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James Bulger And The Video Recordings Act Criminology Essay

An analysis of the effect moral panics have on the law through criminal cases begins with James Bulger’s murder in 1993. The Sun newspaper described the case as that horrific it ‘highlighted moral decay in Britain.’The BBC called it a landmark case, it came to symbolise a moral panic about deviancy and children – ‘the threat of other people's, the defencelessness of our own.’ This chapter will illustrate how the case has impacted upon the law in various areas; through CCTV scheme implementation, video recording regulations and juvenile sentencing. This influence will be shown through changes in legislation, as well as using supporting evidence such as reports and journals which relate the case to the formed regulations.

On the 12th February 1993, two year old James Bulger was abducted from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle by two ten year old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. [4] Two days later James’ brutally mutilated body was found on a railway line. [5] By the 20th February, Venables and Thompson were charged with his abduction and murder [6] . It slowly began to unfold the extent of the various injuries inflicted to James’ body by the two boys, as they tortured him before finally abandoning his body on a train track. Venables and Thompson were to be the youngest defendants in history to be convicted of murder. [7] 

The case was the first one ever to be aired on the programme ‘Crime Watch’ the same week as it had been committed, with the Ministry of Defence offering assistance in enhancing CCTV footage of the suspects abducting James to aid enquiries, [8] giving an indication to how high profile the case was in public agenda. The impact the case had on Britain was one of stirring paranoia and fear, parents were afraid their child would be the next one to be abducted, with child’s safety reign sales increasingly rapidly after James’s abduction. [9] The case has recently been pushed back into the attention of the media due to the re-arrest of the defendant Jon Venables on allegations made concerning breaches of his release on life licence. [10] 

The trial took place at Preston Crown Court due to the amount of unrest caused towards it in Liverpool. This suspects were labelled as “evil,” combined with the media’s reaction to the case as more details came to light creating a presentation of two young children as wicked; ‘no further inquiry was necessary as to the causes of criminality in the young, all that matters were that they were guilty’. [11] Few considerations towards the fact they were children were taken throughout the trial. [12] It was later ruled in the European Court of Human Rights that Britain was guilty of three breaches of human rights in the trial and sentencing of Thompson and Venables through the massive emotionally driven media response to the case being severely intimidating towards the defendants, impairing the possibility of a fair trial. [13] The sentence for the two defendants had been increased to 10 years form 8 by the lord chief justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth. [14] This was follow by a petition of 280’000 signatures conducted by The Sun newspaper, created with the intention to increase the custody sentence of the two defendants. [15] Home Secretary Michael Howard granted this by increasing the maximum sentence to 15 years, a direct example of how the media has played a part in sentence tariff change. [16] There had been refinements made to the tariff policy previously in 1998 and 1991 but no application was made to child offenders in the Parliamentary statements, until July 27 1993, when Michael Howard stated ‘everything..said about the practice of the Secretary of State in relation to mandatory life sentence prisoners applies equally to persons who are, or will be detained during Her Majesty’s pleasure.’ This statement was made between the murder of Bulger and the trial of Thompson and Venables, which implies it was intended to appease the significant public opinion indicated by The Sun’s petition towards this specific case. Michael Howard made it clear that this policy would be applied to Venables and Thompson just as it would be applied to an adult murderer. [17] 

The link between the two murderers and media violence began with a remark made by the trial judge; [18] ‘I suspect that exposure to violent video films may in part be an explanation.’ [19] This remark evolved into an application of blame to a ‘slasher’ horror film Child’s Play 3, that the boys ‘may’ have watched. [20] The link to Childs Play 3 was that the father of one of the boys - Neil Venables - had rented the video some months earlier; however the police officer who directed the investigation, Albert Kirby, found that the son, Jon, was not living with his father at the time and was unlikely to have seen the film. [21] Moreover, the boy disliked horror films - a point later confirmed by psychiatric reports. [22] Thus the police investigation, which had specifically looked for a video link, concluded there was none. This fact received very little coverage and the lasting impression is of the newspaper campaigns in November 1993 blaming violent videos for the toddler’s murder’. [23] The panic and outrage felt by the public at the child killers was turned onto media violence; the violence depicted through mediums such as film are suggested to be the cause and inspiration for a crime, wanting to pin James Bulger’s murder onto the video. [24] The Sun staged a public burning of horror videos begging the public to ‘for the sake of all our kids...burn your video nasty,’ [25] Video stores began to withdraw the film from its shelves in fear of outcry from the public, one video chain burnt its copies as part of The Sun’s campaign. It was later revealed four months later by the Merseyside police that there was no evidence to suggest either boy had watched Childs Play, or any horror film like it [26] . This ‘snow ball effect’ sparked by the passing remark of the judge turned into a national outrage at the film., illustrating just how strongly the British public felt about the case. There was a need to find a cause for this horrific crime, a ‘scape goat’ for the blame, and measures needed to be put into place to prevent it happening again. [27] 

