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Discuss some of the key issues for the study of Media, Crime & Justice raised by any "hard case" murder where a child or children are the perpetrators
The chosen "hard case" murder for this assignment is the Jamie Bulger case, this is a case of a two-year-old toddler abducted and murdered by two ten-year-old boys Jon Venables and Robert Thompson from Merseyside in 1993. Due to the age of criminal responsibility (ACR) in the UK these boys were arrested, tried and convicted in full view of the public and media.
1. How should society and the law deal with the question of criminal responsibility when children commit murder?
2. Do the tabloid press simply reflect public outrage against certain crimes, or create it?
In order to establish how society and the law should deal with the question of criminal responsibility and illustrate how the tabloid press create public outrage I am going to compare the Bulger case with a similar case that took place in Norway in 1994 known as the "Raedergard" murder. Firstly a widespread debate is the current ACR in the UK which is ten-years-old this is also the lowest in Europe (Broadbridge, 2009). Many countries around the world have higher ages of legal responsibility, an example is Norway where the age is 15-years-old.
Whether a child at the age of ten can understand the moral and psychological components of criminal responsibility is an ongoing debate. Piaget's (1978, as cited in Berk, 2006) cognitive stage model proposed that a child's moral development is completed by the age of ten however a child's thinking differs from that of an adult and develops with an interaction between biological maturation and personal experience. Kohlberg (1963, as cited in Berk, 2006) developed a theory of moral reasoning suggesting a process that depends on cognitive maturation and the opportunity to confront moral issues. Gilligan (1982, as cited in Passer & Smith, 2007) criticised Kohlberg's work for placing too much emphasis on justice therefore illustrating male bias.
In the UK the ACR does not lie congruously with other developmental milestones such as voting (18-years old) or sexual intercourse (16-years old) (Kehily, 2004). When a person reaches the age of 18 they are viewed by the law as an adult, a common debate argues that to label and criminalise a child at the age of 10 is to set them up for further criminal activity:
"The younger you label a child a criminal, the less likely they are to ever stop being one".
(The Independent, 2007)
The Bulger murder was a high profile case that made international headlines in 1993, communities and police were shocked by the murder. A year later in Norway a 5-year-old girl Silje Raedergard was killed whilst playing with two friends on a local football field. The way in which these two cases were dealt with in the media was vastly different. The Bulger case polarised people's views on corrective punishment and editorials were outraged calling for more punitive measures from the criminal justice system, Venables and Thompson were criminalised in the media and referred to as "cold-blooded murderers". "Folk Devils and Moral Panic's" written by Cohen (2002) describes the media frenzy surrounding the mods and rockers in the late 1960s, moral panic's are described as the mass media manufacturing crime waves and labelling non-conformist groups (Jewkes, 2004). In contrast the press in Norway referred to the boys as victims expressing care and compassion for them and all the families. The press tried to understand what had caused this tragedy exploring ways of preventing it from happening again therefore neither one of these boys were criminalised by the media or their communities.
After the public's initial grief over the Bulger case came anger and outrage which culminated in a gathering of 700 people outside the magistrates' court shouting abuse at the two young boys when they came to trial. On the 23rd November 1995 The Daily Star reported on the guilty verdicts of the two boys, the front page had pictures of the boys smiling and a headline that read:
"Killer Bobby Thompson - Boy A and Killer Jon Venables - Boy B".
(Daily Star, as cited in McNutt, 2010)
The headline below the photographs asked:
"How do you feel now you little bastards?.
(Daily Star, as cited in Scraton, 1997)
Coverage of this story was sensationalized by the media and dominated the papers with headlines such as:
"Born to Murder" (as cited in McNutt, 2010)
In contrast the news of Raedergard's death surprised the town of Trondheim as there had only been two murders in the six years prior to this death. Instead of anger and revenge been expressed the local community felt grief and partial responsibility. The two boys that committed the murder were treated as victims not murderers. As the legal ACR in Norway is 15-years-old both these boys were free to return to school within a week of the incident. The media coverage of this story displayed a sense of collective tragedy and sadness and the day after the girls' body was found the media in Norway made a choice to not publish her name, pictures or any descriptions of the events (Franklin & Larson, 2000).
In the UK anger was building due to the sentences received by Venables and Thompson, both received a minimum of 15 years however Lord Chief Justice (2000) expressed concern that the boys were becoming institutionalised, ruling that their tariff was over with immediate effect them and their families could assume new identities and start a new life. This created another public outcry and the media displayed disbelief with headlines that simply said:
"Sick" (as cited in McNutt, 2010);
"Has justice betrayed the little boy who was never allowed to grow up?" (Daily Mirror, 2007)
In Norway the boys were treated with care and their community displayed despair that such an awful incident could take place in their city. The community did not show anger and disgust when the two boys were provided with counselling for the following four years and the head psychologist Andreassen (1996) was reported to say that all of the community were committed to helping these boys (BBC, 2000)
The way in which the UK law deals with criminal responsibility may not always be seen to be effective Siegal & Welsh (2009), suggested that evidence shows that exposing young children to the criminal justice system serves no purpose as it criminalises them. Ward (1996) proposed that society want to criminalise young people that have committed crime in order to protect themselves. The media has a major role in the public's perception of events this is illustrated in the Bulger case where the media portrayed the boys as inwardly evil who committed a motiveless act. These boys were entirely responsible for their actions and at no point were any mitigating circumstances (socialisation or backgrounds) reported (Munice, 1999). By comparison the Norwegian press reported that the young girls mother had forgiven the boys and all of the families were working together to overcome this terrible tragedy. These boys were viewed as children that could not have known the consequences of their "child play" and therefore could not be held accountable for their actions.
In conclusion the age of criminal responsibility in the UK will continue to be a subject of debate. As people and societies become more globalised and media savvy editors and writers should ensure they are reporting responsibly as the media play a crucial role in constructing the way individuals think about certain events. The reporting of both of these cases by the Norwegian and British press illustrates the distinguishing attitudes of two cultures towards children and the need and role of punishment in the criminal justice system.