James Bulger was brutally and sadistically murdered on Feb. 12, 1993, by two ten-year-old
children. This stark fact has prompted a long overdue focus upon what conditions in our
society could precipitate such an unthinkable action.
The need to ask "Why?" is central to the human condition; we cannot and
should not accept a randomness in events, unless we are content to see the world spin
totally out of our control. As is usual at such times, during the trial the media
approached every possible "expert" for comments on causes; and as usual the
experts obliged, from their various points of view, sometimes under pressure with little
time for the consideration that was due. Then, once again as usual, other media
commentators derided the multiplicity of views, and with it the entire search for causes.
Now that the immediate shock of the trial has a little receded, perhaps this is the
time to evaluate more carefully the situation which this murder of a child by children has
forced us to examine. Many have asked despairingly how we can ever come to terms with it.
We can only begin to do so by facing it squarely and considering what might be done: not
to erase Jamie's loss, not to redeem the two children who survive, but to try to ensure
that Jamie is not just the first of many such victims. And, given that children of ten are
by law seen as in need of protection by society, we perhaps should consider future Roberts
and Jons, and how far society should accept some responsibility for children who, at least
in some sense, are its victims themselves.
It is of course more comforting to believe that children like Robert Thompson and Jon
Venables are a "one-off"; "evil freaks," as some sections of the Press
described them. Detective-Sergeant Phil Roberts, present at Robert's interviews and in
desperate need of comfort himself, was quoted as saying: "These two were freaks who
just found each other. You should not compare these two boys with other boys they
were evil." (The Independent, 25.11.93). Similarly, one might describe a child
who lacked any sense of pity or moral control as the equivalent of an adult psychopath:
but does it not defy belief that two such children "just found each other"?
Whoever might or might not have been leader however much this might have been a
case of two children egging each other on the fact is that this was not a crime of
sudden impulse. Jamie was not the first toddler that these children attempted to entice
away that day; they both persevered in seeking a victim. If they had actually pushed Jamie
into traffic or into the canal, both of which they explicitly considered, then we might
have seen such an action as an uncontrolled and perhaps one-sided impulse: they rejected
both these ideas, and it is in fact the sustained determination with which they propelled
a distressed and frightened little boy over two-and-a-half miles, stopping when necessary
to"explain themselves" to concerned enquirers, that is the second piece of
evidence that an act of torture was in the making. We now know that the final scene beside
the railway line was long-drawn-out and merciless; that paint was thrown, and blows were
struck not once but enough to cause 42 separate injuries: that there were sexual elements
to the torture and Jamie's mouth was damaged on the inside; and that the children got
blood on the soles of their shoes.
These details have to be remembered, much as one would like to forget them, because of
what they imply: that in this crime there was both the expectation and the attainment of
of some sort through doing deliberate and sustained violence to a very small child
(described by the children as a "baby") whose distress was unremitting,
Afterwards, too, the children were composed enough first to push James on to the railway
line in an attempt to disguise the murder, then to wander down to the video-shop where
they were known and where their demeanour did not arouse suspicion of anything worse than
truancy even in their mothers.
So here is a crime that we could all wish had been perpetrated by "evil
freaks"; but already the most cursory reading of news since then suggests that it is
not a "one-off." Shortly after this trial, children of similar age in Paris were
reported to have set upon a tramp, encouraged by another tramp, kicked him and thrown him
down a well. In England an adolescent girl was tortured by her "friends" over
days, using direct quotations from a horror video Child's Play 3 as part of her
torment, and eventually set on fire and thus killed; while the following note appeared in
a local paper on 7.12.93:
Two schoolboys were today expected to appear in court accused of torturing a
six-year- old on a railway line. The youngsters, aged ten and eleven, allegedly tried to
force the boy to electrocute himself on a track in Newcastle upon Tyne last week. They are
also accused of stabbing him in the arm with a knife. They will appear before Gosforth
Youth Court in Newcastle upon Tyne charged with making threats to kill and three offences
of indecently assaulting the youngster and his two brothers aged seven and ten.
We do not have the information to be able to comment on the full background of any of
these crimes at present: all that can be said is that they have in common a willingness of
two or more children or adolescents together to carry out brutally violent assaults likely
to result in protracted suffering and death.
It would be quite unlikely that any single cause for these children's behaviour could
be identified, although possible contributing factors might be offered; for instance,
experts consulted by The Independent (25.11.93) variously suggested the effects of
physical abuse, severe emotional neglect resulting in lack of self-worth, deprivation,
"play on the mean side which went too far," exposure to sadistic videos and
conversations, sexual abuse and disturbed family relationships, Poverty and despair
related to unemployment and a culture of no-hope families have also been cited. However,
child abuse, poverty and neglect have been a part of many children's experience over the
years; indeed, although neither Jon nor Robert could be said to have come from happy and
nurturant homes, there was little evidence of the extremes of neglect and abuse that could
be documented in any Social Services department. What, then, can be seen as the
"different" factor that has entered the lives of countless children and
adolescents in recent years? This has to be recognized as the easy availability to
children of gross images of violence on video.
