Leading article: Damaging perceptions of child abuse

Headlines can can have a distorting effect on public perceptions. Some appalling stories of child abuse in recent years have led to a general assumption that children in Britain are at growing risk. Victoria Climbie and Baby P are often treated as emblematic of deep national failings when it comes to the protection of young people.

But new figures from a study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood present a strikingly different picture. They show that child deaths from abuse have, in fact, fallen considerably over the past 30 years. Deaths among children from assault have come down from an average of three a week in 1974 to one a week in 2008.

Erroneous public perceptions matter because they influence policy. Before the last general election David Cameron used the disturbing Edlington child torture case to justify his "Broken Britain" slogan. Public alarm about crime (which has actually been steadily falling for many years) prompted the previous Labour government to produce a host of damaging criminal justice bills. Politicians will always feel the need to respond to public anxiety. And they often do so in ways that do more harm than good. That makes reports such as this, which inject some realism into an emotional public debate, all the more valuable.