A report written by Professor Elizabeth Newson was commissioned to be written by liberal democrat MP David Alton to support his argument for an amendment to be made to the Criminal Justice Bill for videos to be classified as ‘Unsuitable for Home Consumption’ (UNHC), preventing children from viewing unreasonably violent videos at their leisure. [28] He demanded that modifications be made to the law to effectively remove all horror films from distribution in the UK. [29] State censorship was implemented in the realms of the courts and the Obscene Publications Act [30] before then being embodied in the Video Recordings Act of 1984. The Video Recordings Act was amended after section 4 with a new legal requirement within Section 90(1) The Criminal Justice Act 1994 for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to;

‘Have special regard among the other relevant factors to any harm that might be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society, by the manner in which the work deals with:

(a) criminal behaviour

(b) illegal drugs

(c) violent behaviour or incidents

(d) horrific behaviour

(e) human sexual activity.’

For failing to apply the criteria with a sufficient regard for the factors listed, the BBFC could now be taken to court and held accountable. The mention of ‘other relative factors’ gave the BBFC the ability to also consider other criteria not listed such as bad taste, offensiveness or bad language. [31] These amendments to the existing guidelines strengthened the classification system of videos. The criteria themselves are listed in very broad terms in their descriptions and what could be deemed offensive through their portrayal in video. The terminology used of ‘any harm that may be caused to potential viewer or, through their behaviour, to society’ is vague in its application; possibly being applied to ‘harm’ caused to the viewer through disturbing and shocking them, or maybe causing more long term damage psychologically. [32] Previously triable summarily only offences such as supplying or possessing unclassified video recordings were made triable either way under section 88(2) and 88(3) of the 1994 Act, showing an acceptance these offences are of a serious nature, warranting this change. The Home Secretary also reserved the power to enable the BBFC to review video recordings ‘in relation to such determinations as the authority think fit.’ [33] This broad provision means that videos already held a classification could be reclassified as suitable for an older age group only or even refused a certification altogether.

The criteria for suitability incorporated into section 4A of the V.R.A. will have application only to video classification decisions taken by the BBFC after the 1994 Act came into force, i.e. after November 3, 1994, but the Home Secretary has reserved a power in the legislation which will enable the BBFC to review works already classified prior to the introduction of these criteria.20 The power reserved is a broad one for it is specifically provided that the Home Secretary may make provision for the BBFC's power of review “to be exercisable in relation to such determinations as the authority think fit.”21 If this power is taken up, it might be anticipated that some videos which currently hold a classification certificate will, after review, be refused a certificate, whilst others may be reclassified as suitable only for an older age group.

In Newson’s report, claims where made that up to that point it had been underestimated just to what extent these violent films were being accessed by children, with Newson making links to violent behaviour from heavy exposure to media images, which result in a desensitisation to compassion, as displayed by the two defendants in the Bulger case ; [34] 

‘We know that children can be traumatised, not only by the images they see, but also by additional images that are suggested by their imagination in response to the originals; but far more dangerous, because more lastingly damaging, would be that eventually they should no longer be troubled at all by seeing violent images, as a result of desensitisation by systematic repetition. The processes of “desensitisation” and “flooding” are well known methods for modification of behaviour, reducing the impact of the original accompanying emotion.’ [35] 

The Newson report has been described as ‘wildly misleading’ for its founding of evidence being of poor quality and its emotive use of the Bulger case to support its argument. [36] Newson uses the ‘protection of children’ to strengthen her argument in the paper;

‘it seems impossible to allow the situation to continue, and indeed escalate, as it now is. ..it seems unlikely that those who feel responsibility for protecting children will be able to wait for such corporate self-denial.’ [37] 

Children in society are used here to strengthen the argument through individuals’ innate need to protect and care for them; an illegitimate use of feelings to make a case for a cause. [38] Not long after the Newson report was released the Gulbenkian Foundation commissioned a report; Children and Violence, which was published in November 1995.

