The murder of 2-year-old James Bulger in Britain and 5-year-old Silje Redergard in Norway by children under 12-years-old themselves are two harrowing and chillingly similar cases of child-on-child homicide.
A 2008 paper published in Crime Media Culture by Associate Professor Dr David Green from the City University of New York has provided analysis of how different societies and cultures respond to cases of young children who murder another child. In examining these two child on child murders, Green has compared newspaper coverage of the murders in both countries and the striking differences in how the children who carried them out were portrayed and how both societies responded.
The cases chosen were the murder of British toddler 2-year-old James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in Liverpool, England in 1993, and the murder of 5-year-old Silje Marie Redergard in Trondheim in Norway in 1994, by three 6-year-old boys, who have never been named.
Cases of children who kill other children are sadly not as rare as many people believe. They are emotive and unsettling crimes all the more harrowing due to the young ages of the children involved.
The Murder of James Bulger
The James Bulger case is one that Britain will never forget. In 1993, 2-year-old James Bulger was at a shopping centre in Liverpool with his mother Denise Bulger. While she stepped into a shop turning her back to James for less than a few minutes, 10-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables led him away by the hand, caught on CCTV as they walked him out of the shopping centre. The two boys took James two miles across town and down an embankment next to a railway line. There they fatally assaulted the young boy, hitting him with bricks and pouring paint on him before leaving his battered body partially clothed on the train line to be hit by the next oncoming train.
The questions this murder raised on how something like this is possible were picked up and encouraged by the press. In almost every case of child-on-child homicide or similar, the Bulger case is referenced, not only in the UK but across the world. Whether justice was served is at the heart of many news reports of this case, regularly circulating with stories of the whereabouts and activities of Thompson and Venables.
The murder of James Bulger was immediately attributed to two young ‘evil’ boys who clearly had no morals, no boundaries and no respect for others. They were presented as an example of how Britain was in ‘moral decline’ and drastic measures had to be taken within our society and our justice system in order to tackle this problem and ensure it does not happen again.
In stark contrast, the murder of Silje Redergard in Norway almost two years later was presented as a ‘tragic one-off’ where the boys responsible must receive intervention and treatment to ensure their recovery and reintegration back into society to go on with their lives.
The Murder of Silje Redergard
In Trondheim, Norway, just over 300 miles away from Oslo, on 15 October 1994 on a housing estate, 5-year-old Silje Marie Redergard was beaten, stripped and left to freeze to death in the snow by three 6-year-old local boys she was playing with only minutes before. The BBC reports that even the story of the murder itself was held back by journalists for the first few days to give the boys who committed the murder “a chance to recover, to have a normal life later on.”
“We don’t believe in prison for youngsters so we think that if we can help them in any other way, that’s what we should do.”
Once the murder was reported and for years afterwards there have been many comparisons drawn between this case and the murder of James Bulger in the UK. The Guardian wrote in 2010 “In Britain, the authorities decided to let the nation judge the child killers.” Continuing, “Trying Thompson and Venables as adults and releasing names and mugshots unleashed a countrywide roar of anguish that can still be heard today.” The Norwegian media did not publish pictures of the crime scene or the names of either Silje Redergard initially or the boys who killed her, whose names have remained unpublished.
Dr Green’s paper looked at the newspaper coverage of both of these child-on-child homicides with the aim of discovering how blame was attributed in the writings and publications surrounding both cases. The author looked at the focus of the press articles and how the cases were discussed (‘the frames’) and the themes which came through in the publications. Using a discourse analysis framework, Green examined the language, attribution of blame, and perspectives used in the texts of the newspaper coverage. Furthermore, the cultural and political factors involved and their differences within each case in Norway and Britain was also covered, examining how these factors may account for the entirely different discourses presented.
‘Framing Blame and Justice’
Two newspapers were selected from each country for review with selection based on access to their publication archives. For the UK, the Times and the Daily Mirror were used. Two very different papers with The Times being a quality broadsheet and the Mirror a daily tabloid. For Norway, the tabloid Verdens Gang and the broadsheet Aftenposten were used. From the day of each murder, all articles in these sources were gathered stretching for 12 months after the murders took place. For the Bulger murder this produced 457 articles and for the Redergard case, 77 articles.
The criminal age of responsibility in Britain and Norway differs by five years, determining the most obvious difference in the response to these two cases. In Britain a child 10 years or over is deemed to be capable of understanding right and wrong and criminal acts and will be held responsible for their actions. In Norway, this does not apply to children until they are aged 15 years or over. As a result, the James Bulger murder was immediately a criminal case where the two boys responsible were 10-years-old and therefore faced criminal charges for their behaviour. In contrast the Redergard murder in Norway was not a criminal matter. The boys involved were just 6-years-old and under the Norwegian age of criminal responsibility. “Norwegians seem culturally incapable of accepted that children under 15 should be prosecuted as adults or that any child should be in prison,” Green writes.
