Jon Venables and the myth of public hysteria

It was not ‘the mob’ that turned James Bulger’s killer into a symbol of evil and moral decay – it was the decadent political elite and media.

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.

And yet, the political elite used the Bulger killing as an opportunity finally to erode the legal distinction between adults and children. In November 1997 the New Labour government (not the mob) published the tellingly titled, post-Bulger White Paper No More Excuses: A New Approach to Tackling Youth Crime in England and Wales, which proposed abolishing doli incapax. It was finally abolished in the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998. Where most European countries have an age of criminal responsibility of 14, 16 or even 18, Britain treats children as young as 10 as being capable of the most serious of crimes. The rewiring of British law on the back of the Bulger murder spoke to an elite which not only irrationally fears children but which also can no longer see what is special about being an adult, a grown-up, morally reasoned being. The authorities’ bizarre behaviour post-Bulger both criminalised children and denigrated adulthood.

The second hysterical decision was taken by the judge in the Bulger trial, Mr Justice Morland, who gave the go-ahead for the publication of Venables and Thompson’s names and photographs. Normally children are kept anonymous in legal proceedings. But upon finding them guilty, Morland said that, because this was a ‘special case’ which had infuriated the public, the boys’ identities should be made available. He described what they had done as ‘an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity’. So not only were children capable of committing adult crimes, they were capable of committing the worst crimes of all time, ever. The tabloids, far from single-handedly creating a post-Bulger moral panic, took their cue from Justice Morland: his ‘evil and barbarity’ tag was splashed across the front pages next to photos of the boys, and was taken to its less polite but entirely logical conclusion in the Daily Star: ‘How do you feel now, you little bastards?’

Politicians relentlessly exploited the Bulger killing. For Tony Blair, then shadow home secretary, it was a perfect symbol of the moral decay of the Tory years. In a statement every bit as expertly spun as his later ‘People’s Princess’ spiel, he said the killing of James Bulger was a ‘hammer blow struck against the sleeping conscience of the country, urging us to wake up and look unflinchingly at what we see’. The respectable media lapped it up: the Independent ran with the headline ‘The hammer blow to our conscience’ while The Economist called on Britain to ‘examine the dark corners of its soul’. Even the tabloids’ more bizarre behaviour was inspired by elite hysteria rather than mob pressure. The Sun’s public burning of copies of the horror film Child’s Play 3 sprang from Justice Morland’s throwaway remark that, ‘I suspect that exposure to violent video films may in part be an explanation [for the Bulger murder]’. There’s still no evidence that Venables and Thompson ever watched Child’s Play 3. The powers-that-be had simply bought into a crazy rumour.

To the extent that there were expressions of public anger over Venables and Thompson – most notably the throwing of stones at the vans that carried them to court – should we really be surprised? These boys were painted by the authorities as monsters, symbolic of everything from the collapse of family values to the rise of a feral underclass. When the elite rewrites the law to say there should be ‘no more excuses’ for child criminals, puts two 11-year-olds in raised chairs so that they can be convicted of murder, and describes their behaviour as being unparalleled in its wickedness, it’s not really surprising that some people might fear these boys and other, potentially warped children lurking in our communities.

In more recent years, commentators and politicians have looked back on the post-Bulger climate of hysteria with shame. Yet instead of analysing who was responsible for the transformation of a bizarre killing into a symbol of free-floating evil, and what that revealed about the disarray and instability of the political sphere in early-Nineties Britain, and what terrible consequences it had for law, justice and political debate, they shift the blame on to the tabloid-reading mob, who are held responsible for endangering Venables and Thompson and for ruining our chances of having a reasoned debate about crime and justice. Where Venables and Thompson’s actions were initially politicised in order to demonise the out-of-control ‘underclass’, now the question of Venables and Thompson’s safety is politicised in order to demonise the alleged lynch mob that lurks in everyday, working-class Britain. The authorities turned Venables and Thompson into monsters in order to make a point about feral children, and now they’ve turned them into potential victims in order to send a message about the irrational lower orders. Politics doesn’t get lower than this.

The most striking thing about the events of recent days is that where the 11-year-old Venables was treated as if he were an adult, today the 27-year-old Venables is treated as if he were a child. At 11 he was madly tried in an adult court for an adult crime and his image was published for all to see. At 27 his alleged offence and identity are kept secret and the political class promises to protect him at all costs from the allegedly baying mob. It is not surprising that Denise Fergus, who watched her son’s killers being tried as ‘evil and barbarous’ adults, should now be angry that one of them is protected like a child. Both the elite’s original treatment of Venables as an adult and its current treatment of him as a child is about politics more than anything else, and speaks volumes about its contemptuous view of the public.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Jennie Bristow wrote about the neverending Bulger case in 2001. In light of Jade Goody’s terminal cancer diagnosis, Brendan O’Neill looked at the myth of public hysteria. Tim Black noted that revealing the identities of Baby P’s killers provided an opportunity for ‘underclass’ baiting. Mick Hume looked at our obsession with these anti-human horror stories. Barbara Hewson argued that just because something interests the public, it doesn’t mean it’s in the public interest to publish it. Or read more at spiked issue: Crime and the law.

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