Condemn mob law, then resolve justified fears about paedophiles

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The Independent Online

There can be few newspaper campaigns to have failed so comprehensively and on so many fronts as the News of the World's "naming and shaming" of paedophiles.

There can be few newspaper campaigns to have failed so comprehensively and on so many fronts as the News of the World's "naming and shaming" of paedophiles.

Just as they were warned, the homes and lives of quite innocent families - including children - have been destroyed simply because they happened to share a surname with, or live in the flat above, a supposed paedophile.

The campaign has, just as the probation service and the police predicted when they pleaded with the tabloid not to go ahead, driven paedophiles underground.

With so much of the focus on the stereotypical lone stranger, the main source of child abuse - members of the same family or friends known to the victim - has been completely neglected.

And two convicted paedophiles walked free from the courts this week after their lawyers argued that they had already been punished by "naming and shaming".

It may well be the case that the News of the World has made the safety and even the lives of children less rather than more secure. But even after all the damage it has done, the paper still threatens that it will restart its campaign if the Government fails to alter the law to its liking.

For the newspaper it has brought humiliation. Its reputation has sunk lower and its editor has brought the rest of the press down with her; the public can see just how cynical it was to use the tragedy and suffering of Sarah Payne and her family to sell newspapers.

And all that from a publication that regularly prints photographs of half-naked teenaged girls, (one of a girl aged 16 on the day that it started its ill-starred campaign). The News of the World should be ashamed of itself.

Not that our politicians have performed much better. Given the base populism of today's Conservative leadership, we should perhaps be relieved that William Hague and Ann Widdecombe did not immediately jump on the News of the World's bandwagon.

But where was the voice of the traditional party of law and order to be heard when blameless families were being driven out of their homes up and down the land? Only Michael Howard was prepared to explain why, as Home Secretary, he had rejected a British version of "Megan's Law" as ineffective.

Where were the Liberal Democrats to tell us that, yes, even paedophiles have some human rights? And are ministers so in thrall to the press that they cannot condemn a popular tabloid? Their silence has been depressing.

The most important question remains, though: what do we do with paedophiles?

The answer, surely, depends on the paedophile. The worst, predatory types are unable to control their urges, are extremely devious and, studies show, attack hundreds of children during their lives. They must be kept in indefinite custody for the protection of the public. The likes of Sydney Cooke, one of the gang who murdered Jason Swift, should never be released. Changes in the law should ensure that such dangerous predators are detained for life.

But not all paedophiles are serial abusers. Some may have committed an act that was an aberration. In these cases the chances of re-offending - particularly after a sexual offences training programme in prison - may be very low but cannot be ruled out.

Then there are the fantasists, whose activities may be confined to collecting child pornography, say. Unpleasant though that is, it is not violent crime.

It is in these cases that the Government is right to consider extending the arrangements for the registering of paedophiles to place an obligation on the police and the social services to take reasonable steps to ensure that families living nearby are alerted to the presence of such an individual. It should be used sparingly, however. This is not Megan's law but it is a practical way forward. There should be a campaign for it.