Demonisation by deranged media pack

Eddie Ford argues against the demonisation of children

No-one could fail to be appalled by the Edlington ‘torture case’, which last April saw two children aged nine and 11 subjected to a cruel and sadistic 90-minute ordeal of physical and mental abuse - which included sexual degradation and being almost strangled to death with barbed wire. As readers will know, their attackers were brothers, themselves aged only 10 and 11 at the time. Such was the monstrous severity of the assaults that at one stage the 11-year-old pleaded: “Let me die”. Later, it was revealed that the brothers had carried out a similar assault on another boy just a week earlier.

The brothers were sentenced on January 23 to “indefinite detention”, which will see them serving a minimum of five years. The judge, describing their crimes as “truly exceptional”, also ordered that under section 29 of the Children’s Act the brothers’ identities could not be disclosed. Immediately there were loud protests about the sentence being “unduly lenient”. Both Kidscape, the children’s charity, and Phoenix Survivors - a voluntary organisation which works on behalf of the victims of childhood sexual abuse - have asked the attorney general, Baroness Scotland, to “re-examine” the case and, of course, she has agreed. This opens up the possibility of a referral to the court of appeal, which could up the sentence.

Furthermore, as details about the Edlington boys’ upbringing emerged during the trial, there is also the chance that their parents could face prosecution themselves - though on exactly what charges remains unclear. The court was told that the brothers had to endure a “toxic home life” that involved “routine aggression, violence and chaos” - from the age of nine, if not earlier, they allegedly watched “ultra-violent” and “pornographic” films, drunk cider and vodka and smoked cannabis grown on their father’s allotment. Indeed, so desperate did the mother become that she even resorted to spiking the boys food with cannabis - anything to calm them down and hence make them a bit more manageable.

In fact, with almost depressing predictability, the mother and her five sons - including the two Edlington boys - had been victims of many years of sustained domestic abuse and violence at the hands of her partner, something which she had told her psychiatrists about on more than one occasion. One typical incident saw the partner/father, in full view of the children, threatening to “take a knife to her and slice her face to bits” - surely a formative childhood experience in anyone’s book. Anyhow, superintendent Ian Bint issued a statement saying that Doncaster police would be “following up” all the details and revelations uncovered during the sentencing hearing, particularly when they receive the various psychiatric reports and recommendations.

Doncaster council, unsurprisingly, is also in the dock - given the fact that its social services department appears to be in a shocking state of disarray, for which it has come under repeated fire over recent years. Seven children well known to the authority have died in the borough since 2004, prompting numerous Ofsted inspections, government investigations and so on. A recent major review by the Doncaster Safeguarding Children Board declared that there have been “serious failings in local services” and that the Edlington assault was a “preventable incident” - on the grounds that the “perpetrators had shown an escalating pattern of violence against other children and adults over a period of several months” and that there had been “opportunities to intervene more effectively right up to the week before the assault”. But sadly, the review board concluded, none of the social services in Doncaster “were able to make an effective change to the behaviour and problems of the boys and their family”.[1]

Obviously feeling the pressure, Nick Jarman - director of children’s services at Doncaster council - offered an “an unqualified apology” for the “deficiencies” which led to Edlington incident. However, the writing might possibly be on the wall for Jarman and some of his colleagues, seeing that the audit commission has stepped into the breech and is to conduct a special review into “persistent management failures” at the town hall and will report back to ministers later in the year. The investigation, officially designated as a “corporate governance inspection”, is performed only when a council’s performance has been so persistently poor that public confidence or safety is deemed to be “at risk”.

In December, Doncaster scored only one out of four in annual council performance ratings. And it does have to be noted that a general air of ‘old Labour’ sleaze and corruption seems to permanently hover over the council, which at one point led to a police fraud inquiry and the forced resignation of various Labour officials deemed guilty of blatant junketing.[2]

Of course, this grotesque incident was distinctly reminiscent of the 1993 murder of the two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool - who was assaulted and then killed by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, then both aged 10 years old, in circumstances not too dissimilar to the Edlington attack. The tabloid-inflamed outrage directed against the “evil” Venables and Thompson, whose trial was conducted publicly in an adult court away from their family and in full legal regalia, generated a near lynch-mob atmosphere in the city - to the extent the family of one boy who was detained by the police for questioning, but later released, had to flee the city. The parents of Venables and Thompson had to be moved to a different part of the country and given new identities following escalating death threats from self-styled vigilantes and frustrated crackpots.

As in Edlington the initial sentence of eight years minimum was widely decried as too soft - even though at the age of 11, as they were when the trial ended, Venables and Thompson were the youngest people to be convicted of murder in modern English criminal history. So shortly afterwards the sentence was increased to 10 years. Then after a campaign orchestrated by The Sun - who else? - and a petition bearing 300,000 signatures was handed over to the oleaginous home secretary, Michael Howard, the tariff on Venables and Thompson was extended to 15 years (though in 1997 the court of appeal ruled that Howard’s decision to up the sentence again was “unlawful” and annulled the home secretary’s power to set minimum terms for life-sentence prisoners under 18 years of age). The then prime minister, John Major, near perfectly encapsulated the intimidating and irrational atmosphere surrounding the Bulger case with his now notorious maxim that “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less”. Naturally, there were the usual calls for the return of the death penalty - as, presumably, only liberals and do-gooders would object to the hanging of 11- year-olds. Venables and Thompson were released in June 2001 under a ‘life licence’.

