Name and shame victims to sue

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The Independent Online

Innocent victims singled out by vigilante mobs in search of paedophiles to attack and harass are to begin legal proceedings against the News of the World.

Innocent victims singled out by vigilante mobs in search of paedophiles to attack and harass are to begin legal proceedings against the News of the World.

Three men who were subjected to vicious attacks by anti-paedophile demonstrators told the Independent on Sunday that they had taken legal advice and intended to seek "significant compensation" from the newspaper.

Last night libel specialist Amber Melville-Brown, head of defamation at London solicitors Finers Stephens Innocent, said the men were clearly entitled to damages.

"They will be able to show that the mob looked at the pictures and identified them, however wrongly, from the paper," she said. "There is no doubt that this is defamation because they have been shunned by the public as a result. The paper should have carefully identified specific individuals so there was no confusion."

Ms Melville-Brown added that the important issue was that the mob believed that the published pictures and personal details referred to those they targeted. "The person can say 'Look at my bruises. I was driven from my home.' It's as simple as showing that the public understood it related to him," she said.

The News of the World began its campaign after the death of Sarah Payne, the eight-year-old murdered last month in Sussex. But following the newspaper's decision to publicise the names of convicted sex offenders, members of the public took the law into their own hands in towns across the country. This led to four nights of rioting in Portsmouth last week.

Last month, Iain Armstrong was targeted by a crowd of up to 300 people outside his home in Beswick, Greater Manchester. They also threw a brick through the window of his ex-wife's home, which hit her in the shoulder.

Last night she said: "I said all along that the News of the World should pay out at least to take us on holiday. They make their money out of other people's hardship."

Mr Armstrong, 49, wears a neck brace similar to one worn by a convicted sex offender who was pictured in the News of the World. This is because he suffers from viral meningitis and a spinal disorder.

Mr Armstrong blames the News of the World for the violence and says his six-year-old son is now afraid to go upstairs alone. "You've got to blame them, haven't you?" he said. "It's changed our lives completely. You can't go anywhere without being recognised."

Victor Terry, a 78-year-old widower, was targeted because he has the same name as a paedophile who indecently assaulted two boys. He has linked up with Michael Horgan, also an innocent victim of the anti-paedophile campaign, and together they intend to pursue legal action with a third man who did not wish to be named.

"You've got to get a few quid behind you to sue a newspaper," he added. "But it might be that the three of us can do something about it."

The Government has been urged by Robin Corbett MP, Labour chairman of the home affairs select committee, to support legal action against the News of the World and its editor. But last night the Home Office said it was not a matter on which ministers could intervene.

Barbara Roche, the Home Office minister, called for a "calm atmosphere" to allow a review of the operation of the sex offenders register to be completed. She added that there would be public consultation as well as expert advice from children's organisations, police and probation officers before any changes to the register were made.

Last night the Tory leader, William Hague, joined the debate, calling for automatic life sentences for repeat child sex offenders, restrictions to prevent offenders living near their victims, and tighter supervision after release from prison.

Ministers also came under pressure to reverse failures in British prisons to meet targets for treatment of sex offenders. According to the Prison Service annual report for 1999-2000, only 585 prisoners convicted of sex offences completed a treatment programme against a target of 700. The shortfall was blamed on a shortage of qualified treatment managers.

Experts are worried that a failure to ensure treatment in custody contributes to reoffending on release. Of 90,000 prisoners released from prisons in England and Wales each year - not all sex offenders - more than 50 per cent reoffend within two years of release.

Additional reporting by Amy L Anderson