Closing time at the Last-Chance Saloon?
Over 10 years ago the then National Heritage Secretary, David Mellor, commented that the behaviour of some parts of the British media was so outrageous that controls on the 'sacred cow' of press freedom were necessary to curb their more extreme activities. They were, he said, "drinking in the Last-Chance Saloon." He was later to be driven from office after a press campaign which highlighted certain features of his personal relationships.
A decade on, a man commits suicide because of the mob hysteria generated by the News of the World – a paper which, on the one hand, publishes pictures of semi-naked teenage girls and, on the other, vilifies those attracted to images of those only slightly younger. The paper's cynical and ill-conceived campaign to name and shame convicted paedophiles was, according to many informed experts in the field, likely to do more harm than good. Not only would it drive paedophiles away from their homes, making supervision of them impossible, it could generate a lynch-mob mentality which has no place in a liberal democracy. They were right on both counts.
Few people will shed a tear for James White, convicted of indecent assault and about to face a new charge involving a four-year old girl. He died after an overdose of tablets taken in a motorway service station on the M61 – three days after his house in Oldham had been surrounded by 70 local residents who threw bricks and threatened him and his family with firebombs. But his death shows only too clearly the power of the tabloids to alter the behaviour of their readers in profoundly distasteful and undesirable ways.
The rest of the British press, perhaps fearing a backlash which could impact on them all, have been quick to condemn the News of the World and its editor, Rebekah Wade. A leader in the Independent commented:
"The tabloid's decision to hound paedophiles was bad enough. To make no distinction between serial abusers and comparatively minor offenders compounded its error. Mobs are unwilling to differentiate between degrees of offence or to weigh up the likelihood of their targets repeating assaults. To treat all offenders as if they shared the murderous deviancy of Sydney Cooke or Sarah Payne's killer is a distortion of the truth; it does nothing to help protect children against sexual abuse."
John Diamond took a similar line in the Express, but also asked:
"Then again, just how worried are we about children dying needlessly? In fact, more than 90 per cent of all abused children suffer at the hands of family friends or relatives. About half a dozen children a year are abducted and killed by strangers. That's six too many, but there are plenty of ways of saving many more children's lives than that, and which I've yet to see the pundits touting quite so gleefully as they do naming paedophiles. Recently, one of the transport lobby groups suggested cutting the speed limit on residential roads to 20mph, a simple act which would save the lives of hundreds of children. So where are the Stop Speeding campaigns? Why do we all know the names of children murdered by abusers, but not those mown down by speeding motorists?"
Diamond's point is a very sound one, but unlikely to generate much enthusiasm among his journalist colleagues. Road safety is very dull compared with the lurid image of the paedophile. It doesn't result in that essential frisson of irrational fear which sells newspapers so effectively.
At SIRC we have long been concerned with the ways in which people come to perceive risk in their lives and in the world around them. We have argued that people should have the right to accurate and balanced information, on the basis of which they can make informed decisions about how they live their lives. And we have highlighted the many occasions on which people are misled, either by false scaremongering or by the cynical promotion of false promises.
The ill-fated News of the World campaign has served only to direct attention away from the real threats to children's lives, generating hysterical, misdirected concerns which can only be damaging to them. The only benefit has been to the paper's circulation figures. Even the most right-wing libertarian opponent of limits to press freedom must be wondering if it is not time for some reform.