Inevitably, The Sun is up to its old tricks - calling the Edlington assailants the “devil brothers” and the “hell boys”, depicting them as irredeemable “monsters” in just the same manner as they treated Venables and Thompson. When it is not heaping opprobrium on the “scum parents” of the Edlington boys, it is campaigning for the ‘naming and shaming’ of all concerned, prominently featuring an article by the unfortunate Denise Fergus - the mother of James Bulger - who argued that “unless the family involved are named, how can anyone be sure justice has been carried out?” However, she expects that the Edlington boys will be “rewarded for their terrible deeds” - given “new secret identities and new lives” - when they are released, even though “boys like this who are so evil by the age of 10 and 11 will never be changed into decent people”.[3]

Just as inevitably, but motivated by naked political opportunism, David Cameron immediately cited the Edlington case as an example of the “broken Britain” we apparently have under the Labour government. Indeed, claimed Cameron, the Edlington attack is “proof” that the country has slumped into a “social recession”, in which “rising” violent crime is linked to “what is going on in the rest of our society”. For Cameron, or so he darkly implies, the murders of Jamie Bulger, Baby Peter and Damilola Taylor - and now Edlington - are just the tip of the iceberg. They are indicators of social degeneracy, of the horrors that await us without the firm hand of the state - and, of course, a Tory government - to hold back the tide of lawless anarchy.

A viewpoint enthusiastically endorsed by the consistently deranged Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail, who informs us that “many areas are terrorised by crimes and disorder committed by children like the Edlington brothers” - and warns about a “rapidly increasing parallel universe in which social and moral conventions have shattered”. For Phillips such societal breakdown is due to the “disintegration of the family”, and the “erosion of marriage lies at the heart of that disintegration”. Until society, she writes, promotes the institution of marriage and demonstrates “zero tolerance of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as of individual irresponsibility”, we are on the path to destruction as a nation. But there is hope, she adds - “if a culture wants to survive, it can do so despite apparently daunting odds”. We have a choice, after all: “The licentious and dissolute 18th century turned into the re-moralised Victorian era. Yet other cultures, such as ancient Rome, did collapse. Which of these examples Britain will follow depends upon the choices it now makes - either for civilisation or savagery?”[4]

Communists adamantly oppose the reactionary, moralistic agenda being pushed by Cameron and his supporters in the rightwing media - that miserable bunch of pessimists and miserablists. We must not forget that such incidents like the Bulger murder or the Edlington case are extraordinarily rare - abnormal occurrences you see only once or so in a decade or more. Indeed, statistics show that every form of violent death of children (below 14) has never been lower since records began - and that between 1974 and 2006 homicides have fallen by more than 60% and all forms of violent death have almost halved over the period. Though inconvenient things like facts are not something you often get from Mad Mel in her indecent haste to ‘prove’ that the UK is almost beyond the point of repair.

Yes, of course, society is fractured and socially alienated - poverty and inequality breed frustration and social demoralisation. This is self-evident. We are working longer for less, while the ‘fat cats’ get fatter. And as An anatomy of economic inequality in the UK (a survey just published by the government-commissioned National Equality Panel) points out, the gap between rich and poor in the UK is “wider now than 40 years ago”.[5] But that is the direct consequence of the remorseless logic of the capitalist mode of production - not because of ‘moral’ or ‘spiritual’ decay or individual failings. Just take a look at the Doncaster area - undoubtedly ripped apart and dislocated by the collapse of the mining industry. Yet for all that, people do not suddenly resort to savagery or become murderers overnight in some sort of deterministic, Lord of the flies-meets-the-Daily Mail way - they still struggle and fight to maintain and live a decent and fulfilling life, even when the odds are all seemingly stacked up against them.

Perhaps even more importantly, communists flatly reject the almost medieval concept of ‘evil’ that has surfaced once again during the Edlington case. No-one is born ‘evil’, whether they are Adolf Hitler or the Edlington boys. We in the CPGB believe that all human beings are redeemable or can be rehabilitated - under the right set of circumstances (or the right sort of treatment). Surely the subsequent history of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson amply confirms this, even if Denise Fergus is too blinded by grief and anger to see it herself - with The Sun around to make sure she never does. Clearly, thanks to the specialised and intensive education these two people received, they started to flourish academically and are now - for sure - qualitatively different individuals from the alienated and highly disturbed children who killed James Bulger. Why cannot the same go for the Edlington boys?

Beyond that, communists fight for a society where all our children - not just the Eton-educated elite like Cameron - are provided with sufficient resources and the sheer time to develop into fully rounded human beings.


  1. The Times January 22.
  2. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/40990.stm.
  3. The Sun January 27.
  4. Daily Mail January 25
  5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8481534.stm.