The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done? A disturbing reminder of the issues at the heart of the murder case: review

Gerard O'Donovan
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson - PA

Nothing brought home more powerfully how young Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were when they abducted and murdered toddler Jamie Bulger in February 1993, than the audiotapes recorded during the police interviews following their arrest in The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done? (Channel 4).

Twenty-five years on, Thompson and Venables still sound even younger than the 10 years of age they were at the time, initially denying, then describing abducting the two-year-old, and beating and stoning him to death.

It is still all but impossible to believe that children that young could be capable of committing a crime which was described by the presiding judge Mr Justice Morland as “an act of unparalleled evil and brutality.” 

Hearing the tapes again, reliving the sense of horror, the press frenzy and public outrage, was disturbing all over again. It was a stark reminder of the case, and the huge emotions and issues at its heart... 

But, to my mind, this film did little to answer the question posed in its title. At least not in terms of one way or the other.

It offered opinions certainly: there were the thoughts of Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun, whose rabble-rousing coverage helped whip up the media frenzy that surrounded the case; more legalistic recollections of the two boys from their defence solicitors, Laurence Lee and Dominic Lloyd (who both appear to be still deeply affected by the case); as well as the former prosecuting QC, Sir Richard Henriques.

There was also the sympathetic but not-especially-expert opinions of two other well-known journalists, Blake Morrison and Shelagh Fogarty, who both recalled covering the trial.

Jamie Bulger  Credit: PA

Not a single UK child psychiatrist or other mental health professional was interviewed. Nor anyone at all with a wider expertise or overview of how the law deals with violent young offenders in this country other than in this specific instance.

A brief example of a case involving two six-year-old killers in Norway offered a contrast of sorts (no arrests or charges were brought as the age of legal responsibility is 15 in Norway, as opposed to 10 here).

Inside the James Bulger files 25 years on

But apart from a Norwegian psychologist arguing that children have no way of telling right from wrong until their frontal lobes develop during puberty (something any parent could disagree vehemently with), it was hard to see the relevance of this case given the lack of detail.

In the end, all that could really be concluded is that the law is a very blunt instrument and that, faced with an act that goes so far beyond its normal purview, the law will struggle to come up with a outcome to satisfy everyone.

Timeline | James Bulger murder

Should Thompson and Venables have been released in 2000 instead of being transferred to the adult penal system? Should the system have sought to rehabilitate rather than punish them? Indeed, could any legal outcome have satisfied every one of the millions of people who had very strong opinions on this case?

I’m not convinced this documentary will have changed many hearts or minds, or even made people reconsider their views of the case. It only served to remind us of what an appalling tragedy the killing of Jamie Bulger was.

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