jon venables, the lynch mob and our ‘broken society’

by Adam Ford

In 1993, two year old James Bulger from Kirkby near Liverpool was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten year olds, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The horrific case provoked understandable revulsion from the general public. Politicians gleefully seized on it to further their own agendas. Then Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair promised that a Labour government would be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, marking the beginning of New Labour’s attempts to outflank the Conservatives to the right on ‘law and order’, which had long been considered the Tory Party’s own territory. John Major responded by declaring that Britain should “condemn a little more, and understand a little less”. As we know, once in power, Blair focused on the second clause of his soundbite.

Perhaps for Merseysiders in particular, our horror was not at the killing itself, but that we now lived in a society that could produce such ‘monsters’ (as they were routinely labelled by the media). I was only ten – the same as Thompson and Venables – but I remember that my mum still warned me to be “extra careful” on the streets. Fear stalked the land.

Eighteen years later, and Venables is in the news again, because he is back in prison accused of an undisclosed crime, and the government is refusing to reveal his new identity. The tabloid press is engaged in a kind of race to the bottom of the profitable hypocrisy pit, whipping up hatred of the twenty-seven year old for what he did as a child, whilst cheering on “our boys” as they slaughter their way through Afghanistan. At the time of writing, emails and texts are flying around, claiming to ‘out’ Venables, while the ‘I HOPE JON VENABLES GETS TORTURED IN PRISON THIS TIME ROUND!’ Facebook group had more than ten thousand members.

In the face of such a right-wing tidal wave, it can be very difficult for communists to make an intervention, even in conversation with friends and co-workers who are of the ‘hanging is too good for him’ mentality. Many people are very passionate about this issue, and to disagree with them on a reasonable basis can be confused for siding with child abuse.

Obviously, there is no easy answer to the question: ‘Why did Robert Thompson and Jon Venables kill James Bulger?’, but then the question has rarely been asked in any seriousness, as something other than a rhetorical device. It is not ‘making excuses’ to point out that they grew up in a city that was bearing the brunt of Thatcher’s offensive against the working class. This put enormous strain on many poor families. Jon Venables’ parents were separated. His brother and sister attended special needs schools, and his mother suffered psychiatric problems. After his parents’ separation, Jon reportedly became isolated and attention-seeking. At school he would regularly bang his head on walls or slash himself with scissors. Apparently none of this was treated, and the state’s first major intervention into Venables’ life was to lock him away.

Here, the objection will be raised that similar things could be said about many young children, and yet they don’t commit murder. Again, this is an attempt to derail the argument by setting up a ‘straw man’ – a misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. Of course, by themselves, such circumstances don’t automatically produce such dramatically anti-social behaviour, but they greatly increase the risk of it, as well as any number of negative life outcomes. Also, it (in)conveniently ignores the fact that if Jon Venables’ – and countless other children’s – childhoods were blighted by a serious lack of various resources, then that is in of itself an indictment of capitalist society.

Despite the sadism and confusion vented in online forums (a classic on the Daily Mail website reads “We should have hung them when they were ten. Killing children is wrong and should be punished by death.”), it could certainly be argued that this depth of feeling comes from ‘a good place’. People generally don’t want horrible things to happen to children, and they want ‘something’ to be done to stop it. With their ‘war on terror’ and their full-to-bursting prisons, the rich and powerful have created a climate where sadistic brutality is promoted as a cure for sadistic brutality. This is of a piece with their neoliberal reforms of the last thirty-five years, and the postmodern death of ‘why?’ as a legitimate socio-political question.

The reversal of this has to be a priority for a new workers’ movement. We need to put the case for understanding society much more, and condemning individuals a lot less. We need to make clear that this is certainly not the same as believing that atrocities are okay, because that is the counter-argument that representatives of the ruling class will throw at us, even as they metaphorically wade through blood.

7 thoughts on “jon venables, the lynch mob and our ‘broken society’

  1. jon venables is a product of are society,that same society that now wishes to percicute him,as gandi said,an eye for an eye only makes the world blind
    I personaly believe that the whole situation is a direct result of bad parenting,bad parenting by robert thompsons parents,bad parenting by jon venables parents,and bad parenting by james bulgers mum,because at the end of the day what sort of mother takes thier 2 year old shoplifting,and takes thiere eye off them for a minute.I have a 2 year old and would never dream of taking my eye off her let alone to shoplift,how many of them parents have put thiere hand up for what happend.


  2. A very good article, and thankfully not the only one coming from the left on this painful debacle. It is almost comical how easily the media have inspired a public hate fest for a man who committed a horrible crime AS A CHILD and has spent the entirety of his life since then totally institutionalised and almost certainly unable to rehabilitate. The utter banality of some of the proposed crimes he has committed to get sent back down make you weep. Drugs offences. For f*cks sake. Yes, taking drugs certainly proves he is ready to torture someone to death again. The journalists writing these stories probably take more cocaine than most prisoners.

