MPs yesterday condemned media speculation over the reasons Jon Venables was sent back to prison as Justice Secretary Jack Straw refused to give further details about the case.
The Sun was threatened with an injunction by the Ministry of Justice on Friday night before it revealed on Saturday that Venables was suspected of committing a ‘sickening sex crime”. And the Sunday Mirror reported the next day that it was a child pornography offence.
The Attorney General’s office has warned editors that reporting details of Venables’ alleged offences could compromise the new identity he was given on release in 2001 and scupper any future criminal trial. Venables was jailed in 1993 along with Robert Thomson, both then aged 10, for the murder of two-year-old James Bulger.
Straw told MPs yesterday: “During the week beginning February 22 this year, officials in my department learnt of a compromise of Venables’ new identity.
“Subsequently, information came to light that Venables may have committed a serious breach of his licence conditions.
“He was recalled to custody the same day and has since remained in prison. A parole board hearing will be held as soon as practicable.”
Liberal Democrat spokesman David Howarth was among several MPs from all parties to criticise the actions of the media.
He said: “The case of James Bulger will obviously arouse strong emotions, even 17 years on.
“But the rule of law is more important even than those emotions, and is certainly more important than the commercial interests of competing tabloid newspapersâ€¦
“People have been saying there is a right to knowâ€¦There is no right to know everything immediately.”
Labour MP George Howarth said: ‘Understandably the family are feeling very, very distressed indeed as to what has taken place – mainly in the media – over the past week or so, and what may underlie those reports that have been in the media.
“Their concern is that as soon as it’s possible, as much information as possible as to what breaches of the licence may have taken place – and for that matter what offences may have taken place – is brought out in the public domain.
“At the moment, the problem is there is so much speculation that is only adding to the distress of the family, and actually isn’t bringing a prosecution or any other legal action any nearer to a conclusion.”
Tory backbencher David Davis called on Straw to protect Venables’ identity “so that we don’t see lynch-mob law in this country, even in the prisons”.
Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool Walton) said that some journalists were “seeking to whip up public disquiet and almost hysterical reaction” which was likely to be counter-productive.
And Sir Alan Beith, Lib Dem chair of the Commons justice select committee, said: “There are many cases in which newspapers, if they are not careful, do actually make it more difficult or maybe impossible to convict guilty people.”
Straw agreed, saying: “That is something I think newspaper editors need to reflect on, that the consequences of coverage – which is their decision, not for any politician to suggest – may be the opposite of that which they intend.
“Justice is never served if, as a result of prejudicial reporting in advance of any prosecution and trial, the trial cannot proceed and someone who might otherwise have been found guilty is acquitted before the trial starts.”