Monday, 8 March 2010

Jon Venables, media hysteria, and mob justice

I entered the weekend with absolutely every intention of avoiding the subject. However, Monday has come around, it has refused to leave the headlines, and so it seems that I am left with the task of analysing the Jon Venables story and the public reaction.

It is not a task I cherish, for a variety of reasons. Not least amongst them is the fact that the furious passion that this subject (understandably) evokes can quickly to turn to blind anger amongst those of a different opinion to me, rendering them unable to tell the difference between somebody disagreeing with them using reason and a child molesting demon wrought out of the fires of hell by Satan himself. The argument quickly becomes akin to wagging your finger at an oncoming bear. Not only is it futile, it is utterly pointless and counterproductive.

Two things made me change my mind about speaking up. The first was learning, today, that text and email messages are doing the rounds claiming to "out" Venables' new identity. I could not, in good conscience, say nothing about the dangers of mob mentality as the risk of some poor sod having his head staved in through a combination of bad luck and the notably lax fact-checking abilities of vigilantes. The second reason was the hope that, somewhere, there exist reasonable people who don't think that indiscriminate violence is the only response to appaling crimes.

Venables has been arrested for a breach of the licence conditions imposed upon him and Robert Thompson upon their release in 2001. Though the Sunday Mirror speculated that the reason had to do with child porn offences, the fact is that nothing has been confirmed and Jack Straw has refused to reveal the real reasons for his re-imprisonment as it is "not in the interest of justice." In fact, the most likely reason seems to be the far less auspicious crime of drug use, as even the Mirror and other hysteria-drumming tabloids admit that "Venables is understood to have been masking severe psychological problems by abusing drugs and alcohol on a daily basis." The fact "that he was publicly revealing his identity" only compounds this estimation, painting a very different picture than the unremorseful and inhuman monstrosity that the press want us to see.

A common objection to such an observation is that it amounts to a "defence" of the criminal and even the crime itself. The absurdity of such an idea should not need pointing out. Unfortunately, due in substantial part to the tabloid media's willingness to fan the flames of insanity and hysteria, it does.

I was seven when the James Bulger murder happened. I was three years younger than the killers and had a brother the same age as the victim. I remember, even at that age, feeling utter horror and revulsion at what happened - compounded by the fact that I could make no sense of it whatsoever.

It was a truly horrendous crime, and nobody is questioning that fact.

What I am questioning is with the way that this whole thing has been continuously dragged up and rehashed over the years by the media, as part of a broader frenzy which has the public ready to turn into a baying lynch mob at the drop of a hat.

At the time, I remember hearing that the family of one boy who was detained for questioning having to flee the city. And the campaign of hate did not desist even with his release and the subsequent arrest of Thompson and Venables. Actual guilt quickly takes a back seat to the need to take revenge on someone, a fact I realised even at tat time when I could not articulate it.

Then we have the crowds throwing stones at police vans, willing to do obscene violence to two ten year old boys who had yet to be proven guilty. Imagine if the crowd had managed to break into the van and drag the two boys out. If they had been able to brutalise, torture, and lynch them. Now imagine that the two ten year old boys so horribly murdered by the mob hadn't been Thompson and Venebles. Due to circumstantial evidence, two innocents had been arrested and charged. And now, they were dead at the hands of people who only hours before were decrying exactly such a crime.

In Spiked, Brendan O'Neill asks of this act, "should we really be surprised?" His point is that it is that politicians and the media who painted them as "monsters, symbolic of everything from the collapse of family values to the rise of a feral underclass." His argument is a powerful one, and points to where the rampant hysteria described above emanates from;
Politicians relentlessly exploited the Bulger killing. For Tony Blair, then shadow home secretary, it was a perfect symbol of the moral decay of the Tory years. In a statement every bit as expertly spun as his later ‘People’s Princess’ spiel, he said the killing of James Bulger was a ‘hammer blow struck against the sleeping conscience of the country, urging us to wake up and look unflinchingly at what we see’. The respectable media lapped it up: the Independent ran with the headline ‘The hammer blow to our conscience’ while The Economist called on Britain to ‘examine the dark corners of its soul’. Even the tabloids’ more bizarre behaviour was inspired by elite hysteria rather than mob pressure. The Sun’s public burning of copies of the horror film Child’s Play 3 sprang from Justice Morland’s throwaway remark that, ‘I suspect that exposure to violent video films may in part be an explanation [for the Bulger murder]’. There’s still no evidence that Venables and Thompson ever watched Child’s Play 3. The powers-that-be had simply bought into a crazy rumour.
Such an unending carnival of hate, fear, and hysteria has taken its worst toll not on a public more willing to use violence and presume guilt before innocence, but on James' Mother. Denise Fergus has not been allowed to grieve in private and move on, as most who've lost a loved one (even in extreme circumstances) are able to do. To have even the marital breakdown that the case and the press coverage caused covered in depth by the media has pushed her over the edge now, it seems, and she'll be without any form of peace or closure for the rest of her life.

As such, when people such as Tony Parsons ask "why we don’t have a court that looks out for the human rights of James Bulger’s mother and father," it may be worth reminding them that the only right denied is that to not have your grief dragged out across two decades by the tabloid media.