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 currentlyusing 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.
Labels: abuses by tabloids, crime, crime policies, Edlington brothers, James Bulger, media analysis, media coverage, Scum-watch, Sun-watch, youth crime