IN THE end it wasn’t the violence, however shocking, that seared the nation’s heart – it was that small, still image of a little boy strolling hand in hand with a bigger one; the kind of image that might make you say “Aw, bless” if you didn’t already know what it represented.
Those tasked with viewing the CCTV footage in the shopping mall must have witnessed a hundred such scenes a week. How could they guess that this one was the harbinger of an act so barbarous it would upend our preconceptions of innocence and change the way we view childhood forever?
It will be 20 years ago this month since Robert Thompson and Jon Venables abducted two-year-old James Bulger from the New Strand Centre in Bootle and led (sometimes dragged) him on a meandering two-and-a-half-mile walk through the streets of Liverpool to a railway line, where they tortured him and left him to die; 20 years since 500 protesters gathered to hurl abuse at the pair as they arrived at South Sefton Magistrates Court; 20 years since they sat, barely able to see over the dock, as the murder charges were read out.
In the intervening decades, the boys, whose angelic faces served only to emphasise the abhorrent nature of their behaviour, have rarely been out of the headlines, the degree of interest they attracted rising in direct proportion to the efforts made to protect them from the public gaze. With Thompson and Venables, it was never a case out of sight, out of mind, not least because the crime they had committed was constantly referenced by politicians who understood the profound impact the tragedy had on the electorate.
The initial portrayal of the boys as detached monsters (a pixelated photograph showed them sucking lollipops on the steps of the court) prompted debates about the nature of “evil”, the age of criminal responsibility and the possibility or otherwise of redemption. The tariffs, which were increased to 10 years by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Taylor of Gosforth and then to 15 years by the then Home Secretary Michael Howard (only to be reduced to the original eight after an intervention from the ECHR), were wielded as a political weapon as law and order took over from the unions as the country’s bloodiest political battleground.
Then, in 2001, as the boys prepared for their release, debate raged over the cost and ethics of giving them new identities – a debate that was rekindled in 2010 when Venables was arrested on charges of downloading child porn, a development seen by some as proof that some crimes are so heinous they preclude rehabilitation.
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on Thompson and Venables, their dysfunctional families and their toxic friendship since the day they took James. And yet it is still hard to understand what caused them to cross the line from everyday unruliness to murder, or to contemplate the anger of James’s mother Denise which seems as raw now as on the day of her son’s funeral. But reflecting on them, and on the way opinion has ebbed and flowed in the wake of each fresh development, does highlight the way the crime marked a watershed for the UK. A tale of innocence corrupted, it provoked a sea-change in the way we view our children and ushered in a moral panic that continues to grip the country today.
In truth, the murder of James Bulger was an aberration, a once-in-a generation crime which is symbolic of nothing but itself. It may help us to make sense of it to see it as a product of declining parental authority or unfettered consumption of violent videos, but there have been children who kill throughout history. In 1748, 10-year-old William York murdered five-year-old girl who “fouled” their shared poorhouse bed; in 1831, 14-year-old John Bell was hanged after he killed a 13-year-old for nine shillings; and in 1968, 10-year-old Mary Bell killed two toddlers in two separate incidents near in her home in Newcastle.
Each of these cases caused a sensation, but what imbued the Bulger case with added significance was the way it provided the prism through which childhood came to be viewed. Perhaps the time was ripe for this. In those early post-Thatcher years, society had become more individuated and there was a loss of trust in large institutions. Perhaps James Bulger’s murder fed into existing insecurities. Whatever the reason, the crime seems to mark the moment at which bubble-wrapping children became the norm. As Blake Morrison – author of As If, a book about the murder – once said, riffing on Philip Larkin: “Parental anxiety began in 1993, between the Children’s Act and Eminem’s first CD.”
Even if – as Professor Frank Furedi, author of the seminal Paranoid Parenting, believes – the process started slightly earlier, James’s death reinforced the sense that children were constantly at risk. In the ensuing months, sales of reins soared and 97 per cent of parents interviewed by the charity Kidscape said they worried more about child abduction than road accidents, glue-sniffing or Aids.
Such increased wariness has its pluses. Thirty-eight adults saw James being led or dragged through the streets of Liverpool, sometimes crying and with his head bloodied, on his journey towards his eventual death and did not intervene. It is difficult to imagine such a thing happening today. But it has also, critics believe, led to an over-protectiveness which is curtailing children’s independence and stifling community activities. Pupils are much less likely to be allowed to walk to school, and intensive criminal records checks often make voluntary work more trouble than it’s worth.
