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.