There is something galling about the cultural elite’s attacks on the British public for allegedly wanting to know more about why Jon Venables has been returned to prison. Because who was it who made Venables, and his fellow killer of James Bulger, Robert Thompson, into a public spectacle in the first place, dragging him into an adult court when he was 11 years old, allowing his name and photograph to be published, and describing him as being possessed of an ‘unparalleled evil and barbarity’? The elite itself, judges, politicians and the media – the same people who now brand the rest of us ‘ghouls who get their kicks by vicariously wallowing in this crime’.
Venables and Thompson were 10 years old when, in February 1993, they led two-year-old James Bulger away from a shopping centre in Liverpool and battered him to death on a railway line. It was horrific, extraordinary, and inexplicable. At 11, they were tried in an adult court and became the youngest people in English criminal history to be convicted of murder. They were detained in a youth offenders’ institution until they turned 18 in 2001, whereupon they were released with new identities and on a life licence, meaning they could be returned to prison at any time if they broke various rules or committed a crime. Venables, now 27, is back in prison, apparently on suspicion of a ‘very serious’ offence.
Politicians and respectable journalists are aghast at what they refer to as the ‘lynch mob’ which is possessed of a ‘rage without reason’ with its perverse desire to ‘know everything about the charges against Venables’. ‘The mob… wants blood’, says one liberal commentator; it wants ‘the right to hunt down Venables’, says another. This mob-baiting is bizarre for two reasons. First, because there is no mob. There are no crowds at the gates of the Ministry of Justice. There are some tabloid articles arguing that we have a ‘right to know’ what Venables is charged with, most of which quote from the Twitter account of Denise Fergus, Bulger’s mother, who, understandably, is still devastated and bitter about what happened to her son and wants to know why one of his killers is back in jail. But Fergus is not a mob, and nor is the clique of posh leader-writers at the red tops. The anti-Venables mob is a figment of the respectable media’s febrile imagination.
The second bizarre thing about the mob-baiting is that, for all the current attempts to rewrite the history of the James Bulger killing and its aftermath, it was never the hot-headed crowd that made Venables and Thompson into symbols of evil – it was the elite. One commentator argues that during and after the Bulger trial, ‘the authorities showed admirable courage in the face of huge emotional pressure to be punitive’, and we must do the same again today. Apparently the authorities were ‘correct, logical and humane’ in their dealings with the Bulger murder, despite the ‘emotional pressure’ from below to hang his killers. This is almost the precise opposite of the truth.
Following the Bulger murder, the elite took leave of its senses. Their first hysterical decision was to try Venables and Thompson in an adult court on charges of murder – a crime which involves not only the act of killing, but also the conscious decision to kill. Prior to the Bulger murder, the official age of criminal responsibility was 10 but it was presumed in British law that children under 14 were doli incapax – ‘incapable of crime’ – on the basis that they could not distinguish right from wrong in the same way an adult can. This was not to say that children are incapable of doing wicked things, but that their actions are fundamentally different from adult crimes. The Bulger trial changed all that. The madness of trying these two boys for murder was captured by the fact that they had to sit in specially raised chairs in order to see the judge in the adult court. According to reports, during his 30-minute confession to the police Venables ‘howled’ in an ‘awful and pathetic’ way, before saying: ‘What about James’s mum? Will you tell her I’m sorry?’ What kind of state puts an individual like that on trial for murder? This was pure medievalism.