Trial by media

Howard Williamson
Monday, March 8, 2010

So what might be said about Jon Venables that has not been said already?

His recent imprisonment, the reasons for which remain undisclosed (it may be for a criminal offence, but it could also be for breach of conditions attached to his life licence), has provided the media with a renewed opportunity to show the mugshot of his 10-year-old self and the CCTV footage of him walking away hand in hand with his victim James Bulger in 1993. The story was plastered over the front page of every red-top newspaper.

On subsequent days, media commentary split into two completely opposing camps. There has been the predictable reporting that sustains the retributive principle of justice: Venables is back where he belongs and where he should have been all the time. And there has been the reporting that points to the fact that - according to British law - Venables has served his sentence for the atrocious murder he committed as a child himself, earned the right to be released on licence and, hitherto, has been an example of successful rehabilitation.

The state may have paid millions in ensuring anonymity and providing other forms of support, but it was Venables himself who achieved some decent GCSEs and A-levels and prepared himself appropriately for his release.

At the time of writing, we do not know the grounds for his recall to prison, so we have to be cautious about any conclusions we draw. But those professionals who worked with Venables during his eight years in local authority secure accommodation must be deeply disappointed to be told now that they have failed.

After all, were it not for his particular antecedents, we might want to point to the millions of quite ordinary young men who, in their teens and 20s, transgress the law in relatively serious ways but do not go to prison. For Venables, uniquely, the rehabilitative ideal has been subordinated once more to mass hysteria and trial by media.

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