Issue 249 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
When Jon Venables and Robert Thompson killed Jamie Bulger, the general reaction was one of horror and bewilderment. Here was a tragedy within a tragedy. An infant brutally killed not by some 'evil paedophile' who could easily be demonised, but by two children not yet of secondary school age. What could possibly lead those so young to this terrible act? What sort of lives had they lived? What could the future possibly hold for them?
For the Bulger family, of course, there was no hope as their child's life had been taken. But should that mean that two more children should have their lives destroyed as well?
At the time I don't recall many people thinking so. There was, of course, family anger, and an unsavoury mob of adults decided it was acceptable to throw things at the police van that was taking the two children to court. One or two tabloids snarled unpleasantly, as one would expect, but there was not a generalised witch-hunt against the two. Even some of the police officers who arrested and interviewed them were said to be traumatised by trying to deal with two uncomprehending, terrified children who cried pitifully for their parents, as any child their age would.
Much was written at the time about Mary Bell, who had similarly been a child who murdered children. Thanks to court protection she was living, it was said, a normal life. She had had a child and was clearly no longer a threat to anyone.
Yet as time has passed the way the children in this case have been treated by the outside world could not have been more different to the young Mary Bell. In the relentless tabloid obsession with these two children Bell herself became a victim, exposed to the world before she even had time to tell her daughter of her past.
So the press hound these two young men. It is almost as if the tabloids are growing concerned that their favourite 'evil criminal', Myra Hindley, is growing old, is not in good health and will not be around long enough to allow them to sell papers.
The families of Venables and Thompson have been terrorised and forced more than once to flee, desperately seeking the anonymity they feel they need. Yet it is precisely this anonymity that the press seeks to destroy for all concerned. The campaign has been unrelenting. An ex-cop called Norman Brennan has become the designated spokesperson for the Bulger family. Showing none of the compassion that those cops involved in the case are said to have shown, he demands more and more retribution. Lock them up longer, send them to adult prisons and never let them out, he yells, citing the unfortunate Mrs Bulger as his authority.
One cannot blame Mrs Bulger--her grief must be enormous--but to listen to hang 'em and flog 'em ex-cops use the case to justify their own brand of nasty and vengeful politics is low. To use it against two people who were such young children at the time of the offence is beneath contempt. Meanwhile tabloid editors dress up the persecution of two young people as 'defence of press freedom'.
The truth is, though, that as long as Thompson and Venables want me to know nothing of their life I have no interest or right to know it. I am not electing them to anything, I have no great desire to meet them, and they will almost certainly have no point of connection with me at any stage of our lives. So why should I want to know and what possible freedom is being curbed?
If last year's midsummer anti-paedophile madness tells us anything, it is that the only people who would want to know are lynch mobs and people hell-bent on ill thought out revenge. Some tabloid editors claimed they wanted access to the identities but didn't think they would ever use them. Neil Wallis, editor of the Sunday People, at least admitted that he could see circumstances in which he would publish the identity and whereabouts of the two. He didn't, however, mention the most likely circumstance--falling circulation.
'But we will be responsible,' claimed the tabloid moral guardians. Ask the paediatrician (people thought it was the same as paedophile) attacked in her home because of the atmosphere whipped up last summer by the News of the World how responsible they were.
The strange thing is that while the hysteria gets greater much of the civilised world looks on in bewilderment. For example, in most European countries their treatment would have been very different. These children would never have been publicly identified in the first place, never have attended an adult court, and in some countries they would not have been incarcerated at all. Here, however, even the reported successes of their incarceration have been thrown up by the tabloids as an example of 'a world gone mad'.
One of the main criticisms from those of us who do not believe that 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' is an answer to youth crime is that those going into prison come out better educated in crime but little else.
Apparently, in this case, the two children have received a decent education, one has shown artistic talent and the system has tried to serve them well. This has produced howls of outrage from tabloid editors who apparently want them to come through the system with no education at all, and merely proceed to adult prison in a state of brutalising and brutalised ignorance.
Those who campaign to 'keep them inside', to 'reveal their identities', to deprive them of education, culture and relaxation, can only do so for revenge.
Such revenge wished on the actions of ten year olds can be summed up in two words--child abuse!