The case of Jamie Bulger not only impacted upon the publics’ perception of the ‘Video Nasties’ moral panic, but also the possible use of video surveillance in Britain as a crime prevention measure [39] . Leon Hempel, a social scientist at the Centre of Technology and coordinator of the Urban Eye project stated ”The intense media attention afforded to the case played on the growing paranoia present in Britain.” [40] At the time of James Bulger’s kidnapping in 1993, there were just 10 systems active in Britain, by 2005 there were 4 million cameras installed, a total higher than any other country in Europe [41] . CCTV imaging played a significant role in the Bulger case when it was used in the trial as evidence to show images of the two defendants Jon Venables and Robert Thompson abducting James Bulger from a Liverpool shopping centre (see attached bibliography for image; appendix A). [42] This was at first the only major lead into identifying the suspects. [43] Hempel stated, ‘The Bulger case was instrumental in the rise of video surveillance systems across Europe, the case persuaded the British public of the advantages of having video surveillance cameras in public spaces and the effectiveness of systems in preventing crime.’ [44] Professor Laycock, director of the Jill Dando Institute stated the familiar image of the two defendants leading James Bulger out of the shopping centre is one that was key to the case, “it showed the police they were looking for two kids rather than a paedophile.” [45] Less than a year after the Bulger case, Liverpool city centre’s own large scale CCTV system went live, which can be viewed as a direct reaction to the murder of James Bulger. [46] But research carried out on 14 systems on behalf of the Home Office actually shows CCTV does little to reduce crime or make people safer. [47] Chief inspector Kevin Wellden of Middlesborough Town Police sees the technology of CCTV as more of an asset to the police,

In 2002, Lord Falconer unveiled one of the largest CCTV systems to cover Manchester city centre, commenting that CCTV helps give the public peace of mind that they are more secure, acting as an aid to the police in apprehending wanted individuals and in securing convictions in court. [48] A report carried out by the National Association for Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) concluded that the CCTV system, as well as schemes put in place in housing estates, on public transport or car parks, had no effect into reducing street crime. [49] NACRO have claimed that although CCTV is a useful aid to the police, its effectiveness is often over stated in its use as a crime prevention method. [50] 

Another aspect of CCTV that cannot be controlled is its misuse; an advisory body called Camera Watch chaired by Gordon Ferrie, a former senior police officer, found up to 90 percent of CCTV systems present in the UK fail to comply with the Information Commissioners UK CCTV code of practice, with many operating illegally; “we are in favour of close circuit television, it’s as good as having DNA. There is nothing better than actually seeing someone commit the crime. All we’re asking is that the images that are taken are compliant with the Data Protection Act.” [51] 

The issued raised by the reactions displayed to the case of James Bulger highlights many aspects of how the media can influence the public perception of a social issue, but specifically the damage that has been caused by this moral panic. Traditional British views on childhood were lost, children were being monitored far more closely than ever before, with the real and very rare incident of two child killers being represented and used as an example of moral downfall in society. [52] The news coverage of the crime was such that it implored people to support the campaigns and if you weren’t a supporter you were condoning the defendants’ actions in killing James Bulger. [53] Jenny Bargen of the Department of Juvenile Justice warns the high profile case resulted in a ‘public damning’, distracting the justice system and the public from helping the offenders and the family of the victim.

