The recent media frenzy over the Jon Venables cases has brought the issue of media responsibility into sharp focus.  In an earlier post we discussed the “contra mundum” injunctions which protect his identity from disclosure.  Nevertheless, certain sections of the press have campaigned for over week for the release of details as to why Jon Venables was returned to prison and have released what claim to be facts about his recent life and activities.

It is perhaps worth recalling the basic facts about his case:

  • in 1993 a two year old child was abducted, tortured and murdered by two 10 year olds.
  • the two boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were convicted of murder on 24 November 1993, the trial judge Morland J ordered that their identities should be revealed;
  • they were sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, with a minimum term of 8 years, subsequently increased to 10 and then to 15 by the Home Secretary – this was overturned by the House of Lords and Lord Woolf decided that 8 years was appropriate.
  • the High Court granted an injunction to prevent the publicationof information as to the new identities of Venables and Thompson on the basis there was a “real possibility of serious physical harm and possible death from vengeful members of the public or from the Bulger family” (see our earlier post here).
  • in June 2001 the Parole Board ordered the release of Venables and Thompson on licence;
  • in 2006, the Home Office obtained an injunction to prevent a foreign magazine publishing information which would have led to their identification (see an article in the “Independent”, here);

In short, Venables was the young perpetrator of a dreadful crime – in any other country in the European Union he would have been below the age of criminal responsibility, see the House of Commons Research Paper here. It was accepted by the Courts that his life and safety were at risk from “vigilantes” and he was given a new identity.  For the last 9 years he has been living a supervised life – presumably away from his family and having to lie about his background.   Then, on 2 March 2010, it was disclosed that Venables had been returned to prison for an unspecified violation of his licence.

The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, originally said that the public was entitled to know “all the facts” about Venables’ return to prison but shortly afterwards, the Ministry of Justice said that it was “genuinely in the public interest” for the information to remain secret.  Since then, there has been a media frenzy, with a series of “revelations” about the nature of the licence breach and the “serious allegations” being made against Venables.  Jack Straw made a statement to the House of Commons this afternnoon.  Mr Straw said he had given “active thought” about releasing more information but concluded it “would not presently be in the interests of justice”.  Explaining his decision, Mr Straw said: “It is critical that if charges do follow, it is possible to hold a fair trial – fair for the defence and fair for the prosecution.”  The motivation was to ensure “extremely serious allegations are properly investigated” and that “justice is done”, he told MPs, adding: “No one in this country would want anything other.”

There has been a media frenzy since the original announcement, with endless speculation as to the reason why Venables has been recalled and the publication of a number of items of information about him

  • On Thursday it was said he has had drink and drugs problems since his release from a secure unit in 2001.
  • On Saturday it was said that was accused of a serious sex offence and that he had previously worked as a nightclub bouncer.
  • On Sunday it was claimed he had been caught with child pornography and had even disclosed his real identity to strangers.

There have been interviews with a number of individuals who have known Jon Venables since his conviction.  There is a huge amount of activity on the blogosphere on social networking sites.  To give just one exmaple, there are at least six “Keep Jon Venables in Prison” Facebook groups and there was, for a period today, a “were’s [sic] Jon Venables” group in which members “identified” various individuals who they believed were, in fact, Jon Venables – in some cases giving names and contact details.

Three issues arise from this background.  First, there is the impact of the 2001 injunction.   Any actual identification would, of course, be a breach of this injunction.  The “Manchester Evening News” was fined £30,000 for a relatively minor breach and an breach by a mainstream media organisation would be likely.  The Press Gazette reports that the press have not been threatened with legal action by government lawyers in respect of the stories published so far.

Second, there is the potential for “contempt of court” in relation to pending criminal proceedings.  There will be contempt if there is a “substantial risk” that the course of justice in proceedings will be seriously impeded or prejudiced – this will be the case if the prejudice would justify a discharge of a jury.  This only applies to “active” criminal proceedings – and Mr Straw has made it clear that there are no charges in this case.  Even if there were, it is an interesting question as to whether the revelation of Venables’ new identity would “impede or prejudice” any prosecution.  It is difficult to see how Venables could have a fair trial if his new identity were to be disclosed so a potential contempt might arise.    There is also a possibility of “intentional contempt” – publication of material designed to prejudice criminal proceedings.  Some of the recent publications might well be thought to fall into this category.

Third, there is the more general issue of media responsibility. As more “details” are given then it becomes more likely that Venables will be identified in prison.  There is a serious risk of vigilante attacks – as Raymond Tallis points out in the “Times” today, the state has a duty to protect his life and the press is making that duty much more difficult to perform.   Furthermore, if his new identity is revealed a fair trial on any new charges will become, in practice, impossible.  The issues of punishment, retribution, rehabilitation and how society should deal with those who commit horrific crimes are proper matters of public debate and press comment.  But a responsible press should not be engaging in or encouraging speculation as to the identity of an individual under threat from vigilantes or exposing information which endangers the fairness of a future criminal trial.