Summer holidays are not what they used to be. For British youngsters, the escapades of the Famous Five must appear like an extra-terrestrial experience. There is little adventure left in a world in which children are taught to fear the outdoors and their lives are continually subject to adult supervision.
In recent years summer has become a season in which lurid tales of child abduction prey upon the public's worst fears and help to foster a climate of permanent anxiety. As murdered children such as Sarah Payne, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman continue to haunt our imagination, it is easy to forget that such tragedies continue to be as rare as they were a century ago. What we face is not an epidemic of stranger-danger but of scare-mongering.
In recent years some sections of the media have gone into stranger-danger mode around July. No doubt it is only a matter of time before the public is confronted with a new round of tabloid-led public-awareness initiatives, name-and-shame campaigns and demands for lock-up-everybody laws. Unfortunately this summer, the cause of tabloid moral entrepreneurs is likely to gain a major boost from Child Rescue Alert, an American scheme for finding abducted children which was adopted and adapted by Sussex Police.
Although it masquerades as an innovative policing technique, Child Rescue Alert is very much an offspring of media entrepreneurship. The scheme's website states that it was the Argus, a Sussex newspaper, that first proposed, last November, that the police adopt the widely discussed American Amber Alert initiative. The national media also thought this was a good idea. Tonight with Trevor McDonald went to the US, taking along Chief Superintendent Jeremy Paine, who led the Sarah Payne murder hunt. He returned an enthusiastic advocate of Amber Alert, claiming that the scheme would have helped in dealing with the murder cases of Milly Dowler and Sarah Payne. Many media organisations, including the BBC, have signed up as partners to the Child Rescue Alert scheme.
The scheme works by harnessing the local media to mobilise public vigilance when a child is abducted. It works through interrupting local radio and TV broadcasts. Text messages are sent to people who have registered their mobile with the scheme. It is meant to work like a real-time Crimewatch.
The scheme had its first real test last week. A big police hunt was begun after six-year-old Summer Haipule was reported missing by her mother. After a 13-year-old boy reported seeing the girl abducted by two men, Sussex Police launched its first Child Rescue Alert. The media and police operation was in full swing before a neighbour realised that Summer was enjoying a good night's sleep under a cot near the child's family home. The police were pleased at how the scheme was implemented, but questions must be asked about the use of massive resources before the case could be properly evaluated. Worse still is the damage that such public relations exercises inflict on the public psyche. Most people will soon forget that no one was abducted, but their fears and anxieties will have been reinforced by a reminder that threatens to transform every stranger into a potential predator.
The experience of the US shows that a child-alert system comes with a high cost to society. Amber Alert has reinforced the notion that child abduction is rampant in the US. It fails to distinguish between an abducted child and one who ran away from home. Worse still, it has helped to intensify the already powerful public obsession with child abduction. In California last summer, police and local organisations opened booths at fairs and other events where children lined up with their parents to provide digital scans of faces and fingerprints in order to be prepared for the worst. This year, entrepreneurs are offering "digital identification packages" that will help police to track down abducted children.
It is only a matter of time before powerful voices will be demanding the extension of Child Rescue Alert throughout Britain. Turning our worst fears into a new form of public entertainment may sell a few newspapers and increase the audience for a new format of reality crime show, but do we really want to turn summer into a grotesque spectacle in which the star attraction is a child-killer?
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, Canterbury
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