Unrepentant 'News of the World' editor refuses to face critics

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For an editor whose paper was claiming "a tremendous victory", Rebekah Wade, of the News of the World, continued to be conspicuous by her absence for comment yesterday.

For an editor whose paper was claiming "a tremendous victory", Rebekah Wade, of the News of the World, continued to be conspicuous by her absence for comment yesterday.

As police and residents in Portsmouth cleaned up after a second night of violence and a string of experts lined up to criticise the paper's proposed "Sarah's Law" as "unworkable", Ms Wade was not making herself available to defend the paper against the continuing storm over its campaign to name and shame paedophiles.

On Friday she agreed to stop printing the names and addresses of known paedophiles after a week of vigilante riots, some of them targeted at wholly innocent people.

Peter Tatchell, the prominent gay rights activist, even urged her arrest for provoking "mob rule, lynch law justice and attacks on innocent people", in contravention of the Public Order Act

But yesterday it was left to the tabloid's executive editor, Robert Warren to put a different gloss on the affair. Backed by the parents of the murdered eight-year-old Sarah Payne, he claimed there had been a "great leap forward" in persuading the Government to reconsider the laws governing sex offenders.

The newspaper, together with the NSPCC, the police and probation services, would draft a law to allow parents controlled access to information about paedophiles. It aims to emulate the United States' Megan's Law, named after Megan Kanka, killed aged seven, by a convicted sex offender who lived nearby, unknown to her family.

Mr Warren hoped the law would be on the statute book, "by the end of this year", a prediction that bordered on the fantastic and which typified the hysteria the paper and its supporters have brought to this issue. In fact it is unlikely the Government will scrap legislation already scheduled for this autumn and still less likely that such a controversial law, even if included in the next Queen's Speech, would have such a quick passage through Parliament. Democracy rarely moves as hastily as a tabloid newspaper editor.

At 31, Ms Wade, was regarded as a breath of fresh air when she succeeded Phil Hall as editor of the News of the World in May, moving from the deputy's job at the Sun. An opponent of "page three girls", and chair of the Women in Journalism group, she was expected to revamp the tabloid's sex-and-celebrities formula, despite being well-connected to the showbiz world via her fiance, the actor Ross Kemp.

Although Ms Wade knew the proposed "Sarah's Law" would be controversial, market research indicated it would play well with News of the World readers whose support is unlikely to have been shaken by criticism from the police or probation services, let alone what the paper characterises as "the voices of liberalism".

At the Sun, Ms Wade was overruled when she suggested the paper should backTony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who shot a burglar. But her populist instincts were vindicated when a similar Martin campaign ran by the Daily Mail received enormous public support.

But Ms Wade has been accused of "irresponsible journalism" and of "risking child- ren's lives" in the vicious war of words which began two weeks ago with the headlines: "Named, shamed ... does a monster live near you?" Her inflammatory warning prompted vigilante attacks on the named and on those pictured in the paper. Some innocent people were mistaken for the exposed.

Yesterday, Victor Burnett, convicted in 1989 of being part of a child sex ring, was in hiding after a second night of violence in Portsmouth.

Inevitably, the mob sometimes targeted the wrong man. Just days after the launch of the campaign, Iain Armstrong, 49, from Bradford, Greater Manchester, was mobbed after people mistook him for a paedophile. Michael Horgan, 55, of Lewisham, south-east London became the innocent victim of the group Antimatter, which sent 500 letters to his neighbours. And Victor Terry, 78, from Croydon, south London, was also targeted by the same group which confused him with a paedophile of the same name.

Yesterday, Ms Wade faced calls for prosecution on charges of inciting public disorder. But she had begun trying to distance herself from the violence, negotiating a deal at her paper's Wapping plant whereby she moderated the stance to win approval from police, the probation services and charities. A written statement on Friday, included a more considered range of policies designed to protect children. Police and child protection agencies gave that their blessing.

Sheleft it to her executive editor to face the battering from John Humphrys on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, her contribution being just to issue a statement insisting progress had only been achieved "as a result of our naming and shaming campaign".

Not all agree of course. A spokesman for the Association of Chief Officers of Probation said: "The 'name and shame' campaign was wrong from the beginning. There's nothing that now makes it any better." Many others will be hoping the mob hysteria stirred by the paper, so thuggishly visible in several cities, will evaporate as rapidly as a tabloid's news agenda.