The readmission to prison of Jon Venables, convicted at the age of 10 for murdering toddler James Bulger and a call for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 12 has caused a storm. Lindsey German writes on the issues obscured by the media response.
It is the measure of a society how it treats its weakest members. The treatment of children in Britain gives rise to concern over rates of poverty, the testing of children in education, and levels of violence towards them.
But little is more shocking than the attitude to child criminals, held liable from the age of 10 (much lower than most comparable countries) tried in full criminal courts and incarcerated in institutions which do little to solve their sometimes horrific problems.
I was therefore pleased to see that the Children’s Commissioner for England has called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 12 - a request which has already been turned down by the government, as it continues its refusal to embrace any possible liberal sentiment which could be construed by the media as ‘political correctness gone mad.’
The background to this is the readmission to prison of Jon Venables, convicted at the age of 10 along with Robert Thompson for the murder of the toddler James Bulger. Venables was in breach of the conditions under which he was released, although we have not been told how.
Much media speculation has followed. Politicians have both refused to divulge further information, but have also stoked speculation further by hinting at dark deeds which they will neither confirm nor deny.
The case led me to reread a book about another very similar case to that of Venables and Thompson, that of the Newcastle 11 year old Mary Bell who killed two toddlers in 1968 and who spent the next 12 years in institutions, 7 of them in adult prison.
The book Cries Unheard, is written by Gitta Sereny, and is a unique attempt to develop an understanding from the child themselves (when an adult) as to why they carried out these terrible crimes.
Sereny, a journalist who attended and wrote a book about Bell’s trial, persuaded Bell when in her 30s and herself a mother, to engage in a very long series of interviews which led her to confront the past. The book was greeted with a media and government witch hunt attacking both Bell and Sereny .
Yet it is a book which should be read by every government minister and newspaper editor who do such damage by creating a lynch mob attitude over many crimes. Although the death penalty was abolished before Mary Bell stood trial, society still seems to want to make criminals wish they were dead.
The legal system was introduced over centuries in order to remove revenge and retribution from the process. Now it is coming back courtesy of the Murdoch media and the most illiberal Labour government ever.
Sereny’s book, although I disagree with some of her conclusions, is a small antidote to that. The story is terrible. At the heart of Bell’s problems was her mother, who physically and sexually abused her. Herself a prostitute, Betty Bell tried at different times to kill her daughter and give her away to strangers. She then allowed her to be sexually abused by a series of clients.
This was a child who must have developed the most terrible mixture of hatred, fear, hurt and resilience, who eventually turned these feelings to the murder of two small boys. While her co-accused, Norma Bell, was acquitted, Mary was found guilty of manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility.
In the weeks between the two killings, Mary and Norma acted in a way which, as Sereny said, amounted to a series of cries for help. The girls came to the notice of the authorities repeatedly in those weeks, but nothing was done.
Mary Bell’s response to the trial was a mixture: sometimes she laughed at its strange proceedings, other times she asked those guarding her whether she would hang from the gallows. It is clear that in this sense she did not understand precisely what was happening to her. Was that also true as she committed the murders themselves?
Sereny had worked with many children after the Second World War who had been in the camps or forced labourers for the Nazis, and she says they all had in common that they rejected moral concepts of good or bad.
‘The resemblance between these seriously damaged children and their rejection of conventional morality in 1945, and Mary in that English court room in 1968, totally at sea with the moral concepts she was asked to swear an oath to, was quite striking for me. ‘
Many years later the trial of the Bulger killers raised many similar questions. One juror in that case, Vincent Moss, spoke out a year and a half later against jury trials for children. He argued that they could not know right from wrong in the way that adults could. He said that the jurors had no real possibility of deciding guilt or innocence: ‘We were there simply to rubber-stamp a verdict’. He was horrified at the judge calling Thompson and Venables ‘vicious and hardened criminals.’
Any attempt to approach cases like this in a way which stresses discovering why children do these terrible things has been lost in a welter of cries for revenge. Radio talk shows, newspapers, internet speculators and politicians all act as judge, jury and executioner all over again. This is a lot easier than the very hard and labour intensive work of dealing with the cases in a way which might elucidate them.
It also exonerates from blame those who helped create these conditions in the first place. There was Margaret Thatcher who told us there is no such thing as society, just individuals and their families. John Major, who said we should condemn a little more and understand a little less. And let’s not forget the Labour politicians, who have never passed up a chance to make themselves popular with the Murdoch press.
Most importantly, by focusing on individual cases which represent only a tiny minority of crimes by and against children, and treating them as ‘uniquely evil’, we ignore the much greater wrongs carried out within and around the family, where most child death and child abuse takes place. It can hardly be otherwise in a society which relies so strongly on the family to prop it up, and which therefore allows it to keep so many secrets.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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