Tabloid feeding frenzy over Venables

The past few days have seen one ghoulish story about Jon Venables (or the person formerly known as such), one of the two boys who murdered a toddler, James Bulger, on Merseyside in February 1993. The latest one concerns the weight he’s allegedly piled on by gorging on snack foods in his supposedly luxurious secure prison cell; previously, he’s supposed to have bragged (according to “sources” from his luxury prison) that the sentence was “a result” and that he’d be out in two years. They also claimed that he was housed in Cheshire, supposedly near to the place where he committed the murder (actually, the nearest parts of Cheshire to Bootle are miles away from there).

As for the “sources”, it should be remembered that such people often don’t exist; a point Hugh Grant made after he won a libel suit against the Daily Mail for printing material about his personal life “sourced” from “such people”. With the likes of Jon Venables, however, anything goes. The press (particularly the tabloids) have been lobbying to get Venables’ new identity released to them (as well as his accomplice’s). What on earth would be the point of them publishing it, if not to allow every self-righteous vigilante take a pop at him? The tabloids have rejoiced in such murders in the past, printing a “helpful diagram” showing how to hang oneself in a prison cell after Harold Shipman did so and calling on Myra Hindley to commit suicide (I think that was “The People”, which said that it was the one honourable act she could perform). It is actually grossly irresponsible to promote the idea that someone should be killed, or not protected from being killed, or should kill themselves — attacks on much-reviled prisoners by self-righteous jailbirds are a known problem. Donna Anthony, one of the victims of Roy Meadows’ ill-conceived campaign against “baby-killing mothers” who turned out to be innocent and convicted on the basis of spurious amateur statistics, said that other prisoners referred to her as BKB (baby killing bitch) and attacked her while she was in jail.

They seem to forget that this guy committed that crime when he was ten. He was a child, by anyone’s definition, and in many countries he would not have been held responsible and certainly not tried in a court. Yet the reaction I heard on the radio and in the media was shocking — one woman I heard on a London phone-in suggested that the two boys be kept in prison until they are 18 “and then they ought to bring back the death penalty”. The host, to his credit, asked if she would administer the lethal injection if that was the method used. The woman replied, “well I think most people would”, and the host responded, “no, I think they would inject you” and terminated the call.

There seems to be this perception that Venables and Thompson are still public property, that the public has the right to know their every move. In fact, that they committed the act when they were ten, rather than fifteen or twenty, seems to indicate that they really are evil — after all, how could a child do that? — rather than that they were disturbed and without guidance (Blake Morrison’s article in today’s Guardian, which contains explicit details (trigger warning), gives some details of Venables’ backgound) and that a 10-year-old’s judgement is not as developed as an adult’s. The persistent wheeling-out of James Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus (and, curiously, no other member of his family), is also irritating; she presumes, with their encouragement, that she has somehow been wronged in not being told every detail about his history, including where he lives and his present appearance and name. What seems to be missing from this discourse (but the tabloids obviously know) is that nobody is told who cannot be trusted.

Doesn’t anyone understand that the rule of law means that they can’t know the whereabouts of everyone they think an undesirable? Venables has been supervised the whole time he has been out; if they had any inkling that he was a threat to anyone, he would have been recalled to prison much earlier (and no, not everyone who does drugs is a threat to society). If the press were allowed to tell the world where these men are, it would be a step towards lynch law. It’s bad enough that the government cave into tabloid power so much; that the judges don’t (at least, not always) is something we should be glad of.

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