Joan Smith: The spurious morality that turns Venables into a victim

Sunday 07 March 2010 01:00

Do you know why one of James Bulger's killers has been returned to custody? If so, it is your civic duty to inform The Sun, which last week launched a campaign demanding "justice for James" and reminded readers that "We pay £££" for information. Yesterday the paper claimed to have discovered why Jon Venables had been recalled, but said it couldn't publish the details because it had been threatened by the Government's lawyers. It also claimed that three out of four people support its demand that Venables's alleged offence be made public, even if it puts him "at risk".

The paper had already painted a provocative picture of the convicted child-killer stuffing himself with burgers and chips at taxpayers' expense, treated like a celebrity at a prison it wasn't allowed to name. Rather, I suspect, 27-year-old Venables is being held in isolation for his own protection, which is perfectly reasonable in light of the rage that is being whipped up against him. I don't want to live in a country where prisoners are starved or beaten to death, as under regimes without respect for the rule of law.

Nor am I impressed by synthetic rage at the fact that Venables will need to be given another new identity because his cover has been blown. When editors put such stories on their front pages day after day, they know that the name in question is likely to circulate on the internet, even though they are legally constrained from publishing it themselves. Spurious moral arguments are used to justify creating an ugly atmosphere in which vigilante attacks are more likely.

The murder of James Bulger in 1993 was a ghastly crime. That his killers were only 10 prompted understandable revulsion, though it also suggested that they were young enough to be rehabilitated. Venables and his co-accused, Robert Thompson, lacked empathy with their victim, but there were reasons to hope that sustained intervention might turn them into decent adults with an understanding of the enormity of what they had done. This is a very different case from the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who is arguing that he should be given a release date. On at least 22 occasions, Sutcliffe lacked the moral sense which would have prevented him from launching pre-meditated attacks on women, placing him in the category of offenders too dangerous ever to be released.

A civilised society has to make such distinctions; the popular press chooses not to. The new identities for notorious offenders who have completed their sentences provide its reporters with an irresistible challenge. They are as eager to expose the identities of offenders who have been successfully rehabilitated – the child-killer Mary Bell was hounded as an adult, even though she had not committed any further offence – as they are in cases where rehabilitation has failed. Venables served his sentence, was released in 2001 and has now behaved in a manner which suggests he poses a risk to the public. There may be a question about whether he was monitored closely enough, but that will emerge when the case is dealt with by the parole board and the courts.

The "justice for James" campaign assumes that there is a single course of action that would make victims' relatives feel better, if only unfeeling officials did not stand in the way. In societies which use the death penalty, bereaved families are encouraged to believe that an execution will provide closure, only to discover afterwards that they feel their loss as keenly as ever. The Sun's campaign may be popular with some readers but it's about retribution, not justice.

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