Bulger case – neverending story

'The mob of vigilantes apparently ready to hunt down James Bulger's killers seems to be a creation, not of feelings on the ground in Merseyside, but of journalists in their offices in London.'

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

‘No other city in Britain attracts as many myths as Liverpool’, wrote the UK Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade on 23 June (1).

‘And the latest one doing the rounds – that there is a mob of vigilantes ready to hunt down and kill Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – is down there with the very worst of those myths.’

Well, thank God for that. I don’t agree with Reade’s argument, that Venables and Thompson – the 18-year-olds who, at aged 10, brutally murdered toddler James Bulger – should spend seven years in a high-security prison, rather than being released into society. But as most UK newspapers, and the new UK home secretary David Blunkett have dealt with the young men’s release by stoking up fears about vigilantism, Reade at least challenges the myth of ‘the mob’.

Where has this fear of the mob of vigilantes, baying for Thompson and Venables’ blood, and prepared to get it on their own hands, come from? Denise Fergus, James Bulger’s mother, has issued not-so-veiled threats: ‘They may think they can hide. I know no matter where they go someone out there is waiting.’ (2) TV news cameras have filled our screens with images of protesters, lined up behind Fergus to support her ‘Justice for James’ campaign.

Yet these are hardly mass protests – a straggle of Merseyside mums with pushchairs, or a convoy of lorries driving through town in support of Fergus’ crusade, does not constitute a mass of bloodthirsty vigilantes. And James Bulger’s mother, who quite understandably wants unrelenting revenge upon his killers, does not constitute a mob either.

A poll published by the Liverpool Echo on 18 June, which found that out of 42,000 people, 35,000 were in favour of keeping Thompson and Venables behind bars, has been circulated throughout the national media as proof of the strength of public antipathy to the young men’s release. But while that finding, too, is understandable, it is a world away from mob violence.

The ‘mob’ seems to be a creation, not of feelings on the ground in Merseyside, but of journalists in their offices in London. The editorial of almost every national newspaper has raised the spectre of vigilantism, before calling for calm and compassion in the treatment of Thompson and Venables. There is as little genuine sympathy for these two young men as there ever was – but this is outweighed by fears about vigilante scum.

How high-minded it makes us seem, to set ourselves apart from the baying mob, and talk about civilised methods of justice, the benefits of rehabilitation, the need to give these young people a chance – when we do so in self-conscious contrast to the world we have created out there up North, with its medievalist thirst for hands-on vengeance and retribution. How high-minded – and how hypocritical.

The same newspapers that have called for calm about Thompson and Venables’ release have painstakingly stoked up the anger they condemn. They have detailed, at every opportunity, the brutality of James Bulger’s murder, the money spent and
care taken over the rehabilitation of his killers, the apparent cushiness of the secure unit in which they spent their imprisonment and the money to be spent on the extravagant scheme designed to conceal their identities when they leave. Thompson – reported, at his trial, as the dominant and more thuggish of the two – is now talked about as a creative type with several GCSEs and a flair for making wedding dresses; news reports talk of Venables’ interest in football.

Now, I have always felt a large measure of compassion for these boys, on the grounds that it is wrong to hold children responsible, as adults, for adult crimes (3). I feel strongly that now is the time to release them. But even so, the twittering about Venables’ sensitivity or Thompson and his wedding dress makes me feel slightly sick, on the Bulger family’s behalf. I can see exactly why Denise Fergus might feel she is having her nose rubbed in the supposed virtues of her son’s killers, and why she thinks it is not fair. And if the media coverage makes me think that, no wonder the Liverpool Echo’s poll showed a certain lack of forgiveness.

In its coverage of Thompson and Venables’ release, the UK media has created a vengeful mob – if not on the ground, then in the public imagination. The media, too, has played no small part in stoking up the ongoing anger and bitterness about James Bulger’s killers. And look at what they have done to James Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus.

Denise Fergus was once, I imagine, just a normal Mum with a baby she loved, who suffered anger and grief at his brutal murder. But since the murder trial of Thompson and Venables, she has been transformed into a media celebrity of the most ghoulish kind, never allowed to stay out of the spotlight long enough to enjoy a new life with her three other children. Campaign groups have attached themselves to Fergus, in order to pursue their own crusades – notably, Mothers Against Murder and Aggression, and Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, who on many issues seems to be the mouthpiece of the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade. Fergus’ campaign is called ‘Justice for James’, but it is clear that many of those supporting it have broader agendas of their own.

Beyond the fact that Fergus will now be a campaigner for life, forced to relive her son’s murder over and over again, she has been boxed into a mentality that will only fuel her bitterness. She is constantly pushed to contrast her lot, as a bereaved mum, with the reported benefits given to Thompson and Venables. They will be given quite hefty sums in financial support; she received compensation of £7500 for her son’s murder. They will be given physical protection; she asks, ‘Who is going to protect my children?’. Thompson and Venables came away from their imprisonment with GCSEs, contrasting sharply with the education given to many children on Merseyside estates. Maybe Fergus would have had these grievances anyway, but the way they have been latched on to, and articulated through, the media, means they can only fester.

This is a sordid affair that will never end. Denise Fergus will be pushed to carry on crusading. Thompson and Venables, as many have pointed out, will never be truly free – they are under license, allowing for their recall to jail on the basis of any misdemeanour; the therapy started in jail will go on for life; their false identities will mean they can never even be themselves. These two young men are the subjects of what The Times (London) called ‘a high-risk experiment in rehabilitation’ – and as such, they will always be monitored and controlled. Yet the vast amount of effort and money employed by the state to protect Thompson and Venables cannot resolve the mess that politicians and lawyers made of this case in the first place – indeed, it may even make things worse.

And in all this, the big fear is of the mythical mob?

(1) Daily Mirror, 23 June 2001

(2) The secret meetings that set James’s killers free, Guardian Unlimited, 24 June 2001

(3) See Bulger killers: childhood on trial, by Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics


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