Not only did James’s murder make people more conscious of the need to protect their own children, it made them distrustful of other people’s. “It acted as a counterpoint to the traditional anxiety parents had about what adults do to children – the fear of the paedophile,” Furedi says. “In that scenario the child is seen as the moral opposite of the paedophile – the paedophile is pure evil, the child is sacred.
“What the Bulger case did was to completely unravel that by indicating that children themselves can be fairly bestial, so all of a sudden you had a new kind of cultural narrative being produced which says: ‘Yes, children are beautiful, sacred, innocent, but there are also other kinds of children who are destructive and evil.’ ”
By 1993, the country, and particularly the north of England, was already in the grip of a panic over juvenile offending. Police officers, politicians and the press had started identifying particular young people they claimed were responsible for mini-crimewaves in their areas. Much focus was placed on offences such as theft and joy-riding and there was a sense that society was paying the price of broken marriages and parental neglect. The murder of James Bulger fuelled this fear, creating a sinister double standard. It reinforced the idea that there were two types of children, “ours” – sweet, innocent and deserving of protection – and “theirs”, feral, amoral and capable of acts of great cruelty.
It was a dichotomy expressed most powerfully by Morrison when he described the baying mob at South Sefton Magistrates Court as wanting to “kill the kids who killed the kid because there’s nothing worse than killing a kid.”
As Furedi points out, you only have to attend a child’s football match – where parents focus on their son or daughter’s performance to the exclusion of everyone else’s – to see that while we are obsessed with our own offspring, we remain largely indifferent to other people’s. Add to that innate bias the rhetoric of politicians such as John Major who – alluding to Thompson and Venables – urged us to “condemn a little more and understand a little less” and you can see how the idea that deprived estates were breeding a generation of feral brats took hold.
According to criminologist Dr Stuart Waiton, this burgeoning fear of children paved the way for governments to introduce a raft of social control measures. In the wake of the murder, the Tory party beset by crises over Europe and the economy, seized on law and order as a means of regaining its popularity and sense of direction. Where previously disorder had been linked to militants and left-wingers, it was now a social problem, and politicians started talking about tougher sentencing.
But the ghost of James Bulger was invoked by New Labour too when it came into power. Desperate to dissociate itself from its roots, the party also opted to talk tough on crime, abolishing doli incapax – the defence that children aged between 10 and 14 are incapable of telling right from wrong – and introducing curfews and Asbos. “This is what New Labour cut its teeth on,” says Waiton, who lectures at Abertay University in Dundee. “The James Bulger killing became a mechanism for discussing the collapse of society and community safety became the new framework for politics and legislation.”
Waiton also pinpoints the Bulger murder as the moment when it became at first acceptable, and then almost obligatory, to build massive social policy initiatives on extreme, one-off events. When you think about it, almost every major crime involving a child since James Bulger – Dunblane, Victoria Climbié, Sarah Payne – has led either to new laws or the tightening up of existing ones.
Another thing that has changed is the way in which juveniles who commit serious offences are treated by the authorities. When two older boys tortured two younger boys in Edlington in 2009, their case was heard in an adult court but they were not named. Their photographs did not appear in newspapers, so they will not need new identities when released and are likely to integrate more quickly into society. Still, the lurid headlines they garnered and the primeval fear their crime evoked suggests we are still wedded to the notion of children who commit terrible crimes as both evil and posing a widespread threat.
Many atrocities, including 9/11, have been carried out in the 20 years since James Bulger died and yet his story has lost none of its power to shock, nor has it stopped throwing up fresh ethical dilemmas. Just last month, it emerged Venables had made a fresh application for release and would face the parole board in the summer. Denise, whose marriage to James’s father Ralph broke up shortly after the birth of their second son Michael, has tried to make a fresh life for herself. She remarried, had two more sons and recently got involved with a charity for bullied children. Yet when she’s interviewed it’s clear her pain is still hovering just below the surface. She admits she’s found it difficult to give her other children any degree of independence and last month she once again called for Venables to be kept in jail.
As for the rest of us, we too seem to be trapped in time. The way in which we treat our children is still influenced by a crime which derived its impact from the very fact it was at the outer margins of human experience. If anything, warns Furedi, our paranoia is intensifying. “I think we are in the middle of a process when each perception of a threat reinforces the existing one,” he says. “The dynamic is towards ever more cautious parenting. There is part of us that knows we need a reality check, but we are not brave. No-one wants to be the first one to let their children walk to school or to be forgiving to other children.”
On what would have been James’s 18th birthday a few years ago, Denise and her family went to his grave and released 18 red balloons, a gesture which symbolised her determination to try to move on. Perhaps it’s time for everyone else to do the same. To take one last look at the CCTV image that has haunted us for 20 years. And let go.