The welcome end of a shameful campaign that subverted the rule of law

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The Independent Online

The News of the World has reaped a bitter harvest from its campaign to name and shame child sex offenders. The riot and injury of a policeman outside the Portsmouth home of a man identified by the paper as one of 110,000 child sex offenders in Britain is the direct result of this ill-conceived exercise.

The News of the World has reaped a bitter harvest from its campaign to name and shame child sex offenders. The riot and injury of a policeman outside the Portsmouth home of a man identified by the paper as one of 110,000 child sex offenders in Britain is the direct result of this ill-conceived exercise.

"Our nation is responsible and educated enough not to resort to vigilante attacks," said the paper last week. Events proved this confidence gravely misplaced. Several innocent people mistaken for offenders are under police protection, while an operation to arrest a known paedophile fugitive in Spain has been endangered. Probation officers say registered offenders are failing to attend counselling sessions and the most hardened paedophiles are being driven underground.

The tabloid's decision to hound paedophiles was bad enough. To make no distinction between serial abusers and comparatively minor offenders compounded its error. Mobs are unwilling to differentiate between degrees of offence or to weigh up the likelihood of their targets repeating assaults. To treat all offenders as if they shared the murderous deviancy of Sydney Cooke or Sarah Payne's killer is a distortion of the truth; it does nothing to help protect children against sexual abuse.

We shall ignore the hypocrisy of a paper that on the one hand prints pictures of topless women in their mid-teens, and then vilifies people who look at pictures of girls perhaps just a few months younger. The paper's editor, Rebekah Wade, issued statements condemning the inevitable violence. But what did she expect when she embarked on her campaign?

This newspaper supports the public's right to as much information as possible. On this issue, however, discretion has to lie with police, probation officers and social workers; the alternative is to ruin lives indiscriminately. Supporters of compulsory notification claim that recidivism rates are inordinately high for paedophiles. Parents have been panicked by the assertion that it is close to 70 per cent. Closer inspection reveals that this is a misleading extrapolation from research about one group of offenders. The overall recidivism rate for child sex offenders, according to the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, is 9 per cent, if by reoffending we mean that they go on to commit any other crime. If we mean that they commit another sex crime against a child, it is 2 per cent.

The aim must be to reduce this figure further. The NSPCC rightly places emphasis on the need for broader approaches to the problem. Indeterminate sentencing for the serious habitual offender is one obvious option we would support, in spite of the civil liberties implications. Statutory risk assessment must also be introduced, and the Government should consider instituting a form of sheltered accommodation where those who have served their sentences can be better monitored.

The American precedent of Megan's Law, under which parents have the right to know of the presence of paedophiles in their area, has not lessened the frequency of assaults. It should not be imported here. Last night, in a humiliating reverse, Ms Wade agreed to end her stunt. She claims that the paper was justified in addressing parental concerns about this subject. But the thoughtless and prurient manner in which she proceeded does her, her paper and the press in general no credit. A new editor's hunger for headlines very nearly left her with blood on her hands. The only good news in this sorry saga is that she saw sense before stirring up more trouble in tomorrow's newspaper.

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