Friday, 4 September 2009

From Bulger to Edlington.

Probably one of the worst moments in this country's recent media history was the hysteria which followed the murder of James Bulger.  In one sense, it was to be completely expected: Bulger's death, at the hands of two 10-year-old boys, with the toddler snatched from his mother in a matter of minutes, was the most appalling, shocking and inexplicable of crimes.  It was also one of the rarest: although we have since gotten sadly used to slightly older teenage boys knifing and even shooting each other, not since Mary Bell had those so young committed a crime so grave.  It was one of those crimes which managed to affect the psyche of the nation, even if only temporarily: the Daily Star's headline the day after the identities of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were revealed still remains to this day one of the most disgusting and despicable, quite possibly of all time: "How do you feel now, you little bastards?"  It was, in fairness, shouted by someone in the public gallery, and probably reflected a mood which many felt, yet it also just highlighted that many had completely forgotten that those in the dock were children, regardless of whether or not they understood or could comprehend what they had done.

The effects of Bulger's murder are still with us today, with politicians reacting in much the same fashion as the media did.  Labour played off of it appallingly, much as the Tories do today with their "broken society" meme, but the real damage was inflicted by Michael Howard, who declared that "prison works", a position which has been only built upon by Labour.  For better or worse though, considering the major controversy over how their sentence was imposed and served, both Venables and Thompson came out of a system which so often fails those older, and genuinely were reformed.  If they were "evil" or "monsters" when they went in, there is nothing to suggest that they still were or still are now that they're living under their new identities.  Some will baulk, understandably, at how those who murdered got might what might well be described as preferential treatment because of the seriousness of their crime, yet surely the ends in this instance justified the means.

How little we've, or rather the media have learned, is reflected in the coverage today of the case of the two brothers in Edlington who more by luck than apparent judgement failed to murder the two other little boys with whom they had been playing, in circumstances similar to that in which James Bulger was murdered.  The differences though are surely important: neither Venables or Thompson had anything close to the record that these two brothers apparently had, although there were some similarities, and also the key, most terrifying detail of the Bulger murder was that he was snatched from his mother by pure chance, something not the case here, and dragged along for hours, in front of numerous witnesses.  Nonetheless, much the same attitude pervades, as typified by the Sun's editorial.  These two brothers are, variously, "hell boys", "evil", "monsters", "dangerous predators" and guilty of "sickening bloodlust".  Not once are they actually described as what they are, despite everything they've done, which is children.  It reproduces a litany of those who failed, in various guises, as well as those who failed to protect the "innocent children" from these savages, but it doesn't even begin to suggest that maybe it was these two brothers who were failed more than anyone else.  That would take the blame away from them, or rather undermine the stated fact that they had "a measure of evil" beyond even the normal "feral" child.

You can of course argue endlessly over whether those who kill or attempt to kill are created by nature or by nuture.  A background similar to that which these two brothers had can be a signifier for such crimes, but equally it would be an insult to those who have struggled through such deprived backgrounds and came out of it without being damaged to suggest that explains it all.  Likewise, you can blame anything else you feel like: the Bulger murder led to attacks on both video games and "video nasties", even though there was no evidence whatsoever that either of the boys had actually watched "Child's Play 3" as the media came to claim he did.  The very mention of the "Chucky" films by a supposed "relative" makes me wonder about the veracity of her comments; it seems far too much of a coincidence that the exact same series of films featuring that same doll would be brought up again.  With that in mind, it is however interesting to note that the same source claims that the boys were dealt with harshly by their father, maybe far too harshly.  That rather undermines the Sun's refrain that "consistent discipline" is the only means by which to tame them, and even Iain Duncan Smith, a proponent of "tough love", made the point that the discipline they received may well have had the opposite effect.

The most distasteful part of the Sun's leader though is that "intimidation is long overdue", as the court in which the brothers plead guilty apparently "bent over backwards" to "show them kindness" by the judge and lawyers wearing suits rather than their usual garb.  This has far less to do with kindness and much more to do with ensuring that they understood properly what was going on, even during a relatively short session in which they plead guilty to lesser charges rather than the attempted murder which was initially proposed.  Intimidation would probably be the very last thing which they need, something already presumably provided by their father.  Then there's just the complete failure to perform a reality check, calling regimes in youth custody "disastrously lax".  These would be the same regimes which are currently using force more than they ever have, leaving little surprise when they fail just as much as prisons at preventing re-offending and reforming as well as punishing.

