A young man who has lost his memory stares out from the newspapers. "Philip Staufen", he calls himself, but the name is an invention: all that's known about him is that he turned up in a Toronto hospital in November 1999, speaks with a Yorkshire accent and reads Latin. His amnesia and anonymity are a nightmare to him. "I consider myself a prisoner," he says. By publishing the photo, the papers hope that he'll be recognised and set free.
Elsewhere new photographs appear of two young men who haven't been seen by the public since 1993, but whose crime is for ever etched in the memory. The motive for publishing these photos is less benign. At best, they add another twist to the long-running Bulger saga; at worst, they remind the more vengeful sections of the public what Robert Thompson and Jon Venables look like, so that if and when they're released (the parole board meets tomorrow to decide their fate) those who have vowed to hunt them down have something to go on.
These photos, though previously unseen, date back to the time of the boys' arrest. They arguably breach a court order prohibiting photos taken since 18 February 1993. But an image alleged to be that of the mature Thompson is available via the internet, and became part of the story of last week's Channel 4 Dispatches programme, which teasingly showed a reporter holding the image without actually showing it to viewers. The new Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, was so concerned by all this that he felt it necessary to remind the media to "act responsibly".
Act responsibly? The media? In relation to the Bulger case? As if. In all the years the story has been running, very little that's responsible or enlightened has appeared. To a brutish press, Thompson and Venables are irredeemable. Never mind that they were only 10 years old when they killed and wouldn't have stood trial had they been born six months later or been resident anywhere else in Europe. Never mind that (according to insiders) they've made huge progress in their secure units, and have shown genuine remorse for their crime. As far as the tabloids are concerned, they're up there with Myra Hindley and Peter Sutcliffe, and always will be. Freaks of nature. Satanic monsters. Aliens from the Planet Evil.
It could be argued that photos of Thompson and Venables as they are now would help dispel the gothic aura surrounding them. One can imagine a weaselly barrister arguing this and adding that publication would be "in the public interest". But since their photos as fresh-faced primary school kids haven't prevented the pair from being demonised, nor stopped their families from being hounded and attacked, how would images of them as 18-year-olds help? The only hope they have of leading normal lives rests with their remaining invisible. The anonymity that's a prison to Philip Staufen will be freedom to them.
It is no surprise that it all comes down to images, since the Bulger case was dominated by images from the start: the jerky footage from a security camera showing a small child being led away by two large ones; the family snaps of an innocent, smiling "Jamie"; the shots of an angry mob throwing stones at police vans carrying the accused to court. But images can be misleading. That last photo, for instance, was taken outside Sefton magistrates' court after the boys' arrest: at the trial in Preston nine months later there were no crowds milling outside court, and the only spectators in the public gallery were law students and journalists. (I know: I sat there with them.) Nor, of course, was "Jamie" the victim's name: his family knew him as James the diminutive was a media invention.
The distorting use to which images can be put was exemplified perfectly when Thompson and Venables paid a familiarising visit to Preston a month before their trial. A tipped-off snapper from The Sun captured them on the court steps. Their faces couldn't be shown, but there was a clear view of one of them sucking a lollipop and the accompanying copy emphasised their pampered lifestyle and unrepentant manner. That photo formed part of the defence submission that the boys would be unable to receive a fair trial. There were 247 cuttings of a similar nature, including comparisons of the boys to Myra Hindley and Saddam Hussein. The trial went ahead. It was always going to, with so much at stake, not least the reputation of John Major's government and its tough stance on juvenile crime. Still, the citing of prejudicial material wasn't just a defence ploy. The Sun came close to scuppering the trial.
The trial itself was deeply frustrating for the media, which weren't even allowed to name the defendants, then known simply as Boy A and Boy B. In desperation, reporters resorted to physiognomy, treating the different expressions on the faces of the accused as a key to motive and character. No one, least of all a child, behaves normally in a courtroom. When Jon cried, it was because he felt frightened and overawed, not because he was reliving the events on the railway line. When Robert stared back at the journalists staring at him, it was because he wanted to seem hard and feel impervious, not because he was a psychopath. But the press wasn't to be discouraged: Boy A was the leader, it decided, and Boy B the led.
At the end of the trial, lawyers for the Mirror Group and Associated Newspapers petitioned to name names, as though nobly striking a blow for freedom of expression. Normally juvenile offenders remain anonymous, but in this case the media had their way the only restriction, aside from photos, being a ban on reports of the boys' life behind bars. The ban hasn't prevented fictitious accounts of Robert Thompson attacking a fellow inmate or the shock-horror disclosure that, as part of their rehabilitation, he and Jon Venables have taken short trips outside their units. Even so the tabloids feel resentful at being gagged. Having failed in the campaign "to let the Bulger killers rot in jail for life", they'd love, once the release date arrives, to impose their own form of life sentence, by assigning reporters and photographers to follow Thompson and Venables 24 hours a day.
Despite court orders, and the best efforts of the Home Office to create new identities for the young men, this may still happen: provided nothing's published, provided the stalking doesn't become harassment, what's to stop it? But if it does happen, then knowledge of their appearance and whereabouts will inevitably leak out, and other, more deadly kinds of hunting down become possible. The Dispatches programme was a frightening reminder of the way that sympathy for the Bulger family can turn into membership of a lynch-mob. A brutish illogic is still at work: let's kill the kids who killed the kid.
The tabloids are largely responsible for this. Their handling of the Bulger case has been barbaric: cruel, violent and full of hatred just as Thompson and Venables are accused of being. Like them, they should now seize the chance to atone and prove themselves responsible. If, as expected, the parole board decides that James Bulger's killers pose no danger and can be released, then the message should be one of relief not denunciation: relief that two badly damaged children have been reprieved; relief that the endless legal appeals and counter-appeals are over; relief that there is still forgiveness in the world.
Forgiving doesn't mean forgetting James Bulger or the horror of his death or what the case has to teach us about our country. But it does mean accepting that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables have served their time under the law, and should be allowed to live in the only way they can anonymously.
'As If', Blake Morrison's account of the Bulger case, is published by Granta Books, £7.99.Reuse content