The mob, the media and the crime that damaged a nation
Jon Venables is back in prison and the lynch mobs are back in action, with tabloid newspapers leading the charge
THE CCTV footage of a trusting little two-year-old being led out of a shopping centre in Bootle, a bleak Liverpool suburb, hand in hand with one of his killers, has haunted parents since it was first shown in 1993. But for anyone who covered the case later that year against Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the 10-year-olds accused of killing him, there are other memories that refuse to fade.
For this writer, it was the little boys’ legs dangling above the floor, as they sat in the specially raised chairs that allowed them to see over the dock, in a courtroom and an ancient system designed explicitly for adults. Their small bodies, bloated from months of incarceration; the befuddled, darting eyes in the small, pale faces alternating with tired, bored yawns; Venables’ constant tears, shredding tissues, leaning, quivering against his social worker and sending pleading glances towards his mother, Susan, who looked everywhere but at her son; Denise Bulger, the victim’s mother, up in the public gallery, holding hands with her then husband, gazing with impotent hatred at the children who gave her child such an appalling death and imagining their shudders to be “arrogant giggles”; meanwhile, on the streets of Liverpool, people passed on the police leaks in whispers, long before the details were revealed in court, about the batteries that had been rammed into the boy’s anus.
Inside and outside the unremarkable surrounds of Preston courthouse, and in the months leading up to the trial, other scenes of savagery unfolded in different ways. As the huge bank of cellophane-wrapped flowers grew in tribute to the poor, dead toddler, the then prime minister John Major gave an interview to a Sunday paper calling for society to “condemn a little more and understand a little less”. Society duly stepped up. The daily sight and sound of the lynch mobs and the crash of their bottles and stones against the van transporting the boys to “secure accommodation” is another memory that lingers.
The tabloids and the mobs fed off each other. People demanded that the 10-year-olds be hanged while the tabloids urged them on, calling the boys beasts, bastards, brutal, cunning, freaks. For contrast, they gave the two-year-old victim the more child-like name of “Jamie”, a name his mother had never used.
Meanwhile, anyone who cared to listen to evidence about Venables’ and Thompson’s formative years were given a mental picture of rough, tough, feral street kids, the damaged, abused products of families riven with alcoholism, physical abuse, poverty and neglect. We wondered how boys so young could conceive of torturing a little boy or inflicting a battering so extreme that Venables’ lawyer reportedly still suffers from nightmares.
Tried as adults and sentenced to be detained at “Her Majesty’s pleasure”, the juvenile equivalent of life imprisonment, the trial judge said they should serve at least eight years in custody. This was subsequently raised to 10 by the lord chief justice and – after a 300,000-strong petition was handed into the then home secretary Michael Howard by a tabloid paper — given another hike to 15. After a court of appeal judgment – describing Howard’s actions as “institutional vengeance” – and given encouraging reports of their “progress” in custody, the final tariff settled at around eight years, and the pair were released in 2001. Both were given new identities, protected by an anonymity order that is still in force, with worldwide injunctions to maintain the veil of secrecy. Conditions on their life licences included a ban on contacting each other or going near Merseyside.
They were also given continuing help with education, job-seeking and shelter.
The news that after nine years, 27-year-old Jon Venables has been returned to prison must be a body-blow to those who worked to rehabilitate them. He benefited from an intense, exemplary programme of rehabilitation, education and psychological counselling. It led to A-levels in Venables’ case and left them both articulate enough about their emotions and remorseful enough to convince a parole panel to release them from their life sentences. For once, there appeared to be a good news story emerging from unspeakable tragedy. Now, it appears to have ended finally in failure.
Should we be surprised, asked Erwin James, a Guardianwriter with a particular insight as a former lifer himself? “Venables and Thompson were subjected to more public opprobrium than perhaps anyone since Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. Perhaps, therefore, we should be more surprised if, after all they have been through since their arrest and incarceration, they actually succeeded in achieving a totally rehabilitated life . . . After all, they traumatised not just a family but a nation. And in return we traumatised them. For sure, after we made them suffer, we gave them help . . . But even those well-motivated people could never be a real substitute for loving, adoring, security-giving parents . . . [Venables and Thompson] know, and will always know that they carry the brunt of a large section of the nation’s fury and outrage on their pathetic shoulders. They will be aware that across the country, they are considered to be monsters . . . Knowing this, we should never have expected them to live through that without stumbling at least occasionally . . . For this failure, we all must share some of the responsibility . . . ”
Now, amid rabid speculation about the nature of the “extremely serious allegations” against him, as described by the British justice minister Jack Straw, and shrieking tabloid demands that the reasons be disclosed, Jon Venables is once again the centre of attention for vigilante vengeance mobs.
From the Suncame claims that led to what has been described in the Guardianas perhaps the most prejudicial front page in modern times, declaring: “On a scale of 1 to 5, Venables’ child porn rated 4”. The Sun wrote of “experts horrified” at Venables’ computer material, “among the most depraved and serious anyone could possess” and involving “an element of sexual violence against children”. Authorities have refused to confirm the reasons why Venables was returned to custody. Whatever the truth of the matter, in the face of such potentially prejudicial coverage, what are the chances of any such case against him succeeding? It’s hardly any wonder that Denise Bulger, now remarried and a mother of three, urged on by such reports, remains paralysed with hatred after 17 years and continues to believe the two are “pure evil”. That’s a matter of opinion. What is not, is her contention this week that “there are more and more kids now killing other kids because of Thompson and Venables’ release”.
In fact, research conducted by Prof Colin Pritchard in the mental-health unit of Southampton hospital suggests that far fewer children in the UK are dying violent deaths than at any point since records began. The number of children dying violent deaths in England and Wales has fallen by almost 40 per cent since the mid-1970s, with the number of children aged 14 and under who died violent deaths falling from 136 to 84.