Evidence of professional concern
Over the past few years, considerable anxiety has been expressed by those
professionally concerned with children about the effects of "horror," "sex
and violence," "soft porn" and similar scenes experienced by children via
videos seen in their own or their friends' homes. Mr. Justice Brown identified children's
access to sadistic videos as cause for concern following the Rochdal case of suspected
ritual abuse, where the children's familiarity with horror images from videos such as
on Elm Street misled social workers into assuming that they must have experienced such
things in reality. At an early stage the British Paediatric Association had invited
comments from its members on damaging effects of "video pasties": at that time,
concern was mainly centred upon children who were presenting with nightmares and
traumatization by images that they could not erase from their minds and one might suggest
that this was an "innocent" period, in that having nightmares is a relatively
healthy reaction, denoting the child's continuing sensitivity to such images. In 1985,
too, opinions of child and adolescent psychiatrists on the viewing of violent videos by
children were reviewed in the Bulletin of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (U.K).
More recently, however, concern has grown greater and has addressed more serious and
long-lasting effects. It now seems that professionals in child health and psychology
under-estimated the degree of brutality and sustained sadism that film-makers were capable
of inventing and willing to portray, let alone the "special-effects"
technologies which would support such images; and we certainly under-estimated how easy
would be children's access to them. Where formerly children were said to see them "by
accident" or in defiance of parental edict, it is now clear that many children watch
adult-only videos on a regular basis, with or without their parents' knowledge, and that
many parents make less than strenuous efforts to restrict their children's viewing. Thus
it is not surprising that Mr. Justice Morland speculated upon the part that such videos
might have played in creating the degree of desensitization to compassion that the
children in the Bulger case shoved not only during their. attack, but in comments
like Robert's (before he admitted the killing): "If I wanted to kill a baby, I would
kill my own, wouldn't I?"
There must be special concern when children (or adults, for that matter) are repeatedly
exposed to images of vicious cruelty in the context of entertainment and amusement.
Michael Medved makes the point:
Not only do these films suggest that brute force is a prerequisite for manliness, that
physical intimidation is irresistibly sexy. and that violence offers an effective solution
to all human problems; today's movies also advance the additional appalling idea that the
most appropriate response to the suffering of others is sadistic laughter. (Hollywood
Versus America, 1993)
In the context of entertainment:
1.The viewer receives the implicit message that this is all good fun something
with which to while away one's leisure time.
2. The child viewer receives distorted images of emotions that he has not yet
experienced so must accept especially dangerous when love, sex and violence are
3. The ingenuity with which brutality is portrayed is likely to escalate over time,
since the entertainment industry must try to be more and more
"entertaining" and must allow for jaded palates. (How far this might go in
the future in terms of video games and virtual reality is not within the scope of this
4. So that viewers will not be too disturbed to experience "entertainment,"
the victims must be portrayed as being somewhat sub-human, so that they need not be
5. An alternative is that they should be portrayed as deserving violent treatment.
Robert and Jon explained that they had had to go on throwing bricks at Jamie (30 blows
with bricks and an iron bar were counted) because he kept on getting up. (This resonates
with the attitudes of many abusive parents, who testify that they had to hit the baby
because she would keep on crying.) A parallel in a recently released film is where we
witness in lit silhouette the multiple rape of a woman by a queue of men, and hear her
agonized screams, all in the context of an intent to punish her.
The connection between viewing violence and change in attitudes
The principle that what is experienced vicariously will have some effect on some people
is an established one, and is the reason why industry finds it worth while to spend
millions of pounds on advertising. Medved has pointed out that an advertising campaign
will be regarded as a major success on the basis of a quite small percentage of its
viewers changing their buying habits. The derisive question which film-makers have put to
their critics, "Have YOU been tempted to become a serial killer by watching our
films?" is disingenuous: it ignores differing stability, susceptibility to influence
and levels of immaturity among the audience as a whole. We know that children can be
traumatized, not only by the images they see, but also by additional images that are
suggested by their imagination in response to the originals; but far more dangerous,
because more lastingly damaging, would be that eventually they should no longer be
troubled at all by seeing violent images, as a result of desensitization by systematic
repetition. The processes of "desensitization" and "flooding" are
well-known methods for modification of behaviour, reducing the impact of the original
Because of this knowledge, it has been difficult for psychologists to demonstrate
experimentally the effect of images of extreme violence on young children's behaviour.
Experiments involving live subjects, and especially young children, would usually be
submitted to an ethical committee, who would consider any likely effects. The processes of
traumatization and desensitization are well enough known for any ethical committee to
refuse to sanction the showing of such videos to children in order to monitor effects.
Moreover, if it were suggested that parents should watch alongside, child psychologists
would be more alarmed still at such a proposal, on the basis that any identification by
the child with the violent perpetrator could be additionally enhanced through
identification with his parents, were they apparently to accept the film's attitudes.