The hope has to be that same almost made up on the spur of the moment detention regime which Venables and Thompson went through, which involved not young offender's institutions but secure units, held separately, with both going through therapy as well as other programmes is also at the very least attempted in this case, although the sentence the two will receive is doubtful to be as harsh as that which Bulger's killers got, and how they will handle the fact that the two are brothers is also likely to be difficult.  It is though also worth reflecting, as the chief executive of Barnardo's Martin Narey did, on how close angels are to demons.  His suggestion, meant to stir debate,that Baby Peter may well have grown up had he survived to be a feral yob , the kind which are dismissed and demonised without a thought, inflammatory as it was, was the exact thing that the Sun did here.  If evil is inherent, then nothing can be done to prevent it or cure it; if it isn't, and naive liberals such as myself will protest profusely that there is no such thing, then it can be.  These two might not become "pillars of the community" as the Sun puts it, but to abandon hope in children and to demonise them in such a way is to abandon hope in humanity itself.


Richard T said...

Would the Sun's editor and writers ever stop to think that if a newspaper was read in the household it was have almost certainly been the Sun? Has it crossed their minds that the coarsening of life in this country has been ably assisted by the Sun and the other red tops? Probably not because to do otherwise it would make them the most nauseating hypocrites wouldn't it?

eric the fish said...

A damning piece. I noticed one difference in that they were driven away in ordinary cars rather than in police vans being chased by angry bystanders and paps. I was once told that this actually happened in the Thompson and Venables case at S.Sefton Mags but that they had a decoy van to let the public vent their anger.

The Mirror also used the 'savages' tag.

The Sun et al were peeved that they could not break the Mary Bell order as it appears that T and V have not harmed a fly since. They will pray that these two slip up if given anonymity and chances they never had before.

I also predict the media will drag out Denise Bulger (as was) and Detective albert Kirby for poignant quotes and calls for stiffer sanctions/hanging to mirror the quote of one parent (an understandable but emotional response).

We need to pin blame in order to assuage our own guilt as a society.

Sarah Ditum said...

Stirring post. I'm unendingly depressed by the media's indifference to fair trials: "intimidating" child defendants leads to an unsafe conviction, which leads to the guilty potentially escaping on a technicality - something The Sun claims to vigorously oppose, but would apparently be happy to trade for a showy display of retribution.

Unknown said...

people can whinge on as much as they like about the way the media speak of the boys. There was no excuse for what they did, none whatsoever. People defending them by saying they were poor/absuive backgrounds had something to do with it, no it didnt they were just plain and simple evil, they knew what they were doing and still are as were is venables now? i rest my case, he hasnt been recalled for the fun of it has he

Sim-O said...

That's a very fatalistic attitude you have, Antonioellen.

If their background has nothing to do with their actions & decisions, were they born with fully formed pesonalities? Is not possible that the experiences of these two boys might have skewed their sense of right and wrong, what little of it they were taught?

By your reckoning, I might as well not bother with my children and leave them to sort themselves out. Whatever I do isn't going to make a difference, is it?

Anonymous said... one has made excuses for their crimes. Perhaps you, like the tabloid press, presume that those of us who don't label them as "evil bastards", effectively legitimising their actions in the process ( they are evil, therefore they kill...end of story ) are "making excuses" to defend their actions.

Odd how the "plain & simple evil" people invariably come from troubled & abusive backgrounds. Odder still how the tabloid press & people such as yourself simply "know" that these people are "plain & simple evil".

When the police investigate a crime, they interview the perpetrator & often ask the question "why did you do it?" or "what made you do it?" in an attempt to understand the crime & the criminal. Would the reply "I did it because I am evil" satisfy the police, the probation service, the courts & the victim's family? Or do you think that they would consider such a reply "an excuse" & instead require that they explain or attempt to explain their actions?

You see, the police don't want "excuses"...they're attempting to establish WHY the crime took place. Establishing a REASON for a crime is necessary in order to 1)attempt to prevent such crimes from occurring again, 2)decide on an appropriate punishment, 3) to help the victim come to terms with the crime.

The tabloid press is not interested in such matters. It's business is to sell newspapers, therefore it concentrates on describing the crime & the perpetrators of it in sensationalistic fashion designed to appeal to the simplest members of society. Whilst doing so, their coverage also conspires to create a climate of hatred toward the perpetrators of the crime, resulting in such costly ( to you the tax payer ) measures as identity changes to protect the perpetrators from attacks from an enraged public whose views you represent.