Bulger killers – the right verdict

9 January 2001 – PressWise applauds the decision of Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss to grant lifetime anonymity to Robert Thompson and Jon Venables – the killers of young James Bulger – after their release from custody. The reason, as she made very clear, is simply that they stand in grave danger of their lives if their new identities are revealed.

The newspapers which opposed the injunction have largely themselves to blame for their failure. In the wake of the mob violence which followed the News of the World campaign to ‘name and shame’ paedophiles, how can anyone doubt that similar action would have followed the identification of Thompson and Venables? The public instinct for vengeance is strong; threats have already been made. Under Article 2 of the European convention enshrining the right to life, the judge had no option to act as she did. And she was right.

It is true that the affair may not end here: the newspapers concerned have threatened to launch an appeal. Nor is the judgement, applying only to England and Wales, a perfect solution. Newspapers in Scotland and Northern Ireland, let alone the rest of the world, are unaffected. And there is the constant lurking threat of exposure on the Internet. But if the new identities are revealed, and violence follows, how will the journalists concerned feel then? It is a question noticeably dodged by the editor of the Sunday People during numerous radio and television interviews. Could they, indeed, be held to be accessories to murder?

For newspapers to claim that the revelation of the pair’s new identities is a matter of the public interest is pure hypocrisy. It is a matter of commercial profit, nothing more. Nor is this verdict likely to establish a precedent for all released criminals. The case is singular and exceptional, as Judge Butler-Sloss emphasised.

There are undoubtedly those who would like to have seen Thompson and Venables hanged for their dreadful crime, or at the very least incarcerated for the rest of their natural lives. But the death penalty was abolished in this country many years ago, and to substitute it with private vengeance is hardly a civilised solution. It was precisely to put an end to private feuds and lynch law that the justice system was established in the first place. Newspapers, like the rest of us, must live within the law.

Press freedom is important, but along with freedom comes responsibility. No story, no exclusive, and no commercial advantage is worth a human life – even the lives of two wicked children.

(Bulletin No 35)

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