Naming and shaming sex offenders will not help protect our children

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There is something deeply distasteful about the tabloid newspaper campaign that seeks to exploit the genuine sense of national horror over the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne with the arbitrary "naming and shaming" of 49 people convicted of a wide range of child-sex offences.

There is something deeply distasteful about the tabloid newspaper campaign that seeks to exploit the genuine sense of national horror over the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne with the arbitrary "naming and shaming" of 49 people convicted of a wide range of child-sex offences.

It is irresponsible for the News of the World to defend its action as upholding law and order and protecting children. It will do neither. It is an invitation to people to take the law into their own hands, which will only discourage potential child-abusers from seeking help, and force people with past convictions underground.

Nor are our doubts motivated by some woolly concern with civil liberties, although the implications for personal freedom are important. The Independent has urged a change in the law so that child-sex offenders can be locked up indefinitely if two doctors judge that they are likely to offend again. This breach of the principle that people should be penalised only for offences they have committed is justified, unlike in the case of travelling football fans, because of the peculiar nature of some forms of paedophilia. There are a very, very small number of people whose sexual obsession with children leads them to kill, and for whom the likelihood of reoffending is great enough to justify suspending normal rules.

But among people who are sexually aroused by children there is a significant difference between the majority who may cause distress and psychological damage and the tiny minority who kill. Of course, most people find any form of paedophilia deeply disturbing. But the danger of the News of the World's wild approach is that, under cover of society's deep fears of the sexual abuse of children, it wraps up all kinds of unusual sexual behaviour to present the spectre of a huge and immanent threat to ordinary decent people.

"One child-sex offender for every square mile of the country," it proclaims, and yet its photo-gallery of 49 individuals includes those convicted of keeping child pornography on a computer.

The distortion of the risks to children seems driven by adult prurience. Every year, between five and nine children are abducted and killed in this country. Last year, 221 children were killed on the roads. In other words, children are 30 times more likely to be killed by a car than by a paedophile. Yet the News of the World has not printed 49 mugshots of careless drivers who killed children, demanding that we "Lock them up for life."

Such an attempt to put risks in perspective is not intended to trivialise the statistically small risk of abduction.

But there is no simple "solution" to the problems of paedophilia. In a very few cases, there is no alternative to life imprisonment - alternatives such as drug therapy should be investigated, but all the evidence is that the problem lies in the mind, not the body. There is a role to be played by "naming and shaming" in the form of public registers and the exchange of information. This is vital in screening jobs that involve the care of children - the children's homes scandals of the 1960s and 1970s must stand as a permanent prompt to vigilance. But to pretend that parents can assess the risk to their children by surfing the internet to find out if a paedophile lives in their neighbourhood is foolish. Teaching children about "stranger danger" is important too, but then so is teaching them about the danger of cars.

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