Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Media frenzy can feed into the basest desires
"But it is usually a bad idea to draft legislation in response to dreadful pictures and appalling events.
After the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000 by a known paedophile [sic] living nearby, the newly appointed editor of the News of the World began a campaign for Sarah’s Law, imitating an American campaign for Megan’s Law. The proposal involved a register of sex offenders open to public scrutiny. The publicity reached a frenzy that summer, provoking vigilante incidents, one of which involved “paedo” being sprayed on a paediatrician’s home.
The agitation was revived after two horrific paedophile incidents [sic] in 2002: the murder of two girls at Soham by the school caretaker, and the abduction and killing of Milly Dowler.
The campaign for Sarah’s Law made the reputation of Rebekah Brooks, the News of the World editor. She went on to become editor of the Sun and chief executive of News International. Brooks resigned in 2011 and is facing charges over phone hacking. The scandal erupted after claims that Milly Dowler’s phone had been intercepted by the newspaper. A mobile phone given to Sarah’s mother Sara Payne by the News of the World is reported also to have been hacked.
The impact of the News of the World campaign is evident in the Home Office statistics. There are usually between 500 and 600 child abductions a year in England and Wales. In 2002-05, abductions almost doubled, reaching a peak in 2004-05 before tailing off. In recent years, the figure has reverted to normal.
The likely explanation is a reporting effect. You might think that the definition of an abduction is straightforward, but it is not.
Most child abductions are by estranged spouses or partners, or other family members. Most abductions by strangers are not by paedophiles; they are thefts of children by distressed women and the children are quickly recovered. After the extensive publicity for the killings of Payne and Dowler, and for the Soham murders, parents may have been quicker to report incidents and the police more ready to record incidents as abductions.
But the News of the World effect persists if one looks at murder of children by strangers. This is a firmer number: such events never go unreported. In England and Wales there are normally between five and 10 cases a year – but in 2002-2003 there were 17 and the following year 15.
The incidence of such killings also subsequently diminished and in the past five years has reverted to normal. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that among the perverted individuals who commit such crimes, publicity provokes imitation.
The danger to children from paedophile [sic] abduction is very small [infinitesimal]. Out of 1 million children, about 250 will die in any year, mostly from natural causes, with about 30 killed in road accidents. Six will drown and three will be murdered, most likely by their parents. Every five years or so, one child in that million will be murdered by someone he or she does not know.
In a world full of information and short of our attention, the events that affect behaviour are those that are salient. Incidents such as the Aurora massacre engage us not because such events are common but because they are rare. Our frame of reference is defined by what is reported. The phenomenon of salience gives the press a special, and disturbing, responsibility."
More posted than we usually would, but, for the good of society, we hope that the publishers will understand.