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Monday, 26 July 2010

Jon Venables

Criminal cases involving young children really rankle with me not only because I work with them but also because, to those who notice such things, they magnify and illuminate the social tensions, mores and norms which undergird our taken-for-granted, lived experience of society. In cases where young children have committed crimes or have exhibited deviant behaviours, the traditional rhetoric of childhood innocence, which serves to infantilise, de-sex and deny subjective agency to children stands in contrast to society's often heinous, punitive recourse to justice. Very often, the media become the arbiters who effectively 'decide' on the approved moral response for society to take.

To give a recent example of how fixed and concrete becomes the mediated arbiter's perception of events, think back only a week to the undeniably sad story of Raoul Moat. The hero-worship of him was absurd, I agree, but the response of David Cameron to the small outpouring of sympathy for him was symptomatic of the prescriptive nature of the media's message. The PM stated that there should be no no sympathy for the callous murderer, and that all sympathy should be for the victims. I feel sympathy for anybody with a history of mental health problems who finds themselves subject to a police manhunt, which is broadcast 24/7 to an enthralled audience desperately waiting for the next installment, forced out into the countryside and in such a position that he knew his life was over. To sympathise with his situation does not condone his actions, nor does it condemn them - sympathy, without exploding into a fireball of closeted Quakerism, is a human emotion which one feels when one can place oneself in the position of another, and realise the hurt they must be feeling.

This is important to remember throughout the rest of this post as I go on to look at the case of Jon Venables. I sympathise hugely with him, and I feel no personal discomfort in doing so, because I know that the opposition 'perpetrator/victim' is not equal to 'good/evil' as the media so frequently sculpts it. The murder of James Bulger was horrific - nobody contests that - but this absolutely does not legitimate the media free-for-all over his life, nor does it give Bulger's mother any legal grounding to comment on his every move until either one of them passes on.

Venables is a 27 year old man and the only picture to have been used of him in the media, for 17 years, is the picture that I am using for this blog - paradoxical, I know, since I am criticising the repeated use of it, but I think it will be pertinent for you, as a reader, to be able to really look at it as it is discussed. A letter in today's Guardian questioned the effects of the media's continued use of this image - So long as it is taken for granted that we, the public, have some kind of unquestionable right to look at and be fascinated by this image of Venables without even considering that its publication or transmission may be causing him further distress, we should not be so shocked at the revelation of Venables' own fascination with images of children in distress. The Independent's Melanie McDonagh refers to a Dorian Gray in reverse; Venables will age and change outwardly, but the image of him in the public mind will be always that of the boy who killed a boy.

James Bulger is the perfect victim. There is absolutely no way in which a two year old child can be held responsible, in any way, for what happened. He was too young to have put himself in a vulnerable position, too young to have provoked any response from his killers and too young to have, in even a minor way, a 'blemished character'. Having such a completely innocent victim enables the demonisation of his killers, regardless of whether they were also children. The purity of the victim allowed the story to be easily mediated as good versus evil - Biblical, Koranic, universal - and who questions why the Devil does bad things? Nobody. He does evil because he is the Devil, and he is the Devil because he does evil.

The media scale and publicity of the murder of James Bulger, and the immense (mediated) public response to it means that Jon Venables, as soon as he and Robert Thompson led the toddler out of the shopping centre, ceased to exist. Jon Venables ceased to be a person and became real only when he fulfilled the personage attributed to him.

Now; think how many times you have seen the image of Jon Venables. As you flick through channels, as you walk past newsagents. Imagine now that you are Jon Venables, out of prison for the first time in 11 years, aged 21 having served your sentence. Nobody can know who you are, regardless of how remorseful you may or may not be, as the vigilante sentiments run so deep that you will be forever at risk. Imagine being 21 and being perpetually condemned for what you did as a 10 year old.

This might appear an irresponsible comment, but it is no wonder he went on to sexually fetishise the suffering of children: he has been forced into remaining the 10 year old murderer, he cannot move on and the public will not let him. Ours is not that sort of society.

When Venables and Thompson were tried in 1993 for the murder, in an adult court (this was illegal, was it not? Lawyers?), the judge, Mr Justice Morland, pronounced that the boys had committed "an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity" - as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes in today's Independent, this is one of the most irresponsible statement ever to come from the mouth of a judge. And this was fuelled by the political pressure, with Prime Minister John Major's harrowing statement that we need to 'condemn a little more, and understand a little less'.

Condemn a little more... Demonisation may sate the bloodlust of the masses but it leads to further marginalisation and further transgressions, as can be seen as Venables returns to prison this week facing child porn charges. It begs the question of what our media is doing, what they hope to achieve, by continuing to shape the reporting of crimes such as those of Jon Venables within a moral framework of 'good versus evil'. I'm reminded of W.I. Thomas's sociological dictum - if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. How much are the media to blame?


  1. I agree that the media focus on Raoul Moat's sympathisers became prescriptive for Cameron, and I don't think it should have. His response was absurd - for a government so insistent on keeping out of people's lives in ways that are useful, the way he embroiled himself in the Raoul panic looked arrogant and unnecessary.

    The comment you describe as potentially being "irresponsible" could have a whole study of its own, and is reductionist in a way. I guess no one has tried to understand Jon Venables and your paragraph was an exercise in doing so, which is appreciated and is quite refreshing. But, again, it's imposing another character profile on him. You have no way of empathising with his mental state with any certainty. Although introducing a different perspective is beneficial because it allows people to think outside the box and break away from the opinion of Venables that seems second nature, it's also important not to second-guess the person in question from another angle.

    I also can't help thinking that, although the media do shape discussion, they also amplifies discussion and act as an echo chamber. If you are suggesting that the media need to report on these cases in a less simplistic and more socially responsible way, is the ideal that all people should have perceived this in a less simplistic and more socially responsible way? How realistic is this aim? (I'm not saying it's not realistic; I'm wondering whether you think that people's tendency to demonize individuals is largely due to media influence, or whether this capacity originates from people themselves, and that the media simply tends to this predisposal.) Reading some anthropological/ sociological literature would seem to suggest that individuals are pinpointed, isolated and demonized naturally - that this kind of in- and out-group behaviour is innate.

  2. I'm not a big fan of innateness (in this case) but the possibility cannot be ignored.