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Brendan O’Neill: Daniel Bartlam isn’t demonic or evil ... he is simply a disturbed child who needs help


Daniel Bartlam. Photo: PA

Daniel Bartlam. Photo: PA

Daniel Bartlam. Photo: PA

THERE is something horribly medieval about the media coverage of Daniel Bartlam, the 14-year-old boy who murdered his mother with a hammer. This disturbed child, who clearly needs society's help, has been held up as a despicable, diabolical and evil creature.

The Mirror in the UK published a close-up of his face on its front page alongside the words "DEVIL CHILD". Throughout the tabloid press he is referred to as "evil Daniel Bartlam". The Daily Mail described him as "callous" and "savage". His mugshot, in which he wears a typically gormless teenage expression, is now burned into the nation's collective consciousness as the face of feral wickedness and childish menace.

It is unbecoming of a civilised society to treat a child in this fashion, to turn a teenage boy into a "devil" we can all sneer at and tweet about. Yes, what Bartlam did was wicked, and he is old enough to know that it was wicked. But there is a very important difference between child killers and adult killers.

For the most part, children who kill are unstable not evil; they are profoundly confused rather than consciously cruel. Yes, they sadly must be removed from society, but ideally for help and education, not in order to be punished or to suffer public ridicule.

It would be better if Bartlam, being under 16, had never had his identity revealed; if he had been tried and detained discreetly and without fanfare, rather than being offered up for a mauling by a media which loves fretting about feral kids and twisted teenagers.

Even if you find it hard to be concerned about Bartlam's welfare and future – I think we should be concerned about those things – you should worry about what the Bartlam-bashing says about modern society. It points to an ugly medieval steak, to an almost Middle Ages-style fear of possessed, demonic kids. The belief that children are "devils", that they are feral beasts who if they aren't smashing up bus-stops are murdering their mothers, reveals far more about adult fears than it does about actual young people.

Bartlam's behaviour suggests that he is very disturbed – but the media's reaction to it suggests society is rather sick too, and is happy to turn a terrified-looking child into a kind of symbolic voodoo doll into which we can all stick some pins and project our fears.

It is tempting to put the demonisation of Bartlam down to the tabloids alone, where most of the daft talk about "devil children" has appeared. Tempting but wrong. In reality, the backward modern-day belief that children are capable of adult-style evil, that they are little potential monsters, has been promoted by respectable society for the past two decades

It was British police and judges, for example, who took the disastrous decision to try the 10-year-old killers of James Bulger for murder in an adult court, riding roughshod over the idea that children under 14 were doli incapax – incapable of crime. It was the judge in that case who decided to release the names and photos of the Bulger killers, because they had committed an act "of unparalleled evil and barbarity".

Yes, the tabloids' treatment of Daniel Bartlam is unsavoury. But they are only taking their cue from the respectable rulers, who are now clearly incapable of distinguishing between damaged children and evil adults.