BROOKE GLADSTONE: The British media are engaged in an extended orgy of their own as they await the release of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson after 8 years in prison. They're 18 now, but they were 10 when they lured a toddler named James Bulger from a shopping mall near Liverpool, beat him to death and left his body on a railroad track. This week their parole board announced the boys will be furnished with new names and identities and released but it can be argued they will not be free. The reason has everything to do with new political realities, an increasingly competitive press and the all-important availability of pictures. Richard Ford of the Times of London joins us now. Thanks for coming on.
RICHARD FORD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So-- are pictures of the perpetrators floating around?
RICHARD FORD: There is a rumor -- and it is no more than a rumor -- that a picture of one of the boys is circulating. It has allegedly been shown to a TV reporter, but no one else has seen it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And when that TV reporter was shown holding the picture on the news program, even though he held it away from the cameras, the attorney general was so concerned that he reminded the media to act responsibly. Is he asking journalists to regulate themselves?
RICHARD FORD: Well I think what he was doing was -- we know that the hearings are taking place on whether the boys should be released, and there's --the frenzy is building up, and I think he was just reminding us that there is an injunction -- a lifelong ban on us identifying or doing anything that can allow these children to be identified or their whereabouts known. I think his real problem is not with the newspapers. I think his problem is with the Internet, because I don't understand how he's going to be able to stop stuff appearing on the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now the British tabloids aren't exactly known for their restraint when it comes to invasions of privacy. We had a reminder of that recently when Sophie Windsor was tricked into an embarrassing expose by the News of the World. If the News of the World or the Express or the Daily Mail get hold of the pictures of the boys, knowing that they would be in contravention of the injunction and knowing that they could potentially put those boys in harm's way, would they go ahead and print them do you think?
RICHARD FORD: My feeling is they wouldn't. I mean it's a very different thing from doing a-- sting on Sophie Windsor to publishing pictures of two youths which could lead to their whereabouts being discovered and, let's be blunt about it, could lead to injury and even death. Public opinion might not like what is going on with those boys if they do come out, but public opinion would switch very quickly if the media could be seen to have helped lead a mob to their door. I think most newspaper editors wouldn't touch it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The public reaction to the release of Venables and Thompson as you say in your article at times borders on hysteria. What part has the media played in fanning those flames?
RICHARD FORD: The one thing that everybody remarks upon is that video picture of James in the Bootle [sp?] Shopping Center with the two boys. You just see the little boy and the two boys beckoning him away. Of course it's endlessly re-played; endlessly re-played, and I think it, it just sticks in everybody's mind. I mean the number of people who say that video has made all the difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now Nathaniel Brazil, the 14 year old in Florida who shot his teacher and was sentenced to life imprisonment here was caught on camera minutes before he pulled the trigger, and that image was played over and over again. You quoted a lawyer with regard to the closed-circuit TV image of James Bulger's abduction, and he said that that image touched a nerve with the public and still does. What does it say about the new media landscape that this tape can be played over and over again?
RICHARD FORD: That video -- that, that's part of it - but I think the new media landscape is much more--the total access. It's that the way media is such a powerful cultural tool now in a way that it never was before, and I think it's the fact that the image is played; people look at it and say God wasn't it awful -- and then they're on the phone-in programs and it's the, the round the clock broadcasting and everybody has a view -- it doesn't matter whether that view is right, wrong or even -- you know - you can hear views from people and as a journalist you can say well that's just complete nonsense, but they're on the telly saying it, and it's, it's, it's essentially - it - this is the era in which the ordinary man and woman can have their say, and it's as valid as the experts'.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How does the media-driven debate affect the treatment of Venables and Thompson?
RICHARD FORD:Well I think it demonizes them. You know they are-- made out to be monsters, and I think the argument that they were children when they committed this and that surely a child can change and can develop is very difficult to get over when you've got on the one hand these two boys, you know, what they did was the most appalling brutality, and then on the other side you've got James's mother saying don't forget me, and it just fuels incredible appeal to emotion rather than to reason.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Ford, thank you very much.
RICHARD FORD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Ford is a writer for the Times of London.