Children on trial: prosecution, disclosure and anonymity
When James Bulger was abducted and killed it was immediately apparent that those responsible were children. I was recently a child myself when Mary Bell was convicted of child killing and the memory of the publicity surrounding her trial remained vivid. In February 1993 the responses within the community, as neighbours turned against neighbours, were shocking. Between the tragedy and the arrest of two 10-year-old boys, false leads and police raids on houses brought, in their wake, vigilante attacks against those wrongly accused. Once arrests were made, angry mobs reacted with ferocity at the courts. A policewoman involved in escorting the boys told me that she feared for their lives. Following their murder convictions, the trial judge gave permission for both boys to be named, their photographs published. In most states none of these events, from the prosecution through to the publicity, would have occurred. The media-hyped, in some cases sponsored, demand for vengeance was exploited by opportunist commentators and politicians. The Centre for Studies in Crime and Social Justice was nine miles away
from the Bootle shopping precinct from where James Bulger was taken. Collectively, we were deeply concerned at the public reaction and media coverage surrounding the case, not least how such an exceptional case was portrayed as emblematic of growing lawlessness among children and young people. We formed the Young People, Power and Justice Research Group and in 1997 published ‘Childhood’ in ‘Crisis’? It mapped the regulation and criminalisation of children and young people that followed, including the backlash against children’s rights, the moral panic regarding ‘feral’ children, persistent young offenders and antisocial behaviour. With Deena Haydon, I visited a small town in Sweden were a child had been killed by two boys. We interviewed the police, social workers and others in the community. Unlike a similar case in Norway, the Swedish case was never made public and the boys stayed with family and were given fulltime welfare support. When we showed the police and social workers the media coverage of the James Bulger case they were aghast that children, whatever they had done, could be treated in such a way. A year later I was interviewed on New Zealand radio prior to presenting a public lecture in
Wellington on the implications of the case. The radio station switchboard was jammed for several hours as people rang to voice outrage at my seemingly ‘liberal’ views on children, discipline and punishment.