Public interest?

Once again, the fact that the public are interested in something is being conflated with the concept that revealing the something is “in the public interest”. The former does not make the latter true. In fact the more ferocious the former, perhaps the less likely it is that the latter is therefore true. I refer of course to the case of Jon Venables. It goes without saying that the plight of Denise Fergus, James Bulger’s mother, is one that excites one’s heartfelt sympathy. My own son was about James’s age at the time of the killing, and I can still recall the frisson of fear that the incident provoked in me. If I as a totally unaffected parent could feel such horror, then the experience of being the victim’s mother must be unimaginably worse, unfathomably awful. And yet I simply don’t understand the logic behind Mrs Fergus’s claim that she has a “right” to know why Jon Venables has been recalled to custody, and that by the same token Jack Straw has a duty to reveal it. Mrs Fergus may have a burning sense of curiosity, a compelling desire for knowledge, an entirely understandable fascination. None of that remotely adds up to a right.

If Mrs Fergus has no such right, and I am sure she does not, how much less do the rest of us have that right? The despicable sensationalism of the tabloid press, and also the unworthy concentration on the details by the BBC and the broadsheets, may be stoking up the sense of entitlement which appears to be prevalent among the public, but it surely doesn’t justify it. I freely admit that if the reason were revealed then I’d take an interest in it, but I know that my nosiness does not constitute any sort of right to have it satisfied.

This has nothing to do with the weary debate between the “hard” purveyors of justice as retribution and the “soft” pedlars of bleeding-heart liberalism in which no-one seems to have to take responsibility for anything. I’m proud to count myself amongst the second group, although I certainly don’t accept that I or any other members of it are denying responsibility, but rather are simply acknowledging that responsibility cannot be divorced from context. But I repeat, the issue has nothing to do with whether we should feel pity for Venables, or hatred for him. It has rather to do with the fact that justice is not contingent on past behaviour. I am not less entitled to have justice in the present because I have behaved abominably in the past. The victims of my past transgressions, or their relatives, have no right to deny me justice today regardless of how grievously they have suffered.

These principles would apply in any case of a criminal subsequently accused of another offence. I believe they apply all the more in this case. Jon Venables was a 10-year-old child when he committed his appalling crime. He is now 27. How many of us feel that we were the same person at 27 as we were 17 years before? I know I wasn’t, no matter that I had no ghastly 10-year-old self to overcome. So far from now revealing the reason for Venables’ return to custody, I want to know why it was ever necessary to release the information in the first place. Venables, at great public expense and doubtless equally great personal trauma, had been given a new identity. What was the point of reconnecting the new person with the old crime? That’s when the public interest was truly put in jeopardy.

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13 thoughts on “Public interest?

  1. Another very difficult issue, dealt with here with great calm and perspective. I agree that as tragic and emotive as the original events were that does not mean these people have forfeited their human rights. There is a rising sense of misplaced entitlement in this country, the ‘I want it therefore i can have it’ attitude. It is an unpleasant and invasive thing perpetuated by the tabloid money makers.

  2. We have a right to know what he has done because our juditial system let him out (After only 8 years!) leading us all to believe we were safe and that he is of no threat to the public.
    I can’t see what telling everyone can possibly do to harm his case – he’s on a lifetime licence – whatever it is he’s done (even if it’s punch a man in a drunken fight) means they should throw away the key.
    I don’t believe either of them should ever of been let out – EVER, but given the opportunity I’d put a bullet in his head for the 8 years holiday I’d get. God I’d be a national hero to. How nice.
    I also like writing so prison would give me a chance to write a book.

  3. Morality and democracy are two very different things. This knee-jerk response to the current revoking of his licence is nothing short of a witch hunt. He may be despicable in the eyes of many, but he nevertheless committed his crime when he was only ten years old. As a society, we may not be remotely comfortable with his actions, but I for one am grateful that we live in a country where justice and human rights are respected.

  4. Excellent blog. As terrible as the events were, I remember being horrified at the time by the response of so many ‘normal’ people. Denise Fergus is suffering and probably always will; we feel for her but that doesn’t make her ‘right’. I don’t believe anyone is beyond redemption – least of all a ten year old child.

  5. Your attitude to this is exactly why we have these nutters running around our country.
    “A country where Justice is respected” At what point is 8 years behind bars justice for James Bulger? You believe 8 years was justice?