    “what sort of mother takes their 2 year old shoplifting” – a working class one, in many circumstances. And I’m not saying this in the abstract, M. Casson, I have friends and comrades who watched their parents shoplift or steal one way or another, and grew up as perfectly adjusted members of society, though perhaps with a better understanding of poverty and capitalism than you have shown in this comment.

    To slightly disagree with the article, I think the point is not so much that society created the murder of Bulger. I cannot even remember being ten clearly, and certainly do not hold ten-year-old’s accountable for their actions. Children do bizarre things as they are forming their moral compass. I do not think the mother is *that* accountable either. For me what is sickening about it all is how the media have yet again taken an inexplicably horrible – but totally uncommon – case and turned us against ourselves, screaming for blood and hatred, seeing the evil lurking in everyone.

    We don’t know why people do these things. But they aren’t organised, they aren’t part of a ‘shift’ towards child murdering. They are used by the scum in the media to make ‘broken Britain’ not be a discussion on poverty, joblessness, underfunded schools, the rise of gangsterism in our youth (a genuine shift towards child-on-child murders), but a stupid pastiche of child abuse, drug taking and other random objectionable things. To make us worry about the random badness that we all may have, and the strong vindictive state we need, the punitive prison sentence, the rope. To make sure we never recognise the common lives we live – and how many people a pissing directly on our brains every morning as we open the papers.


  3. Just to be clear, I think M. Casson maybe tripped over their words there. Denise Bulger (as was) took James shopping, not “shoplifting”, before anyone gets distracted by this!

    I’ll respond more fully later.


  4. The argument that it is class society that is to blame for the series of tragedies that is ‘the bulger case’ does not hold water with me. For the very good reason that the parents concerned, whatever their circumstances, did fail in their duty to look after their children properly. Until and unless that personal responsibility is acknowledged then we are left with the bland and meaningless assertion, correct in itself, that it is cass society that is to blame. A position that leads to the conclusion that short of the abolition of class society there is little or nothing that we can do to prevent this ongoing tragedy that has led to the loss of the life of a toddler and the ruination of the lives of two more children.

    But there is far more that can be learnt from this tragedy. For example we can point to the need for more and better trained social services that aim to help people not control them as is often the situation today. We can talk of the need for improved education for the children of workers, including those incarcerated, thatis cademically solid and does not cater to trendy bs.

    All in all there are many lessons that flow from these tragedies that enable us to raise concrete criticisms of class society and to develop concrete solutions to the problems our class face. But only if we accept that the individuals who failed these children are. to some degree, responsible for this series of desperately sad events.


  5. I see your point, Neprimerimye but I don’t think we should be in a hurry to make judgements about Venables’ parents, who I would argue, have also been included in the circle of suffering.

    There is a lot we don’t know about the Bulger case and it is better that it remains that way. We rightly infer that something had gone badly wrong for Venables at some point in his childhood because his actions as a ten year old were so extreme. But we don’t know what, precisely, that was or who was responsible for it.

    There is much about this story which appalls, beginning with the fact that Jon Venables and his co-convicted were ever named at all in 1993. Why weren’t questions asked in parliament about this disgraceful legal judgement? There was no public interest in the disclosure of the ten year olds’ identities. Similarly Jack Straw hasn’t seen to it that much justice has been dispensed to Venables in the last few days, effectively confirming details of tabloid stories.

    I am pleased that people are as outraged by all this barbarity as I am.


  6. why cant we just leave people alone who have done there time,
    at the age of ten put into any institutions is going to affect there integration into society what ever crimes he commits in the future he is only the product of the system now that they have educated him into anti social behaviors what chance dose he have NONE when everyone will label him were ever he goes my heart and soul go out to him i can only hope he has the suport and guidence that he deserves!


  7. I’m glad this article and the thoughts behind it have been received so well. While ithis certainly isn’t a bread and butter issue for communists, it is important to be able to take part in any and all (inter)national debates, and offer a perspective. The effect of the media’s focus on this is to shift the political agenda even further to the right, and we must counter this – and similar occurrences – in the future.

    I agree with Bill Stickers, there is no way that the Bulger case can be seen as a shift towards child murdering. However, Thompson and Venables committed their deadly deed within a certain set of circumstances, which must necessarily mean that their behaviour is – hypothetically at least – explainable.

    To neprimerimye, ‘personal responsibility’ is itself a social construct, and one which works to apportion blame on individuals. But individuals’ behaviour can’t be understood outside of the social context. At the point where we blame an individual for something, we stop looking at how society can be improved, in order to stop such things happening again. If all the reforms needed to improve the lives of working class people cannot come outside of abolishing class society, then that’s just one more argument for that course of action.


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