Media frenzies are no basis for sound laws

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In the wake of the Aurora shootings, the instinctive reaction of most Europeans is shock and bewilderment that even this latest horror does not persuade the American public and politicians of the need for gun control.

But it is usually a bad idea to draft legislation in response to dreadful pictures and appalling events. The classic example in British government is the Dangerous Dogs Act. This silly legislation was a reaction to a tabloid frenzy of 20 years ago, which claimed that a generation of children was at risk from dangerous dogs. The fiasco reached its apotheosis when Brigitte Bardot demonstrated outside Scotland’s Court of Session as its most learned judges deliberated on the fate of Woofie, a cross-breed that had barked at a postman.

After the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in the summer of 2000 by a known paedophile living nearby, the newly appointed editor of the News of the World began a campaign for “Sarah’s Law”, imitating an American campaign for “Megan’s Law”. The proposal involved a register of sex offenders open to public scrutiny. The publicity reached a frenzy that summer, provoking vigilante incidents, in one of which a paediatrician returned home to find “paedo” sprayed on her house. The agitation revived after two horrific paedophile incidents in 2002 – the murder of two girls at Soham by the school caretaker, and the abduction and killing of Milly Dowler.

The campaign for “Sarah’s Law” made the reputation of Rebekah Brooks, the News of the World editor. She would go on to become editor of The Sun and chief executive of News International. Mrs Brooks resigned in 2011 and is facing charges over phone hacking. The scandal erupted after claims that Dowler’s phone had been intercepted by the newspaper. A mobile phone given to Mrs Payne by the News of the World is reported also to have been hacked.

The impact of the News of the World campaign is evident in the Home Office statistics. There are usually between 500 and 600 child abductions a year in England and Wales. In 2002-05, abductions almost doubled, reaching a peak in 2004-05 before tailing off: in recent years the figure has reverted to normal.

The likely explanation is a reporting effect. You might think that the definition of an abduction is straightforward, but it is not. Most child abductions are by estranged spouses or partners, or other family members. Most abductions by strangers are not by paedophiles; they are thefts of children by distressed women and the children are quickly recovered. After the extensive publicity for the killings of Payne and Dowler, and for the Soham murders, parents may have been quicker to report incidents and the police more ready to record incidents as abductions.

But the News of the World effect persists if one looks at murder of children by strangers. This is a firmer number: such events never go unreported. In England and Wales there are normally between five and 10 cases a year. But in 2002-2003 there were 17 and the following year 15. The incidence of such killings also subsequently diminished and in the past five years has reverted to normal. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, among the perverted individuals who commit such crimes, publicity provokes imitation.

The danger to children from paedophile abduction is very small. Out of 1m children, about 250 will die in any year, mostly from natural causes, with about 30 killed in road accidents. Six will drown and three will be murdered, most likely by their parents. Every five years or so, one child in that million will be murdered by someone he or she does not know.

In a world full of information and short of our attention, the events that affect behaviour are those that are salient. Incidents such as the Aurora massacre engage us not because such events are common but because they are rare. Our frame of reference is defined by what is reported. The phenomenon of salience gives the press a special, and disturbing, responsibility.

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