Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 18

Protecting The Innocents, a case study of the coverage by the Liverpool Echo of

the Paedophile Question

By Richard Rooney


In the 1990s there is a growing furore over child sex offenders. The news media report
cases of paedophilia presuming that abuse is endemic even though the number of sex
offences against children remains fairly rare. Opinion formers use their platforms to
demonise paedophiles and politicians, fearful of seeming out of step with public opinion
offer up legislation to protect children, thereby legitimising the original fears. This, in
turn, allows the news media to justify their original reporting of the paedophile danger.

The increasing concern with paedophila within the UK has a startling resemblance to
the moral crusades that run in the United States from the 1930s to 1950s. These
crusades led to "sexual psychopath" laws being enacted in a dozen states.

Edwin Sutherland identified a pattern among these crusades that roughly followed these
lines. A few serious sex crimes are committed in quick succession and articles appear in
the news media baring the title: "How Safe is Your Daughter?" "What Can We Do
About Sex Crimes?" and "Terror in Our Cities".

Letters are written to newspaper editors demanding action, schools are alerted to be on
the lookout for men loitering around playgrounds, parents hold public meetings and
form action groups and the police call for all-out action against sex criminals.

National leaders are quoted in the press concerning the most effective methods of
controlling sex crimes. Victims of sex offenders and their relatives rise up and make
public declarations that are dutifully reported in the media. Politicians demand laws to
deal with the problem. Communities are thrown into a panic about the danger that
violent sexual psychopaths pose to children.

For the most part very little debate or discussion takes place about proposed legislation
and in no location is either the fear, or the passage of the law, related to an increase in
the incidence of sex crimes (Cited in Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994, pp. 18-19).
The UK has seen similar events. The news media has encouraged people in their belief
that child sex crime has reached epidemic proportions. Parliament has brought forward
legislation restricting the activities of child sex offenders who have served their
sentences and there is talk of arresting "known paedophiles" even if they have not
committed an offence.

This paper concentrates on one small part of this process, the coverage of the
paedophile by one newspaper in one week in 1998. Although the sample is small it
represents a microcosm of news reporting elsewhere. Every national daily newspaper
had some type of anti-paedophile campaign in 1997 or 1998.

The Liverpool Echo's campaign was seen by the newspaper itself as an exercise in civic
duty. It set out to "tell our readers the truth" about "the last British taboo" in a series of
articles "which will shock every parent". The Echo placed its self-defined role as
defender of the community at the centre of its campaign declaring, "we would not be
carrying out our duty as a newspaper if we failed to open the eyes of the public to what
is happening on our doorstep".

This paper demonstrates that far from "telling the truth", the Echo managed to demonise
the paedophile and by using selective sources of information and opinion misinformed
the public about the true extent of the so-called paedophile menace.

The first part of this paper situates the Liverpool Echo as a major source of news and
opinion in its circulation area and then offers a summary of its campaign. It then
theorises the coverage in three inter-connected ways; through consideration of the
selection and presentation of material, the content of the editorial matter and the
ideological significance of the messages it produces. It concludes that the Echo was
culpable in fanning the flames of a moral panic against sex offenders.

A summary of the campaign.

The Liverpool Echo is the biggest selling newspaper in its circulation area of
Merseyside, north-west England. It is published six evenings a week and according to
its own figures had a circulation in 1997 of 161,807. This means 469,000 people read
the Echo each day. In Merseyside, the Echo has a daily readership penetration of 43 per
cent. Its nearest rival, the Daily Mirror has a penetration of 31 per cent. About 124,000
people a day read no other newspaper, thereby underlining the importance of the Echo
as a conduit of information and opinion.1
In recent years it has become usual to identify the contents of the local and regional
press in terms of entertainment rather than serious news (see Franklin, 1997, pp. 109-
114 for example). In the case of the Echo, however, there has been a stated policy of
investment in editorial staff. The campaign under consideration here was a direct result
of such editorial investment (Morgan, 1997a, p. 3).


and ran it for six consecutive days (Monday to Saturday inclusive) in the last week of
July 1998. There was a double-page spread inside on each day and front page lead
stories on Monday and Saturday. There was also a colour taster that covered a third of
the front page on Tuesday.

It is evident from the coverage that the newspaper determined that the self-defined
paedophile menace was the most important crisis on Merseyside. No other story in
recent history commanded so much concentrated space in the Echo.

Throughout the campaign the Echo excessively relies on official agencies - the police,
social workers, customs and excise in particular - for its information and presents these
bodies uncritically. Those who might speak on behalf of the paedophiles are given no
space. There is very little attempt by the journalists to offer contextuality. This is most
evident when quantifying the so-called menace.

The first day's coverage led on:


Maths master who preyed on pupils

This gave an account of a former schoolteacher accused of abusing his pupils who had
died before standing trial. The death had taken place a month before the report. An
account by one of the alleged victims dominated the inside two pages. There was also
an explanation of the need for the campaign.

