Jon Venables and a case of mob morality
13 March 2010
In the great establishment vs the people clash which is developing around the fate and future of Jon Venables, there will be only one winner. Ministers will argue the letter of the law, but then that is what they did over MPs’ expenses. Judges will warn of the dangerous consequences should Venables’s identity become known, but everyone knows that judges are out of touch with the real world.
Today, when the law of the statute book is confronted by the full force of street law – what Harriet Harman stupidly called “the court of public opinion” – it is the fuddy-duddies who will buckle and bend.
Battles of retribution and punishment, often led by an infuriated common-sense crusader (Richard Littlejohn, Carol Vorderman, Melanie Phillips or Jeremy Clarkson), usually concern a randy footballer or an over-excited broadcaster whom the public needs for its own perverse reasons to see humbled. In this case, justice and possibly a life are at stake, and mob morality has been at its ugliest.
Let us not fall for the line, often peddled by media hate-spreaders, that there is some kind of public entitlement in the case of Jon Venables, that we, the virtuous, ordinary, law-abiding people, have a right to know what he has done. The motive behind this campaign is far simpler than that: it is an unlovely combination of vigilantism and prurience.
In few cases has our culture of revenge revealed itself so nakedly. The terrible murder of James Bulger in 1993 was not, as Michael Howard once described it, “uniquely evil”, unless one happens to believe that confused 10 year-old children who do wrong are, by the nature of things, more evil than knowing adults who do the same thing. As a member of the trial jury said at the time, the two boys found guilty were “frightened and largely unaware children who made a terrible mistake and who are now in urgent need of psychiatric and social help”.
Yet, according to the court of public opinion, there is something particularly worthy of hate and persecution in those who offend when young. There are many adults found guilty of killing two-year-olds – often their own children – but none of them has become one of the small band of celebrity hate-figures in the tabloid press.
It is difficult to understand this level of loathing directed at those who commit crimes when they are children. If it reflects a yearning for childhood to be a time of innocence, that hardly explains why our society so cheerfully accepts the sexualisation of the very young through TV, magazines, the internet and the clothing industry.
It is, of course, easier to load feelings of anger and perhaps guilt on to a small, selected group of criminals, to want to see them punished, with their pain and humiliation served up as reassuring morality tales which make the rest of society feel safer and more virtuous. The spirit of what Lord Donaldson, in the context of Michael Howard’s extension of the prison sentence of the two child killers, called “institutionalised vengeance” lives on.
It is not truly interested in justice, fairness or security, this lust for punishment. Titillation disguised as morality, it seeks excitement in the day’s news, a real-life story of popular justice, with a conclusion – sad, perhaps even violent – that will leave a tingling sense of dramatic resolution, as in a good TV soap opera.
Less should have been more for Dudley
The publication of extracts from an embarrassingly tearful diary written by Dudley Moore at the age of 33 provides a couple of useful tips for those in public life.
One should first of all be careful what one does with private papers. The “intimate personal diary” which has, according to a newspaper, has “come to light” eight years after his death was entrusted to his close friend and biographer Barbara Paskin. Given the insights it provides into Cuddly Dudley’s state of mind in 1968, it seems unlikely that he envisaged its contents being given the double-page spread treatment in a national newspaper.
His ambitious mother, Ada, is blamed for his need for sex. His father was so cold that Moore was unable to enjoy the company of Alan Bennett because he wore similar glasses. There are recollections of Moore’s porn stash and rather too many accounts of his schoolboy sexual yearnings. “Joan Harold – on the way to the library – a peek at her house, did she go past the window? Oh God, my heart beats, beats, slowly wells, but not visibly so.”
The second lesson concerns the dangers of psychiatry. It was while he was under the care of Stephen Sebag Montefiore that Moore started to confide in a dairy. The process seems to have been rather less cathartic than intended. “Oh my God, I am unhappy and unfulfilled” reads another entry. “I am obviously a self-pitying ****.”
In the end, even Montefiore tired of this stuff, and encouraged Moore to try to have new feelings rather than clinging to the past. That is probably as near to calling his client a self-pitying **** as a psychiatrist could allow himself.
Dog law – Pekinese or Pit-bull?
Bravely, belatedly, the government has faced up to the tricky issue of dog-related violence. It has then come up with a scheme which will merely provide a windfall for insurance companies.
The requirement for third-party insurance for all dogs is a half-hearted measure by a government which is now afraid of being accused of nannying its citizens. A far more sensible approach, and one which would change the culture surrounding dog ownership, would be to instigate an obligatory license, micro-chipping and registration on a national database.
The argument that, while respectable Pekinese-owning members of the middle-class will obey the new law, yobs with pit-bulls will ignore it, is absurd – or, rather, it could apply to any law. The expense is justifiable: owning a dog costs money already.
A license system will formalize a sense of responsibility towards other humans, and to the animal itself. It is long overdue.