Saturday, 6 March 2010

killer victims

The less edifying of our media outlets are in full cry again. This time it is over the news that Jon Venables, one of the two convicted killers of James Bulger, has been returned to prison for a breach of the license under which he was released. People are demanding to know why Venables has been taken back in to custody and the press are engaged in a hunt to discover what he is supposed to have done. The Sun is heading the chase and an injunction has been sought to prevent information being revealed that might prejudice a future trial. There is also concern that Venables’ new identity might be revealed with the risk of putting his life in danger.

Nick Baines has made some important points on his blog about the Venables’ case and the demands to know what he is accused of doing. Nick rightly points out the following:

I remain puzzled as to (a) why the public needs to know what he has now done, (b) how the public will benefit from such knowledge and (c) why we assume that such knowledge will contribute to the common good of society. I hear the scream for blood very clearly and I recognise the voyeurism that we both gorge on and get fed. But, I have heard no reasonable account of why we should know anything other than that the processes of law are being followed in the interests of society and Venables. (I understand the response of his mother, but are we to be consistent and let every victim of every crime shape the future of the criminal involved? Think through the consequences…)

While agreeing with Nick about the demand for details, I would want to argue that there is a public interest issue in this case. The two boys convicted of James Bulger’s murder have been heralded by some concerned with the justice system as examples of what can be achieved with regard to rehabilitation. Lord Woolf’s decision to reduce their minimum tariff was partly based on the desire not to damage that rehabilitation by exposing them further to the negative impact of a young offender’s institution. Now it seems one of them has raised enough concern to be returned to prison under the terms of his license. This raises issues about the future handling of such cases and public perceptions about justice.

At a time when the prevailing narrative in the media is that the law favours the criminal over against the victim this case is grist to the mill. I think this is a false narrative but the speculation is inevitable. I would want to separate out the legitimate questions about punishment, justice and rehabilitation from the voyeurism of some of the press and public. The recent case of the Edlington brothers, convicted in January of a near fatal assault on two other boys, highlights that the issue of how society deals with these young people remains a pressing concern.

There is an interesting comparison with a case in Trondheim, Norway; the murder of Silje Raedergard (1994) by two 6 year old boys (and possibly a 5 year old), which was handled completely differently. Five year old Silje and friends were playing in the snow on a football pitch. The two boys became aggressive and stripped her, stoned her and then ran off leaving her unconscious in the snow where she died.

The city was stunned by Silje’s death, but what is surprising is the response of the community, which expressed grief and a level of responsibility rather than anger and a desire for revenge. Over the following four years the two boys were given counselling and they were treated as victims rather than killers. A week later the boys were back in school and the parents of other children accepted the situation. Silje’s mother expressed an extraordinary degree of understanding in the midst of her grief:

'I forgive those who killed my daughter. It is not possible to hate small children. They do not understand the consequences of what they have done...I can sympathise with the boys' parents...They must be going through a lot now. I do not know all of them yet, but they are welcome to contact me if they so wish.'

This is what Trond Viggo Torgerson, the Norwegian ombudsman for children, argued:

‘We must all ask ourselves some pertinent questions in order to prevent similar cases. How should we teach ourselves and our children to distinguish between playing games and committing abuse? How can we make our children want to copy our good habits, our good intentions without also copying our conflicts and inadequacies? This is what the Trondheim accident is all about. It does not serve any purpose to blame those who were involved in the accident itself. They are already unhappy.'(Dagbladet, 22 October).

The boys’ identities have never been released by the Norwegian press. One of the boys continues to receive psychiatric support while the other appears to be completely rehabilitated. It is worth noting that the legal age for prosecution in Norway is fifteen years and it is ten years in England and Wales. It is also worth noting that when Silje’s body was found the press chose not to publish photographs or a description of the dead girl, in contrast to the sensationalist reporting of the Bulger case in sections of the British press.

Now my questions are these:

  • Can we possibly conceive of our society being able to engage in a discussion about the merits of the way the Bulger case and the Raedergard’s case have been handled?
  • Is our media capable of considering the issues raised without a sensationalism engendering blood lust?
  • Do our politicians have the courage to raise these difficult matters in a way that doesn’t pander to a law and order populism?

Most importantly; do we want a criminal justice system which is primarily about revenge or rehabilitation?

Update: It is difficult to find out all the facts surrounding Silje's tragic death, partly because of the way the case was handled, and there are conflicting reports about exactly what happened. The autopsy stated exposure as the cause of death. My summary of the case is based on contemporary media reports, including the BBC and The Independent, and on Open University material.

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