Some crimes do not fade in the public memory. And the murder of James Bulger is one of them. The recall to prison of Jon Venables, one of the two Bulger killers, after he breached the conditions of his release, has ignited a media conflagration. The details of this terrible case from 1993 have been resurrected and relived in all their heartbreaking detail.
The media fixation undoubtedly reflects popular feeling. The public anger towards the Bulger killers burns with the same frightening intensity of 17 years ago. And now there is huge pressure for information. The parents of James Bulger have demanded to know what Venables has done to trigger his recall. And this sentiment has been echoed by the Conservative Party. According to the shadow Commons leader, Sir George Young, it is in the "public interest" to know why Venables has been sent back to prison.
Despite a brief wobble from the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, the Government has held back. But should this information be released when Venables appears before a Parole Board hearing in the coming weeks? It is a difficult question to answer because two liberal principles are in conflict. The first is that justice and its workings should be transparent. The second is that the public order must be protected. Such is the public anger over the Bulger murder that there is a real danger of Venables being physically attacked should his new identity be revealed. Despite the understandable demands of the Bulger family for disclosure, the second principle should prevail.
The identity of murderers should never normally be concealed. But this killing was a special case. Venables and his counterpart, Robert Thompson, were only children themselves when they committed this crime. Given their age, the state was right to attempt to rehabilitate them and to furnish them with new identities. Those who criticise this action – and the public expense involved – need to lay out precisely what their alternative prescription would have been. Lifelong incarceration for two 10-year-old boys? Release after 18 years into a Merseyside community still seething with retributive anger?
Yet certain consequences flow from the humane decision to give these children a chance of rehabilitation. Normally, if a criminal breaches the terms of his parole there would be no good reason for the authorities to conceal the name or the nature of the new offence. But to do so in the case of Venables would risk opening the door to his identification.
It is true that Venables is an adult now and must be held fully accountable for any crimes he commits. But the brutal reality is that the crime for which he is – and will always be – held accountable in the public's mind is the 1993 Bulger murder. When dealing with Venables through the criminal justice system, it is impossible, in practical terms, to disentangle the adult from the child.
Media speculation has already provided clues regarding Venables' new life and some media outlets seem to be treading dangerously close to the line that separates legitimate reporting from incitement to violence. The media and public interest in this case is unavoidable. And if Venables turns out to be guilty of another serious crime, then the decision of the authorities on disclosure will become much more difficult.
But we should be sure of one thing: any official action that compromises the new identity of Venables would be a betrayal, not only of the individual in question, but of our values as a civilised society.
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