TV Critic Hannah Sheffield reviews the controversial Channel 4 documentary The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done?, reflecting on the infamous murder case 25 years on
In light of the broadcast on Channel 4 of the documentary reflecting on the James Bulger murder case has sparked an outrage amongst viewers. The documentary, entitled The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done? aired on 5th February 2018, showed interviews with solicitors, journalists and prosecutors involved in the prosecution of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both aged 10 for brutally torturing and murdering 2-year-old James Bulger on February 12th, 1993.
As the youngest ever criminals imprisoned by the legal justice system in England, viewers responded negatively to the show, saying Channel 4 were “defending” and “sympathising” with the killers. An interview with journalist Blake Morrison who covered the trial for the New Yorker in 1993 was one of those defending the boys, referring to them as “two small boys”. He claims, “To look at them in the court room to hear them on tapes was to realise that they were small boys”. Also, John Venables solicitor Dominic Lloyd attempted to get the trial thrown out as he argued neither boys could have a fair trial because of the jury being prejudiced following mass media reports. He said the boys would not have been prosecuted if the crime was committed a few months earlier as the legal age of criminality in England is age 10. This inspired a burst of outrage on Twitter with people using the hashtag #TheBulgerKillers to voice their disgust in such empathy.
Speakers on the show tried to portray the killers as bewildered, innocent children who made a mistake. Many people united with the disbelief in how anyone could sympathise with such brutal murderers, with one person saying “At 10 years old, if they can murder an innocent child, they can spend life in prison. They knew right from wrong”. People questioned if it was a joke that anyone could try and justify what the boys did to defenceless James Bulger. However, the tapes of the boy’s confessions confirmed it was a premeditated crime and both boys intended to go out and murder a child. It called into question whether their mental capacity was damaged by bad domestic backgrounds, as Thompson came from a broken home, or their general misbehaviour at school could have caused them to become psychotic killers at such a young age.
This documentary, produced 25 years after the crime took place at Merseyside shopping centre, arose following James Bulger’s mother petitioning to lengthen their minimum sentences of 8 years. The judge described this crime as an act of “unparalleled evil and brutality” which makes it less surprising that the public’s reaction then and even today was full of hatred and anger. It baffled audiences that a show could side with the killers. Instead of playing the role of a neutral medium, this documentary doesn’t address whether justice really was done for James Bulger’s death but rather questions should the system and the public have considered the sheer juvenility of the perpetrators. It shies away from the question on most people’s lips which may be due to the popular view that the justice system failed him. It could be their way of justifying the bad decisions they made almost 25 years ago when handling this case and the leniency shown when condemning the killers. The bias shown towards the boys gives a paradoxical view of the case, and the conclusion drawn from audience perplexity is under no circumstance should the young killers be shown forgiveness or sympathy.
The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done? is available to watch now on All 4.