The name of the shame game
The News of the World campaign to 'name and shame' paedophiles ended a week of frenzied press coverage. But editor Rebekah Wade reckons that despite an avalanche of criticism, she has one crucial backer... the paper's readership.
Tuesday 25 July 2000
It has been described, variously, as "irresponsible journalism", "unhelpful", "a risk to children's lives" or a brave campaign, a "shrewd professional move" and the trigger for a huge outpouring of public support. When Rebekah Wade, newly appointed editor of the
News of the World, decided last week to "name and shame" 50 paedophiles, the first instalment in a proposed role call of 110,000, she was not just putting together a controversial front page but marking her own style of editorship.
It has been described, variously, as "irresponsible journalism", "unhelpful", "a risk to children's lives" or a brave campaign, a "shrewd professional move" and the trigger for a huge outpouring of public support. When Rebekah Wade, newly appointed editor of the News of the World, decided last week to "name and shame" 50 paedophiles, the first instalment in a proposed role call of 110,000, she was not just putting together a controversial front page but marking her own style of editorship.
The move prompted an outcry rare even for Britain's best selling scandal sheet. Home Office ministers, probation services and even anti-paedophile campaigners lined up to condemn the move as irresponsible, naive and misjudged.
Yesterday, Home Office Minister Paul Boateng described the newspaper's decision as "unhelpful", insisting paedophiles were best dealt with by police and probation officers under existing laws. Later, Tony Butler, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire Constabulary, said publication of the list was "irresponsible journalism". He said he had held lengthy meetings with staff from the newspaper in an attempt to get them to drop the campaign. "I strongly pointed out what the possible pitfalls of publication were to the News of the World staff. I am saddened to see that they have ignored my advice and published without any evidence [claiming] that by doing so children's safety would be enhanced." In fact, he said, it was likely to do the opposite.
Meanwhile, other newspapers and news bulletins were predictably quick to condemn the move, especially when 49-year-old Ian Armstrong was attacked after being mistakenly identified as one of the paedophiles (seemingly on the grounds that he, like the named man, wore a neck brace).
The general tone was that Ms Wade's decision was a naive stunt to capitalise on public opinion after the death of eight-year-old Sarah Payne which backfired. As a tabloid editor, Wade is still largely untested and is, no doubt, grimly aware of the need to prove herself in the most competitive of markets. When initially appointed editor, she promised a new diet for NoW readers - fewer girly pictures, less prurience and fewer celebs and vice girls. Observers noted that, editorially, she may have been painting herself into a corner - a view that has fuelled suggestions that she has hastily commandeered a shaky bandwagon.
So has Wade been naive? Her behaviour before publication suggests something more akin to editorial cunning. According to a News International insider, after Wade initially came up with the idea, having noted the public reaction to Sarah Payne's disappearance, she commissioned a Mori poll, prior to publication, to see how the campaign would play. "We knew it was going to be a controversial campaign. If the results had come back against it, realistically, we wouldn't have done it. But the results strongly favoured a change in the law, and that parents should have the right to know," the insider said.
The newspaper also spoke at length with numerous interested bodies (including Mr Butler, although it chose not to follow his recommendations). But, according to Max Clifford, Wade had another successful high-profile public campaign in mind. He said: "Rebekah, when she was at The Sun, was responsible for that paper getting aboard the Tony Martin case [the Norfolk farmer who shot a burglar on his property]. David Yelland [ The Sun's editor] didn't want to know. On the day of the [ Daily Mail's] first front page on Tony Martin, The Sun had "George Best gets drunk", which everyone's done a million times. But the Martin case saw the biggest response they ever had."
So Clifford believes Wade knew exactly what she was doing when she began her campaign to name paedophiles and identify the areas in which they live. "I think she's got very good commercial judgement when it comes to The Sun and the News of the World. She knows what their readers think and feel. Tony Martin was her dress rehearsal and this is in a similar vein," he said. " News of the World readers won't pay any attention to the criticism. I think it was a shrewd judgement by Rebekah and such is the strength of feeling that they [the readers] will be right with her all the way. It was shrewd from a circulation and readership viewpoint."
However, Clifford, who personally does not agree with the campaign, makes one proviso. The question of how it pans out over the long term makes her something of a hostage to fortune. It is worth noting that if the NoW is to name 110,000 child abusers at the current rate, the campaign should run for 40 years. "So much depends on what happens - if an innocent person gets beaten up or murdered, for example," adds Clifford. "But I think it's the kind of issue that could keep going."
In this respect, the mob attack on Mr Armstrong looks very ominous. However, for the moment, the News of the World is satisfied. The latest circulation figures show that Wade's first full month in charge of Britain's biggest selling newspaper saw a 2.91 per cent rise in circulation to 3.980,899 million, after a steady decline under her predecessor Phil Hall. The suggestions are that the latest campaign might boost these even further.
"We've had 1,000 calls to the newsdesk since the story broke, 90 per cent have been from victims of abuse, their parents, or people who have been abused in the past, as well as many calls of support and congratulations. There have been just a handful of calls condemning what we did," said a spokeswoman. "It's not Rebekah's first big splash - that was the Queen meeting Camilla - but, in terms of campaigning, Rebekah feels incredibly strongly about this campaign and obviously she's got a full team around her who feel the same."
To yesterday's critics, the public bodies who claim that if naming paedophiles worked, they would have done it themselves, the News of the World is categorically unrepentant. "Our intention is not to provoke violence," says Rebekah Wade. "The disturbing truth is that the authorities are failing to properly monitor the activities of paedophiles in the community."
And she has some high-profile supporters - the kind that are all important to the tabloid reader. Yesterday, the parents of Sarah Payne backed the campaign, saying that they felt that it would help protect children. "I don't condone in any way any vigilante attacks, but parents have the right to protect their children and children have the right to protect themselves," said Mrs Sara Payne.
In the world of the red top, that may be all the support Wade needs.
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