The death of James Bulger: a singular tragedy and a damaging landmark

One of the challenges of writing about the Bulger killing is confronting the enormity of what happened to James, and its catastrophic impact on his family. To hear the interview with James’s father Ralph Bulger on Radio Four yesterday morning is to hear a man driven to the very edge of self-destruction by the tragedy that befell him.

The interview, like so much media coverage of the case, sets up the Bulger family in opposition to Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the two killers. In a moving section towards the end, interviewer Winifred Robinson presses Bulger about his feelings towards Thompson and Venables, and the fact that they were themselves such young children. “You obviously believe that children are the most important thing, that they are our most sacred trust,” she says. “The people who want to give those boys a second chance, they feel that because they were children, that they are now the state’s most sacred trust.” To which he responds, “Let them live with them, that’s all I say. Let them live with them.”

This way of framing the case – “whose side are you on, James’s or his killers?” – is hard to resist. But it is a false choice, and also unhelpful in understanding its wider significance. I want to take a different tack, and instead to ask what our response to the case shows about the way we think about children as a group.

Sociologist Frank Furedi argues in a piece in yesterday’s Independent that the killing quickly became completely detached from the particulars of the case. Commentators, politicians from across the political spectrum and the media imposed on this singular tragedy a toxic picture of children as ever more morally depraved and feral. In a twist that foreshadowed the now ubiquitous use of security camera images in the service of media storytelling, this picture was perfectly underscored by the searing CCTV image of a trusting James being led to his terrible fate by the two boys.

In fact, as I note in No Fear, there is clear evidence that the media covers horrific crimes in more lurid and moralistic ways than it used to. Research comparing newspaper coverage of child murders in the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s found that the more recent reporting dwelt heavily on the perspective of the victims, resulting in more raw and emotional coverage. It also found a shift in the way the crimes were explained: “In the earlier periods the crimes were defined as isolated murders committed by ‘evil’ individuals, whereas by the 1990s these crimes were considered a result of society in decline.”

Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were ten years old when they killed James Bulger. In the two decades since then, some 12 million children in the UK have passed through their eleventh year. And yet not a single one has done anything commensurate. This alone should give pause for thought to anyone wishing to claim a moral decline amongst the nation’s children. Indeed wider crime figures show a steady and significant fall over the last twenty years, even into the current recession (a fact that has criminologists scratching their heads).

As Furedi points out, our ways of thinking about children are paradoxical. “The myth of the feral child,” he says, “coexists with the powerful counter-myth of the innocent child who is incapable of lying or wrong-doing. Both of these myths are the product of adult fantasy. Both of them express sentiments that fail to grasp the reality of children’s lives.”

Young children are neither angels nor demons. Of course, some children have innate differences from others – in biology, neurology and, to an extent, personality and character. And some children grow up in more challenging circumstances than others. But the fundamental difference between children and adults is not a matter of innocence, nor of guilt, but of inexperience. And children will only have a good diet of experience – of being loved, of being taught, and of learning from their own efforts – if they grow up in a society with a shared understanding of what a good childhood looks and feels like.

James Bulger’s death marked not only an unparalleled personal tragedy, but also a damaging shift in our conception of childhood. It heralded a loss of faith in children’s potential. What events since then have shown is that this loss of faith was simply not warranted. The phrase “sacred trust” is not mine, but I support the underlying plea behind Winifred Robinson’s searching question to Ralph Bulger. Twenty years on, it is time to rebuild the covenant between the generations.

6 responses to “The death of James Bulger: a singular tragedy and a damaging landmark

  1. Tim, always good to read, stimulating and thought provoking as intended.

    I often wonder why there isn’t more examination of possible causes for such behaviour. I tried to find my copy of Animal Play, a very interesting collection of essays on play in animals, sadly I think I must have lent it to somebody. For some reason the last essay as I recall concerns work done in America on mass child murderers. Believe it or not, it began as a piece of research for the CIA but went beyond that. From memory it showed, quite conclusively, that there was a real link between play depravation in childhood and such events. I personally wonder very much about the lack of research in this field (maybe you will know of more?) in the light of a society that agonises on the extremely rare occurance.

  2. Good article, Tim. People may remember a Guardian article (October 2000) about young children killing a child in Norway and the very different way that was handled, and the thinking and values that informed the Norwegian response.

    Article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2000/oct/30/bulger.simonhattenstone

    For many of us, of course, the UK age of criminal responsibility (10 years) is shameful and shot through with contradictions given that, for example, you cannot marry until 16, vote at 18, join the army at sixteen and a half (but only take part in operations when 18 years of age).

  3. Mel kearsley davies

    Thanks for this and the guardian link, both very thought provoking

  4. Robin, Bernard, Mel – thanks for your comments. Robin, you may be thinking of the American play academic Stuart Brown, whose work on murderers (especially the multiple gun murderer Charles Whitman) has been taken up by play advocates. I think this work confuses correlation with causation: people who end up going on killing sprees may well have not played much (or in healthy ways) as kids. But I suspect that’s because of other underlying issues that shaped both their childhood play patterns and their adult crimes. I don’t doubt that play can have therapeutic benefits, but I doubt the simple cause-and-effect argument that so-called play deprivation leads to homicidal behaviour.
    Bernard – thanks for adding the link and reminder of the Norway case – I nearly mentioned it myself, and of course agree with you on the age of criminal responsibility (an issue that has been well aired).

  5. Pingback: UK government is radicalising its people | Abroad at Home

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