Class, justice and media frenzy: humanising the boys who killed James Bulger

It’s not liberal angst to admit that the boys who killed James Bulger are human, and were children when they killed him. It’s our moral responsibility.

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When I was thirteen, I happened across a news story about the release of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the two child killers of toddler James Bulger. I was consuming a huge amount of true crime at that age, captivated by trashy serial killer books and their accounts of near-parodic levels of gratuitous sadism. I was young enough that my grim compulsion was not tempered with much empathy. I shuddered as the victims were done away with, but I know now it was with a salacious feeling of something not unlike enjoyment.

When I came to read about the murder of James Bulger, I struggled to consume its narrative as I did other crimes. The famous perpetrators I usually read about were seasoned psychopaths who had been committing crimes for years, sometimes decades, before being caught. Their monstrosity was cemented within them, undeniable.

I began to think more and more about Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. I searched online for transcripts of their police interviews. I read that in the courthouse a special platform needed to be built to accommodate the two small boys’ attendance at trial, so they were able to see proceedings. Something was rattling me about them, their startled mugshots. I think now that it was the recollection of my own all too proximate childhood, in which my sense of right and wrong had felt disturbingly inequitable. It had always felt as though it took me an unusually, worryingly long time to develop an appropriately weighted morality.

Whether the killers of James Bulger are human or evil monsters is a question which has defined the case since its explosion into the public domain. It continues to this day. Irish film-maker Vincent Lambe apologised to Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger, the parents of James Bulger, for not consulting them during the production of his Oscar-nominated short film Detainment. Detainment is a thirty-minute film fictionalising the police interviews with Venables and Thompson, written from the real transcripts. Fergus has rightfully pointed out the disrespect of not being contacted prior to the film’s release, but broader objections condemn the film’s perceived humanisation of the two boys.

Over the Christmas holiday, I read The Sleep of Reason by David James Smith. Having read a fair number of books and essays and reportage about the case, I hadn’t expected to learn anything particularly compelling, but I was wrong. To my mind now, it is the most concise and important book on the interviews and trial. It offers less editorialising and opinion than many of its peers, but the analysis that Smith does offer is exceptionally well-considered and hard won. He has written and thought about the case for more than 25 years.

Two vital points are convincingly made. First, that the murder almost certainly can not have been premeditated, going by the messy trajectory of what took place that day. Second, that attempts from the prosecution, the judge, and the tabloids to blame the crime on “video nasty” (violent horror films) were at best extremely tenuous and at worst a cynical grab at an easy explanation. (The possibility that the two boys had seen the 18-rated horror film Child’s Play 3, long since indicated as a reason for their killing, is almost certainly untrue.)

But Smith’s most basic and most controversial contention is that the boys who killed James Bulger are human, and were children when they killed him. That an injustice was done by trying them as adults, and that we ought to learn from what happened to them.

There is no reason why the family of James Bulger should have been expected to extend nuanced consideration to the boys who killed him. They suffered a loss and a crime of such brutality that almost nobody can come close to imagining its reality. It was never their responsibility to provide a reasonable outcome for the perpetrators.

The fatal error which took place in 1994 was that the exceptionally heightened public fervour was allowed to influence the trial and sentencing. This, almost anyone would agree nowadays, led to a woeful decision. Naming Venables and Thompson meant not only a taxpayer cost of multiple millions of pounds, but also the near impossibility of rehabilitation.

Everyone was eager to distance themselves from this crime. Tabloids descended on it, calling Venables and Thompson and their families monsters, evil, scum. Others dealt with it by going along with the narrative that there was one evil child, Thompson, and one who was led along by him, Venables. The true crime writer Brian Masters, up from London for the trial, was heard by Smith to say, “He’s a sweet boy, that one” of Venables. Of Thompson, who had gained considerable weight after being put in custody, he remarked: “That other one, he’s a thug: the fatty”.

One of the more startling aspects of The Sleep of Reason is the illustration of blatant class hatred which permeated media coverage. That the children appeared to be growing up in an atmosphere of casual neglect was seen not as cause for consideration, or empathy, but as another stick with which to beat them.

I was born in a pretty rough council estate, known in the area as a place bad families took root. I learned in recent years that a very serious sexual crime involving two of our neighbours took place in the sitting room of my house. It happened when I was four or so, while I was asleep upstairs. My mother testified in the trial. That happened in our house. The house on the other side of us belonged to a family known to be criminally violent and prodigiously incestuous. Social workers wouldn’t come to our neighbourhood, because they were afraid. My family were lucky enough to be able to move, which we did after that trial.

Things which become headline stories in some areas are everyday fodder in others. It isn’t that what happens in working class communities is less bad. It’s that what might be reported as a uniquely awful crime in one community, is often treated as pedestrian in another.

When you read about the most infamous, revolting UK crimes, you will often find that a backdrop of this kind of normalised violence has preceded them. The incestuous, sadistic partner-swapping background of both Fred and Rosemary West, separately and then together. The same with Peter Sutcliffe, his father and brother competing to dominate impoverished and vulnerable local women.

Venables and Thompson both grew up with parents who loved them, but were nonetheless raising them in contexts of chronic neglect. There were reasons for this: poverty, mental illness, siblings taking up attention. Their parents had grown up neglected, and abused, too. Neither of them had a family untouched by addiction and mental illness. This isn’t “blaming the parents”, but it is recognising that leaving generations of self-medicating, ill, poor families without support can sometimes invite terrible consequences.

To try to understand children who kill is not to lessen our sympathy for the child killed, or his bereaved family. It is not to minimise what Venables and Thompson did: anyone with a conscience is horrified by the death of James Bulger, and that children were able to kill him.

None of this changes the fact that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were children when they were forced to take part in an adult trial. Of the 17 days of trial, less than half an hour was given to examining their mental state.

They should never have been named publicly, because doing so helped nobody and demonstrably hindered rehabilitation. Venables was said to break down under the pressure of enforced deceit and confess his identity when drunk. When they arrested him he was relieved to be back in custody where he felt safe.

Jon Venables is an adult now, and a recurrently paedophilic adult. Since his parole in 2001, he has twice been reincarcerated for the possession of child pornography. He is the worst case scenario, the hardest kind of criminal for those of us who would argue for his anonymity to defend. But that’s the thing about moral principles: they must apply to every case, including the most distressing, dispiriting, worst case scenario: like this one.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.