Thus most research on the results of watching violence either has to follow up
long-term effects on individual cases, or has to extrapolate from experimental situations
that do not in fact involve witnessing extreme violence. Since children's exposure to the
kind of sadistic images with which we are now concerned is relatively recent, there has
not yet been time to carry out the longitudinal studies that this would involve, while
ethical experimental studies are necessarily rather artificial. Nevertheless, Professors
Sims and Gray (Professors of Psychiatry and Paediatrics respectively) were able to point
to "a vast world literature, more than 1,000 papers, linking heavy exposure to media
violence with subsequent aggressive behaviour" in their document presented to the
Broadcasting Group of the House of Lords in September 1993. They made two particularly
important points themselves: that in current video material "unlike traditional
gruesome stories, the viewer is made to identify with the Perpetrator of the act, and not
with the victim"; and that "watching specific acts of violence on the media has
resulted in mimicry by children and adolescents of behaviour that they would otherwise,
literally, have found unimaginable." There is, of course, a connection between
identification and mimicry, which decides what is mimicked.
George Comstock, Professor of Communications at Syracuse University, hew York, reviewed
190 research projects over 30 years on the impact of television violence (remembering the
caveats given above); he found "a very solid relationship between viewing anti-social
portrayals or violent episodes and behaving anti-socially" in both boys and girls
(Comstock, 1991). Huesman and Eron at Illinois published a 20-year follow-up of 400
children, and found that heavy exposure to television violence at age 8 years (again
remembering that the violence was by no means as extreme then as now) was associated with
violent crime and spouse or child abuse at age 30 "at all socio-economic
levels and all levels of intelligence... It cannot be denied or explained away."
(Huesman and Eron, 1984) A British review of 40 adolescent murderers and 200 young sex
offenders showed "repeated viewing of violent and pornographic videos" as
"a significant causal factor"; this was particularly significant in adolescents
abusing in baby-sitting contexts, where videos provided "a potent source of immediate
arousal for the subsequent act," including mimicry of the violent images witnessed
There continues to be a need for systematic research in order to keep pace with both
the growth of violence in children and the growth of violent visual material available to
them. (Indeed, the Professor of Psychological Criminology at Cambridge identifies "a
pressing need for a new long-term program of high-quality government-funded research on
(all) causes of offending" in young people, the cost of which would be
"infinitesimal compared with the costs of almost everything connected with
crime" (Farrington, 1994).) So far as research on the effect of violent images is
concerned, and given the ethical considerations already elaborated, the careful collection
of case history material is likely to be the most fruitful. This would, of course, need to
be both prospective and retrospective; that is, children's viewing habits (or video
knowledge) could be monitored, and eventual outcomes assessed, while child and adolescent
violent offenders could be studied retrospectively in terms of background experience.
Meanwhile, it seems impossible to allow the situation to continue, and indeed escalate,
as it now is. Michael Medved stops short at advocating censorship, and makes a plea for
film-makers to set their own standards and limits. Although individuals such as Kubrick
and Hopkins have begun to have doubts about their own contributions, it seems unlikely
that those who feel responsibility for protecting children will be able to wait for such
Many of us hold our liberal ideals of freedom of expression dear, but now begin to feel
that we were naive in our failure to predict the extent of damaging material and its all
too free availability to children. Most of us would prefer to rely on the discretion and
responsibility of parents, both in controlling their children's viewing and in giving
children clear models of their own distress in witnessing sadistic brutality however it is
unhappily evident that many children cannot rely on their parents in this respect. By
restricting such material from home viewing, society must take on a necessary
responsibility in protecting children from this as from other forms of child abuse.
(Note: "In concentrating here on the needs of children and young people, I have
limited myself to my own professional specialism. I do not wish to imply, however, that
adults are unaffected by or immune from the influence of images of extreme violence and
sadism." Elizabeth Newson)
BAILEY, S.M., 1993. Criminal Justic Matters, 6-7
COMSTOCK, G., 1991. TV and the American Child, Academic Press.
FARRINGTON, David P., 1994. "The influence of the family on delinquent
development," Family Policy Studies Centre, Crime and the Family (conference
HUESMANN, LR, and ERON, L., 1984. Quoted by Medved, q.v.- and see
HUESMANN, LR, ERON, L., DUBOW, E et al, 1983. Aggression and its Correlates over 22
years, University of Illinois, Chicago.
MEDVED, Michael, 1992. Hollywood vs. America, HarperCollins, Zondervan.
SIMS, ACP, and MELVILLE-THOMAS, G., 198S. "Survey of the opinion. of child and
adolescent psychiatrists on the viewing of violent videos by children,"
Royal College of Psychiatrists 9. 238-240.
SIMS, ACP, and GRAY, Peter, l993. "The media, violence and vulnerable
viewers," document presented to Broadcasting Group, House of Lords.