The author also highlights how the Bulger case was presented in a framework of ‘criminal justice’ being a deliberate criminal act of kidnapping and wilful murder, compared to the Norwegian case which presented the Redergard murder as a ‘child welfare’ issue, a tragic incident involving innocent children on both sides.
Thompson and Venables were tried as adults for abduction and murder. Now 11-years-old both were found guilty and sentenced to serve 10-15 years in a juvenile detention facility. The location of where they were to be held was kept secret from the public such was the anger against them and fears of personal risk to them. After a number of appeals their sentences were reduced to a minimum of 8 years. In 2001 both Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were released from custody with new identities which did not stop the press and some members of the public desperately trying to uncover what names they were living under and their whereabouts.
The three 6-year-old boys who murdered Silje Redergard in Norway were not punished for their actions. They remained at home with their families and were ‘offered places in kindergarden’ to ensure they could be supported and helped to come to terms with what they had done. Green reports that the press coverage of the Redergard case quickly became quiet to the extent that today 23 years later, few Norwegians can recall the details of the case and none have interest or concern on the whereabouts of the three boys.
In the coverage of the Bulger case the clear themes present surrounded rising crime levels, bad parenting, a violent country and evil children exposed to endless television and video violence. The Redergard case centred on child welfare, the murder was a tragic accident, both the boys and the murdered little girl were victims with brief mentions of a possible influence TV violence thrown in.
This notion of ‘evil’, a term translating to profound wickedness, is a term often thrown around and regularly applied to adult serial killers who repeatedly commit acts of murder. Green notes “the ease with which the Bulger killers are constructed as essentially evil” within the media coverage of the case. “We console ourselves that there are no general lessons to be drawn from such evil” wrote the Sunday Times in November 1993.
Branding Thompson and Venables as evil he says, removed any blame from society for their actions. They were disturbed boys with evil in them and there is nothing anyone could have done to stop them doing terrible things. They were two young boys fully responsible for carrying out evil reflecting deeper rooted issues within British society.
In the Redergard case, the little girl killed and boys responsible were all victims, in a one-off terrible accident that resulted in death, tragic but not reflective of Norweigen society or the state of the juvenile crime or parental skills. In Norway, the children lying to adults about what they had done and what really happened was expected, they are children, that is what children do, but in Britain the lies told by Thompson and Venables about what they had done showed their cunning, their manipulation and proved they were simply evil.
Green further notes how the Norwegian coverage of the Redergard murder featured expert views much more predominantly that the British press did on the Bulger murder. 40-50% of the time in the Norwegian press, compared to 10-20% in the British press. Furthermore, the British press routinely featured the public’s views on the case when no public views at all were expressed in the Norwegian coverage. In 1993 at the time of the Bulger murder, political tensions were high and the public untrustworthy of the current Tory government, whereas in Norway “the Norwegian public’s confidence in their press and parliament was nearly twice the level of Britain’s.” The Bulger case took on a wider representation about the state of the country whereas the Norwegian case stayed within the confines of a juvenile crime seen as a terrible unfortunate one-off incident.
“Comparisons like this one illustrate how the meaning and significant of crime events are socially constructed” – Green
Many of the differences in societies response to these murders in Britain and Norway center on the portrayal of the offenders themselves in the media. The British media are known for using sensationalism and the political climate, relying on scandal, appalling and outraging readers to promote sales and beat their media publishing competition.
The climate in Norway is drastically different reflective of a differing attitude to not only juvenile crime, even crimes as serious as child-on-child homicide, but to media reporting. While many may not agree with the softer and more understanding approach of the Norwegians towards the boys who murdered Silje Redergard, there are aspects of their response which seem a more productive and progressive methodology compared to the harshness of Britain’s collective aggressive swirl of outrage and condemnation.
David A. Green,City University of New York, USA
This article presents the results of a comparative analysis of English and Norwegian newspaper coverage of two child-on-child homicides from the 1990s. Domestic coverage of the English case of James Bulger presented it as alarmingly symptomatic of deep-seated moral decline in Britain that only tough, remoralizing strategies could address. Coverage of the Norwegian case of Silje Redergård constructed it as a tragic one-off, requiring expert intervention to facilitate the speedy reintegration of the boys responsible. Four sets of plausible explanations are offered to account for differences in the ways the two cases were constructed. First, different cultural constructions of childhood endure in each country and these condition the responses deemed appropriate for children who commit grave acts. Second, the dominant claims makers were very different in each jurisdiction with consequences for the quality of the discourses readers encountered. Third, while the legitimacy of elite expertise appears to survive in Norway, it appears to ail in Britain, and addressing this absence of public confidence has become a political priority. Fourth, a consensual political culture obtains in Norway and this makes Norwegian politicians less susceptible to the temptations experienced by adversarially acculturated English politicians to politicize high-profile crimes.