    • Thanks for contributing to this debate, Jamie. Although I could hardly disagree with you more, I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

      But justice is not about the arithmetic of numbers of years served, nor is it about vengeance. As the saying (attributed to both Gandhi and Martin Luther King) has it, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

  6. It is an unfortunate fact of biology that the child is father of the man.

    Rehabilitation is sometimes fails. This could be due to poor rehabilitation, or to inate personality factors. Or both.

    The public has a right to expect that unrehabilitated violent people are not free to commit new violent offences.

    Jon Venables has a right to a fair assessment of his rehabilitation, and a right to a fair trial if he is charged with an offence. But, if he is shown to have failed rehabilitation attempts, he should expect to be treated fairly too — to be kept where he cannot harm the public.

    The public and Mrs Fergus have a right to see that justice is done, and that the criminal justice system is protecting the public. Jack Straw has not supported this right. He should have said that full details of any investigation and/or trial would be published in due course. This would be the proper time to connect the old Venables with the new, and ask questions about the competence of his rehabilitation and the persistence of antisocial personality traits.

    • I think you’re combining two different things here. Leaving aside the slightly dubious linking of biology to this debate, no-one is denying that there are wicked people in our society, from whom we all deserve protection. Equally, no-one is denying that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. Neither of those truths require Jack Straw to prejudice a fair trial should that prove to be necessary (and we don’t actually yet know that it will be) and as he pointed out, fair means a fair chance of successful prosecution as well as a fair chance of acquittal. Nor do they establish any “right” of Mrs Fergus to have privileged access on the basis of her son’s murder since that is no longer the object of whatever legal process may ensue.

      I was specifically not arguing on the basis of punishment, nor of protection for society, but simply on the basis that past crimes do not diminish the right to current justice. Your final sentence is I think very fair, but only because it defers those questions until after due legal process. Unfortunately, that is not what Mrs Fergus is demanding.

  7. Sorry but as a parent also, knowing what he is capable of I think the public have the right to know of his past. Fair enough everyone should have a second chance, in this case he has reoffended and must be fairly bad if he is back behind bars. When he comes to trial (again), if its in his new name, nobody will take into account that he is a reoffender, which is likely to happen agin and again. This would allow an unfair trial in his advantage, he would get out, a new id (again) and get back into society in a new place. I feel the public has the right, not to hunt him down, but to have the knowledge that if someone this dangerous was living near them and that they had the freedom to leave. With this new id, that wont happen, meaning others with kids or anyone in particular may come to harm. He may be under police monitoring but that wont stop him quick enough if he is going to harm again. You cant bring those back but you can prevent it happening to others.

  8. The arguments here seem pretty weak. Mrs F does have a right to know for the simple reason she and her family were the victims of a horrific crime. She has to live every day knowing her son was murdered in appalling circumstances. As much as there is a psychology of rehabilitation, there is a psychology of Justice too.

    Similarly, calling the Media interest in revealing the alleged new crime(s) a ‘witch hunt’ is a distinct overreaction, because Society does have a vested interest in the case ie in knowing if the supposed rehabilitation works, and if the life licence release scheme has been properly monitored. There are important questions there that need public scrutiny and debate, and we have to be careful that these underlying issues don’t get swept under the carpet of claims of a ‘fair trial’. There is enough Goverment cover up at the moment without the manipulation of important intellectual, legal and practical issues.

    • I agree there ought to be a debate, but recent evidence suggests most people are only interested in revenge. Are people really going to scrutinize the issues? The ‘right to know’ – and I’ve still not heard how this is supposed to help – effectively removes any chance of anonymity and with it that of rehabilitation.

    • You say that “the arguments here seem pretty weak”, but at least there is an argument! All it seems to me that you have done is to assert that Mrs Fergus has a right because, well, she has a right. Rights don’t appear because someone thinks they should. On what basis does being the relative of the victim of a horrific crime confer a right to know something? The rights I’ve and others have argued for come from well-established legal antecedents. Venables has a right to a fair trial; he has the right that that trial should not be compromised in advance (from the contempt of court legislation); he has the right to protection of his private life (from the human rights act). You may not like the rights these legal safeguards afford, but that’s hardly the point. You certainly haven’t established the right you assert on Mrs Fergus’ behalf.

      I do however agree with you that there is legitimate public interest in knowing about the success or otherwise of efforts at rehabilitation, and in the adequacy of life-licence monitoring. But these interests don’t arise from the Venables case: his case is simply an example. These legitimate concerns can be addressed in ways other than by prejudicing fundamental rights that protect us all, particularly when that prejudicing is being done in the pursuit of tabloid circulation and the satisfaction of public prurience.

  9. Pingback: Nothing new here « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog

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