“It’s disturbing that young people are involved in killing someone. It always has been. But it does not mean that suddenly it is not safe to walk the streets, there are programs designed to help juvenile offenders to understand what they have done and help them to grow up.” [54] 

The intense media coverage of the child killers was so extensive that it could have given the impression to the public that the actual occurrence of such crimes was increasing. [55] Between 1979 and 1994 there were 108 children between the age of 10 and 17 convicted of murder or manslaughter in England and Wales, [56] a very small amount compared to the perception given by the mass coverage which will be shown to have a direct impact on the public opinion. The Guardian newspapers leader comment response to the ruling for Venables’ and Thompsons’ case said the murder had ‘unlocked all kinds of primitive fears about the aggressive urges in young children’, but also lead on to caution against using James Bulger’s murder as ‘an excuse for reversing 10 years of criminal justice policy. A system designed to deal with five million crimes must not be steered by one.’ [57] The question of how successful the rehabilitation could be of the two defendants has been brought into the foreground of the media recently due to Venables’ re-arrest after a breach of his life licence conditions, but it must be remembered this one case is not applicable to all; with reference being made to the case of Mary Bell, who was released ‘on licence’ after serving 12 years now lives AAA

In the appendix of her book, ‘The Case of Mary Bell,’ Gitta Sereny describes the backgrounds of the two defendant’s Venables and Thompson. [58] This history contains Thompson’s abandonment from his father and Venables as a school child displaying seriously disturbing behaviour. The sexual element of the crime, with the manipulation of James Bulger’s foreskin is considered, with Sereny noting; ‘children who abuse other children have almost invariably been abused themselves.’ [59] / [60] Gitta Sereny observes that to enable people to gain an understanding of why these terrible deeds occur, it is the only change we have of ever perhaps stopping even some of them taking place in the future [61] . ‘Horrible things will always happen, but to understand them could prevent some.’ [62] This argues for focus to be aimed at minimising future crimes through looking at providing support where it is needed through rehabilitation, not just to achieve retribution for the crime. The law relating to diminished responsibility, a defence to manslaughter, does not account for children who sexually abuse children or acknowledge that these abused children could be suffering from an ‘abnormality of the mind.’ In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, the foreman of the Bulger jury, Vincent Moss stated that ‘looking back, I am ashamed that I allowed myself to be coerced by the judge and prosecution to agree to a verdict of guilty of murder.’ Moss says ‘a proper judgement would have been that they had behaved like confused, frightened and stupid children caught up in a situation they had created but could not deal with. The judge’s pronouncement that they were “evil” was just wrong – they didn’t have the moral and intellectual capacity for this to be an accurate description.’ [63] 

The case coming back into debate has resurrected the emotive responses of the public, but also highlighted an important and overlooked issue; victims and their families should have more rights within the system, in particular their access to information. [64] A spokesman for Victim Support commented on the Bulger case, “It is a severe example of a general problem that affects a lot of victims of crime, which is not being given information about what is going on.” [65] 

The Newson report has been regarded retrospectively as being quite biased in its conclusions which are accused of being based on weak research, being a result of child behaviourists falling into line with the current fad of that time to see a link between video violence and antisocial behaviour and ignoring evidence that does not fit in with the theory. [66] One psychologist who signed to the Newson report was quoted saying ‘In the past, many of us thought there could be a link but the evidence was not terribly convincing and not enough to make us question the freedom of an individual to have access to this material. The Bulger case made us think again.’ [67] However, the Gulbenkian Foundation’s report does bring to light the importance of taking into account many other factors such as particular children’s’ direct experiences of violence in their homes, or the ecological surroundings of the children, not just orientating towards the one issue of video violence; ‘A useful debate about causes and prevention of violence involving children is hindered by the sort of misinformation about the role of particular videos which followed the Bulger trial.’ [68] This is how a misleading representation can lead to changes in the law such as those that took place under the Video Recordings Act 1994 because of the Newson report and the change in the minimum tariff for life sentences. The changes made to the Video Recordings Act 1994 to strengthen controls over video recordings intend to implement strict standards of classification, but the extent to which these standards will be tightened is reliant on the interpretation of the BBFC. Through making the video classification offences subject to a sentence of imprisonment, there is an underlying recognition that these offences merit custodial sentences, and are therefore serious offences. [69] The power reserved by the Home Secretary to allow the BBFC to review videos already classified prior to the new standards means it anticipated some videos already holding a classification certificate will, after review by the BBFC, be refused a certificate or be reclassified within another older age classification.

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