Editor goes public to justify new campaign

Police say newspaper had no official backing to publish paedophile's details as politicians praise crusade
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The Independent Online

Rebekah Wade, the editor of the News of the World, emerged from the shadows yesterday to promote her newspaper's controversial campaign to give the public the right to know if paedophiles were living nearby.

Until now, Ms Wade has preferred to let her lieutenants go public to justify the NoW's stance. Her appearance on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost coincided with declarations of support from two senior cabinet ministers, David Blunkett and John Prescott, plus a measure of backing from the police.

Ms Wade told viewers: "My point still remains that while there are 110,000 convicted child-sex offenders in Britain living unmonitored, then it is only right that the public have controlled access." She was speaking on the day Britain's biggest-selling newspaper rode into battle against sex offenders, armed with a carefully constructed aura of official sanction and moral rectitude.

A NoW headline read "Police want you to help trap these paedophiles" and the newspaper published photographs of seven wanted child abusers with backing from the police to "name and shame" them.

Detective Chief Inspector Bob McLachlan, the head of Scotland Yard's anti-paedophile unit, told the newspaper that four of the men had breached the Sex Offenders Act and were considered "dangerous". He called on people to be "vigilant, not vigilante".

A Home Office spokesman expressed Mr Blunkett's continued commitment to the News of the World's campaign. "We support the use of people being identified with the sanction of the police and we are not going to withdraw our support of the campaign if someone has made a mistake ... If an identification has not been properly sanctioned, it is a matter for the newspaper and the police force," he said.

Mr Blunkett, writing in an article placed next to photographs of the two young victims of Roy Whiting, the murderer of Sarah Payne, announced tougher sentences for abusers and plans for community involvement in the management of released offenders.

When the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, stepped forward on the same programme to praise as "public-spirited" the News of the World's decision to publish details of the four men wanted by Scotland Yard, a publicity coup for the paper was complete.

But Scotland Yard put two of the Government's most senior ministers in an awkward position last night by accusing the newspaper of falsely claiming it had official backing for the publication of details of a paedophile known to be staying at a London bail hostel. The edifice of co-operation between Wapping and the authorities, which had been built with painstaking care and attention, contrasted with the occasion of the campaign's original launch, about 17 months earlier.

On 23 July last year, as the NoW's new editor, Ms Wade, launched its campaign for a "Sarah's Law" to provide controlled access to the details of all 110,000 paedophiles in Britain. Parents queued to buy copies, adding about 95,000 extra sales to the circulation figures as readers looked to identify the 100 offenders named on the first day of the campaign. Writing at the time, Ms Wade said: "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."

What followed was an explosion of vigilantism that reached its peak in a week of rioting on the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth by a group of residents brandishing a list of 20 "known" abusers.

The NoW campaign was praised in some quarters for capturing the public mood but roundly condemned by others, including politicians and the Association of Chief Police Officers. Tony Butler, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire Police, accused the newspaper of being engaged in "irresponsible journalism".

On 6 August, the day after a mob injured a policeman and overturned a car outside the Paulsgrove home of Victor Burnett, a paedophile named by the paper, the campaign was called off with a claim that the Government had promised a "Sarah's Law". Paul Boateng, a Home Office minister, flatly denied the claim the same day.

Ms Wade, writing in the paper a week later, admitted that the "contemptible" actions of the vigilantes had tarnished the campaign: "They present the greatest threat to Sarah's Law and there must be no more violence."

So, when Roy Whiting was convicted at Lewes Crown Court on Wednesday and the fact of his past conviction for the abduction and sexual assault of a nine-year-old girl became known, both the authorities and the newspaper were anxious to avoid a repeat of the summer of 2000.

The Yard confirmed that it had chosen the NoW as the "natural" outlet for its efforts to trace the four men – Raymond Perkins, David Baron, Zia Alowi and Tuan Quang Ho – who had failed to tell police of their whereabouts. One Yard source said: "It was the right time to put this information in the public domain and the News of the World was the most obvious and instinctive choice."

For both sides it was an ideal arrangement – senior officers and the Government could channel the newspaper into naming only abusers who had broken the law and were considered at risk of re- offending. The indiscriminate publication of details of offenders, which critics blamed for leading to witch hunts up and down the country, would be avoided.

As Mr Prescott put it: "If you look at the News of the World today, I think what they are doing is more or less [BBC1's] Crimewatch ... This is quite different to what led to all that kind of vigilantism."

For the newspaper, the advantages were obvious – it could re-launch its campaign for "Sarah's Law" by naming four dangerous men with the full approval of Britain's biggest police force. But police pointed out yesterday that one of the men featured in the News of the World was not wanted in connection with any breach of the Sex Offenders Act and was under supervision in a bail hostel.

Campaign organisations, led by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, accused the newspaper last night of committing the same errors that had led to such explosions of unrest as at Paulsgrove.

The News of the World was unavailable for comment about the Yard allegations last night. But its editor signalled that – with or without official backing – it may yet return to publishing the details of paedophiles whose whereabouts were already known. Ms Wade said: "I haven't given it up. We may come back to that."

Last night, it seemed the newspaper already had.