On Wednesday a former prison worker and two former policemen were jailed for selling information to the papers, and the information the prison worker passed on concerned one of the murderers of James Bulger, Jon Venables (he is now known by another name, which cannot be revealed to protect his safety). Richard Trunkfield was at that time in debt and had been caring for his mother who had cancer in 2008 and 2009. However, we know the reason the Sun would have wanted this information: because the story sells.
As with Myra Hindley, the press have kept interest in Venables and Thompson going ever since the boys were convicted in November 1993. The tabloids branded the boys “evil freaks” and “freaks of nature”, they campaigned against their release after eight years; they seem always to have amplified everything James Bulger’s mother has to say (which is always very hostile to them, as might be expected) and their coverage is plainly sensationalised and biased. The release of convicted murderers is a political decision — it was the decision of the Home Secretary then — although usually it is routine after someone has served their minimum tariff and there are have been no serious incidents while they have been inside. The release of a high-profile murderer is very political, however, and it is the sort of thing that can send the tabloids into a frenzy. The tabloids kept the Moors Murders very much alive in the public’s memory, even those among the public who had not been born when they happened. One paper even printed an editorial saying that committing suicide was the one decent act that Hindley could perform; papers and radio talk shows carried threats to kill her
But Myra Hindley, the party to those awful crimes who was seeking to be released (she never was) had at least been an adult when she committed the crimes. Venables and Thompson were not even teenagers: they were ten, and in most of Europe, would have been below the age of criminal responsibility. The tabloid-influenced public perception is that if someone is capable of doing that sort of thing at age ten, then they could well do something far worse when they are adult, because adults commit worse crimes than children. However, Thompson and Venables both came from very violent and dysfunctional families and had prior record of anti-social behaviour and cruelty. Kids from loving and stable families do not just go out one day and decide to bash a toddler to death, and eight years in what sounds like a well-run secure home has not led to either of them murdering another child since (and no, downloading pornography is not the same).
We are rather fortunate in this country to have a judiciary that stands against the worst excesses of policy driven by public (or press) sentiment, and a Human Rights Act that enables them to do so. In the USA it really hasn’t, and trying juveniles as adults and sentencing them to life without parole is often justified by “if you commit an adult crime, you should expect an adult penalty”, when of course there is no such thing as an adult crime, only an adult. This does not work the other way round: no good deed or show of maturity by a 15-year-old will earn them the right to vote, drive or consent to or refuse surgery, but they can still be handed a life sentence for a peripheral role in a robbery in which someone was killed. We have not got to that stage in the UK yet — although we have seen a blind boy getting a life sentence for just being there when two others killed someone — but we do have a press which incites a mob sentiment in which someone could easily get killed.
I have personally reported someone to the police for revealing what was alleged to be Robert Thompson’s new identity (the person was foolish enough to reveal his employer and home town to the public on his Facebook profile). I did that because the only reason to reveal his identity is to get him killed. These were not adults or even teenagers but disturbed pre-teen children from violent backgrounds, and it is not rational for people unconnected to the victim’s family to want to kill them twenty years later: it is the product of years of exposure to a sensationalist press. It is the power of this press to motivate the government to interfere in the judicial process that is the clearest reason to keep the Human Rights Act on the statute books, something that perhaps Labour realised when they passed it, much as they may have regretted it later. And it should not only be the prison officer who sold Venables’ details to the Sun who should be behind bars; whoever solicited and paid for them should be as well.
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