Two narrowly avoid jail after sharing ‘photos of James Bulger killer’ online

Two people have narrowly avoided jail after sharing information online said to be about James Bulger killer Jon Venables.

Richard McKeag, 28, and Natalie Barker, 36, admitted breaching a worldwide ban on revealing Venables’ identity by posting pictures and other details.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, sitting with Mr Justice Warby, sentenced the pair, who are not known to each other, at a High Court hearing in London on Thursday.

The judges handed McKeag a 12-month sentence, while Barker was given eight months, both suspended for two years.

Lord Burnett said that, were it not for their personal circumstances, they would have been sent to prison immediately for their “serious” breaches of the injunction protecting Venables’ identity.

The judge told the court there was a risk of someone being “killed or seriously injured”, including anyone who was wrongly identified as one of the Liverpool boy’s killers.

He said the “haunting images” of James Bulger being led to his death, aged two, by Venables and Robert Thompson, would “remain forever in the minds of anyone who saw them”.

The judge added: “The murder shocked the nation, indeed it resulted in much soul-searching.

“How was it that two boys, still at primary school, could be capable of such a wicked crime?”

The court heard McKeag admitted three breaches after posting an article on his website entitled “Jon Venables Pictured – Killer’s Identity Revealed” in November 2017.

The article contained photographs, said to be of Venables, and purported to reveal his new identity and place of work.

He was “well aware” of the injunction and wrote about risking legal action, as well as encouraging people to share the article widely in a bid to “defeat the legal system by mass publication”, the court heard.

McKeag’s lawyers told the court he suffered serious mental and physical health problems and was unwell when he posted the article.

They said he was unable to attend the hearing as he was admitted to hospital on Wednesday, but had written a letter in which he sincerely apologised and said he realised it was for the courts to “serve justice”.

Barker, a single mother of three, previously admitted five breaches of the injunction and sat quietly behind her legal team throughout the hearing.

In February and March 2018, she posted a picture which purported to be of Venables and his fiance on her Twitter account, which had 649 followers.

The image was retweeted 24 times and received a number of likes, and she persisted even after receiving warnings from Twitter and the police.

Lord Burnett said she had persisted in “impulsive and stupid conduct, heedless of the consequences for others and careless of the consequences for herself and her family”.

Her lawyers said she now understood the seriousness of her actions, had expressed remorse and has closed her Twitter account.

A court order was made in 2001, legally binding worldwide, which bans the publication of anything that reveals the identities of Venables and Robert Thompson.

They have been living anonymously with new identities since being released from a life sentence for the kidnap, torture and murder of James in 1993, when they were aged 10.

Jonathan Hall QC, representing Attorney General Geoffrey Cox QC, told the court there continue to be significant breaches of the order, which often correspond with “spikes in media interest” in the case – including the 25th anniversary of James’ murder in February last year.

He told the court: “There are potential consequences not only to Venables and Thompson but to persons who might be mistakenly identified as them.

“There are still those who seek to set themselves above the law and put individuals at risk of death or serious injury by taking it upon themselves to breach the injunction.”

The court heard one man mistaken for Venables had “endured five years of danger” and he and his family had been forced to flee for their lives.

Mr Cox, who instigated contempt proceedings against McKeag and Barker last year, said after the hearing: “These are both serious examples of contempt of court and I instigated these proceedings as it was in the wider public interest to do so.

“The injunction protects the identities of the offenders, but also innocent individuals who may be wrongly identified as being one of the two men and placed in danger as a result.

“I will review any further contempt of court allegations made to me, and hope this sends a message to anyone tempted to do the same thing.

“Posting this material online is a crime.”

Actress Tina Malone is facing contempt of court proceedings over a post she made on social media which purports to show images of Venables.

The Attorney General’s Office confirmed last week that it had sent a summons to Malone.