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Sunday, 16 December, 2001, 09:10 GMT
A paper's controversial campaign
News of the world
Parents' right to know - or cynical circulation booster?
The News of the World has resumed its controversial campaign of "naming and shaming" known paedophiles in the wake of the Sarah Payne murder trial, writes BBC News Online's Chris Horrie.

The fact that Sarah's killer, Roy Whiting, had a previous conviction for sexually assaulting young girls has renewed the debate over "Sarah's Law" - a proposal to give parents the right to know the identity of paedophiles.

Sarah Payne
Sarah Payne

The News of the World led a national campaign for such a law in the summer of last year, taking matters into its own hands by printing pictures of 100 offenders.

But a plan to identity a further 110,000 was dropped after innocent people were attacked and police claimed the paper's campaign was wrecking investigations and thus - possibly - placing children at risk.


When the paper began its naming and shaming campaign in June 2000 after the death of Sarah Payne critics called it "irresponsible journalism" - and even "a vile and despicable act" - aimed at cashing in on the tragedy in order to boost circulation.

Others praised the move as brave or, at least, a brilliant editorial move capturing the mood of the nation's parents.

News of the World
The campaign for Sarah's Law is launched
Although attacks on children by strangers are mercifully rare, there could have been few mums and dads who were not mesmerised by the horror of the Payne case, fearing that the same fate could befall their own children.

It was reported that the decision to go ahead with the original campaign came after extensive market research paid for by the News of the World showed overwhelming public support for the idea that parents should be given details of local paedophiles.

Extra sales

Publicist Max Clifford, very much an insider at the News of the World, praised the paper's editor Rebekah Wade for her "shrewd" editorial judgement from "a circulation and readership point of view".

People are being let out of prison when everybody concerned knows that this is going to happen again

Sarah's mother, Sara

Parents queued up to buy copies of the paper - to find out if any of their neighbours were paedophiles and to sign a petition printed in the paper in favour of "Sarah's Law".

The News of the World sold 95,000 extra copies after a long period of decline following the launch of the campaign. The paper also used the list to help promote its then recently re-launched website.

But the campaign immediately ran into problems.

There were violent scenes throughout the country as local people formed vigilante-type mobs intent on driving men taken to be those pictured in the paper out of their neighbourhoods.

In Portsmouth 300 people attacked the home of a local taxi driver who had been named by the paper.

An innocent man, Iain Armstrong, was beaten up by a mob in Manchester after being mistaken for one of the pictured paedophiles - apparently because he wore a neck-brace which looked like one worn to the man in the News of the World's picture.

Mob justice

There was a similar case in Norwich, and a celebrated incident when an entirely innocent South Wales paediatrician was attacked after confusion over the meaning of the word.

Sarah's parents
Sarah's parents strongly backed the News of the World campaign
In the Midlands police received messages from vigilante leaders threatening to drive suspected paedophiles from council estates warning that police stations would be attacked if officers got in the way of mob justice.

Amid what the Home Office called a "climate of fear and panic" in parts of the country, a named paedophile, James White, committed suicide after a vigilante attack on his home. White's solicitor later said White had been "literally scared to death".

At the same time senior police officers asked the News of the World to call off its campaign because it was wrecking investigations, alerting paedophiles and forcing them "underground".

Gloucestershire chief Constable Tony Butler said the News of the World was engaged in "irresponsible journalism".


There was also the danger of prejudicing juries and thus preventing offenders from being brought to justice.

Paul Boateng: Made no promise
In Manchester one paedophile walked free from court because, following the publication of his picture and address in the News of the World, the judge ruled that he - and innocent family members - had already suffered enough at the hands of mob justice.

The paper's editor, Rebekah Wade said at the time: "Our intention is not to provoke violence. The disturbing truth is that the authorities are failing to properly monitor the activities of paedophiles in the community."

Despite the warning, the News of the World published a second sell-out edition, naming a further 50 on the sex offenders register, devoting 10 pages to the subject and threatening to publish more "week after week after week" until the names were available to the general public.

The campaign was then abruptly called off when the paper claimed it had been promised that the government would put "Sarah's Law" onto the statute book.

The next day the relevant minister, Paul Boateng, appeared on TV to say he had promised no such thing.

But the News of the World kept hold of the list of thousands of offenders and may now be contemplating "naming and shaming" still more.

See also:

24 Jul 00 | UK
To name and shame
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