demolished it.

After their arrests both spent the rest of their lives in custody. The pictures of them taken at the time of their arrest were reproduced on a large scale. A picture of Hindley, with her dyed blonde hair that was part of a tribute to Brady’s obsession with Nazi atrocities, became an iconic image that still had the power to shock some 30 years after the murders. The case has long been a stable feature of the British news media.

Battling the system

Following his conviction at Chester Assizes in 1966, Brady was sentenced to life in imprisonment on May 6, 1966. As part of our research, we have examined TV and news reports of the trial as well as subsequent media coverage of the crimes. In this work, we found no evidence that Brady or Hindley’s mental health was an issue at the time of the trial itself. No defence of diminished responsibility was put before the court. Brady was examined by psychiatrists following his conviction and there was no diagnosis of mental illness. We found no evidence that Hindley – who died in 2002 – was ever considered for transfer to a forensic mental health institution during the time that she was in prison.

Given the nature of his crimes, there was the constant possibility that Brady would be violently assaulted by other prisoners. As a result, he spent long periods in isolation for his own protection and was moved from one maximum security prison to another. Brady spent 20 years in prison before being transferred to Ashworth Special Hospital in 1985 under the Mental Health Act. There were concerns about his mental health then as he was experiencing auditory hallunicantions and had become emaciated.

Brady went on hunger strike in 1999 as a protest against his treatment at Ashworth. He remained on hunger strike until his death, but he was being force fed – something the authorities are allowed to do with people detained under the Mental Health Act. He also had the right to appeal to a tribunal and did so on the grounds that he was not mentally ill and he should be allowed to return to prison to die.

A Mental Health Review Tribunal took place in Manchester in 2013. Such hearings usually take place in private due to the sensitive and personal information about the patient’s mental health and treatment that is discussed. Only one previous tribunal had been held in public. Brady’s lawyers argued in a lengthy case that his tribunal should also be public, and won.

Brady appearing at the Manchester tribunal in 2013. Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire

Brady appeared via a television link from Ashworth and members of the public were able to queue for tickets to attend the hearings. A report in the Daily Telegraph captured best the way Brady’s evidence became a theatrical event: “The camera relaying the hearing to the public and media panned round and there he was, only too real in his dark glasses, grey hair swept back fully recognisable as that youthful serial killer of another age.”

Much of the reporting at the time gave the clear impression that the tribunal might provide a final opportunity for Brady to reveal the whereabouts of 12-year-old Keith Bennett’s body. Brady had always refused to do this. The hearing was, rather, one final attempt by Brady to obtain a victory over the authorities. In the end, the tribunal ruled that he still met the criteria for detention under the Mental Health Act and should not be transferred back to the prison system.

Struggle to comprehend

Brady made no real attempt to explain his actions and never showed any remorse. He never sought to be released and refused to cooperate with any form of treatment programme.

In his evidence at the 2013 tribunal, Brady described himself as a “petty criminal” in comparison to “global serial killers and thieves like Blair or Bush”.

Despite the intervening 50 years and thousands of words written about the case, the murders are still conceptualised as pure evil – beyond belief, to quote the title of Emlyn Williams’ book on the topic. Modern day serial killer dramas such as Criminal Minds place profiling and explanations of the hows, whys and motivation of serial killers at the centre of the drama. This offers a logical explanation for events and provide closure for the audience.

There is no explanation or closure in the case of the Moors Murders. Greater Manchester Police confirmed that the case would remain open after Brady’s death as the body of Bennett is still missing.

Brady never showed any remorse for his crimes. Winnie Johnson, Bennett’s mother, spent the rest of her life attempting to find her son’s body. She wrote to Brady asking him for information. At various times, Brady hinted that he would reveal the whereabouts of his missing victim, using this information as a pawn in his power struggles with authorities. Police were reportedly trying to find out this information right up to the end.

Such an act might have indicated that even Brady was capable of some final contrition. But this turned out to be a forlorn hope. So we are left struggling to comprehend how someone could commit such acts and this is reflected in the media responses to his death. The monstrous and evil imagery takes centre stage and emphasises the way in which this case remains a template for the reporting of serial killing

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