I'm beginning to feel a bit like Nostradamus. The plot for my next novel involves a man being killed by a poisoned curry. Lo and behold a few weeks later a story appeared of a woman arrested for murdering her lover by poisoning his curry. Another central theme are two men who killed an old old man when they were children, served time in jail, and then were released despite a tabloid brouhaha, given new identities and a chance at redemption, only for their past to refuse to die. This was loosely based on a real life case here in the UK, one that made headlines across the world: the kidnap and murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 by two small boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both aged ten. Now the boys, now men, one of them at least, are back in the headlines, a bit like my fictional killers.
The case is now a grim part of British folklore. The chilling CCTV images of the two boys leading the toddler away by his hand imprinted on the nation's consciousness. The details were horrific. It seemed to go against nature. Two young kids who abducted a child in broad daylight in the middle of a busy shopping centre, led him to a violent death, and then degraded and mutilated his body. The outcry echoed for years. For the British tabloids, at the front of the mob, burning torches in hand, it was open and shut: the two boys were evil incarnate. For their awful crimes they should rot in jail for eternity. Every time their names were mentioned, or indeed any time children who killed made the news, or even when a small child was murdered and abducted, the newspapers would call James Bulger's mother Denise for a comment. Understandably, her hatred for the two boys who killed her son was undimmed. But then she had never had time away from the media to grieve. There is no way you can ever recover from such a loss. However, over time, perhaps you can find some kind of acceptance. No such chance for James' mum. The tabloids kept her grief raw and perpetual, always seeking to obtain a comment and leech her anger. As a reporter I called her once, via her solicitor, got the quote my newspaper wanted - by now she was very practised - but it felt unreal, almost fake. All reporters know there are various 'rentagobs' to whom they go for a colourful quote, usually right-wing, swivel-eyed lunatics who mutter the phrase 'Political correctness gone mad' at any passing hack in return for their name in the papers. It seemed immoral to be using a grieving woman whose son was murdered in the most hideous manner in such a way.
While the tabloids bayed for the boy's blood, those of a more liberal bent struggled. Here was a truly terrible crime. There is no doubt the boys knew what they were doing (though, crucially, whether they fully comprehended the consequences of their actions was another debate entirely.) There was no doubt they should in some way be punished. While the boys' upbringing were not impeccable, neither were they tortured and abused children themselves. For those who don't believe in the existence of evil, in the sense of one being born bad, the case was vexing. There was nothing to explain the horror and, well, evil in the two boys' actions other than small boys have cruel streaks and can sometimes do terrible things. Having a debate about the case with a paid up member of the tabloid lynch mob often felt like you were going to meet a battery of machine guns armed with a peashooter.
The crucial argument was this: given their age, did they deserve the chance at rehabilitation? They had expressed remorse for what they had done. Should they be released to live an adult life, once they had satisfied the authorities they no longer posed a risk to the public? The tabloids howled 'No!'. They had forfeited that right when they murdered a small boy. James Bulger was denied the right to live his life and so should they. It stripped away the almost quaint notion that prison might exist to rehabilitate and reform. It was clear, from the arguments put forward by the tabloids and many of their readers, that prison existed solely to punish. I have spoken to many people who feel life imprisonment was too good for them, that in less enlightened times, they would have been put to death and it would have served them right.
Admirably, I feel, the justice system took a different view. Venables and Thompson became the youngest convicted killers of the 20th century, ordered to serve a minimum of eight years. Under huge public pressure, this was upped several times, at one point to 15 years (by a Tory Home Secretary chasing votes) until the House of Lords intervened and eventually the original term stood. The boys served their time, were assessed and deemed not to be a threat to the public, and were released in 2001. Both were given new identities, for their own protection, despite more howls of outrage, so vociferous and vituperative that they proved the need for aliases. Released under their real names, the two men will have been torn limb from limb by the lynch mob. The men never truly had their freedom though. The tabloids were injuncted to prevent them reporting their new identities, but with their contacts within the police force, their ability to open chequebooks to gain access to protected data, they knew exactly where the two killers were, and started to wait and to watch. Watch and wait...
Last week news broke that Jon Venables had been returned to prison for violating the terms of his parole. The tabloids began to foam at the mouth. What had he done? The public should be told. James' mother was wheeled out to demand information, tabloid reporters cowering behind her as she did their dirty work. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, did as he he has done throughout his political career, vacillated. He ummed and ahhed and met with James' mum, and eventually decided not to release the details of what Venables had done to the press for fear of compromising his identity. During the days that he dithered, the newspapers had a field day. Venables had been caught looking at child pornography they chanted. The lynch mob leader, The Sun, rated it four out five on some perverted scale, as if they were connoisseurs (The Sun features naked women on page three. Some as young as 17. Wonder where that rates on the scale of child pornography?) They also revealed that he liked to watch violent films. No further questions, m'lud.
For those of who us who defended the right for Venables to be released, this was troubling. Though not because he had apparently re-offended. For a start, he doesn't seem to have been charged with a crime. If he is, then given the recent newspaper coverage, it will be impossible for him to get a fair trial. Why has the Home Secretary deemed it suitable to discuss this with the press in the absence of any charges? Why has he or the Attorney General not warned the newspapers they are getting dangerously close to revealing Venables new identity? Given the cavalier attitude the tabloids now employ towards previous valued ideas of not prejudicing a fair trial, and what can or can't be reported, I wouldn't be surprised if one day one of them says 'To Hell with it' and reports Venables new identity, knowing how toothless the Government has become in dealing with tabloid press excesses. Whereas in the original case, it felt like justice was following its own independent course, irrespective of what was being written and broadcast, it now feels like the tabloids are leading and justice follow in their slipstream. That once, feelings of revenge and the thirst for vengeance were channeled through the rule of law, but now the opposite seesm to be taking place. A cartoon by Steve Bell of The Guardian summarised these feelings far more eloquently than the even the most cogent article could.
Venables is back behind bars. Child pornography is terrible and hateful and if he's guilty he should be charged and punished. However, we don't know if that is what he's supposed to have done and there is the insinuation from some quarters that the material has been planted on him, to frame him, which unfortunately sounds quite plausible. Who knows how long he will remain in jail, and what will happen when he's released. One thing is for certain, the tabloids will be following him, dogging his every step. And from what I have learned, they have his co-killer Thompson firmly in their sights too. In the glare of the British press, the past is truly inescapable. Once more, fact trumps fiction.