Tuesday's newspaper included a colour taster on the front page with eight head-and-
shoulder photographs with the headline:


Inside was an uncritical account of the Merseyside Police's investigations leading to

Wednesday's coverage centred on the work of the Customs and Excise Special
Investigations Unit and its success at discovering child pornography.

Thursday's paper concentrated on the testimony from a woman, and members of her
family, who had been sexually assaulted by her father as a child. Although the Echo
recognised that eighty per cent of child sex abuse takes place in the home, the vast
majority of space in its campaign was given over to the forms of abuse that are less

In Friday's paper the Echo "reveals how children and parents can confront the menace
of the paedophile . . . before it is too late."

This menacing invitation concentrated on two local charities that were helping the
victims of abuse. Again, the reports were uncritical even though both charities
volunteered information that they had spied on people that they felt might be
paedophiles. The obvious infringement of liberty this represents was not discussed.

Saturday's coverage allowed a certain amount of closure to take place. The Echo
concentrated on the success of the campaign. The front page lead story reported that the
campaign had received the endorsement of the television personality Esther Rantzen,
who is also the leader of the ChildLine charity. The Echo also reported that "police are
examining vital new evidence on the sexual abuse of children on Merseyside after an
Echo investigation into paedophile activities in our communities".

Both stories anticipated that the campaign would continue with verifiable results.

The day's coverage also included the reproduction of a poster for parents detailing how
they could protect their children from a paedophile.

Theorising the Echo's campaign

This paper examines the Echo campaign in three interconnected ways. First, it deals
with the selection and presentation of information analysing the process of media
production to explain selection and presentation.
Second, it examines the editorial content, with particular emphasis on the campaign as a
potential circulation-boosting activity and the Echo's creation of a "public voice" on
behalf of its readers.

Third, it assesses the ideological significance of the messages produced and examines
the part the Echo plays in defining and reinforcing ideological power in a contested field
of discourse.

(i) Selection and presentation

The Echo based its interpretation of the self-defined paedophile menace on information
and opinion provided by a small number of sources. These sources tend to be
representatives of official power blocs, most notably the police and the customs and
excise investigations unit, both agencies of the state.

The statistical information that underpins the campaign comes exclusively from the
above sources and all of it is uncritically reproduced by the Echo.

There is a wide range of academic literature that attempts to understand the

complexities of news selection and presentation. Limitations of space prevent a detailed
summary of the arguments here.2

One strand of the argument that seems to be particularly relevant to the Echo campaign
is the work of Stuart Hall et al. Their thesis on "primary definers" argues that people in
powerful and privileged positions are able to over-access the media, because journalists
nervous of accusations of bias attempt to find ways of injecting impartiality, balance
and objectivity into their reports.

They do this by a heavy reliance on accredited representatives of the people (MPs) and
organised interest groups and "experts" who are considered to be disinterested pursuers
of knowledge and therefore impartial in the debate in question (Hall et al, 1978, pp. 58-

The media, Hall et al argue, become primary definers of the news because the media
tend to reproduce faithfully what they say and thus reproduce symbolically the existing
structure of power in society's institutional order. It is likely that those in powerful
positions in society who offer opinions about controversial topics will have their
definitions accepted. Such spokesmen are understood to have access to more accurate or
more specialised information on particular topics than the majority of the population.

This Hall et al argue permits the primary definers to set the agenda and those with
arguments against a primary interpretation have to insert themselves into its definition
of what is at issue. Once established this definition is difficult to alter fundamentally.

There is evidence from the Echo campaign that this might indeed be the case.

In the case of Merseyside, both the police and customs officials have strikingly similar
messages. Each claimed the success of the organisations themselves resulted in a rising
number of recorded complaints.

"Recorded complaints of sexual assault against children have been rising on Merseyside
for the last seven years. Police believe that the rising figures are largely due to the
force's proactive philosophy, combined with a greater willingness among victims to
speak out."

(Police, Tuesday)

"[The customs and excise investigation unit] was formed specially to tackle the growing
problem of paedophile activity and child pornography in the UK."

(Customs and excise, Wednesday)

The "primary definers" seem to have set the news agenda. The six-day campaign makes
no allowance for alternative views. There is no recognition that people (in this case the
paedophile) can atone for their crimes and after having paid a penalty (fine or
imprisonment, for example) they can be accepted back into society on the same terms as
other citizens.

The Echo campaign gives the police and customs and excise investigators uncritical
space to focus attention on their own claimed successes and to highlight their own
importance and their need for continuing activity.

Each organisation claimed success in their surveillance of the threat. Never did the Echo
question any civil liberty issues about this action.
"Police [are] tackling the activities of nearly 200 suspected paedophiles - many of them
men who do not even have a criminal record.

"The scale of the proactive operation [...] reflects how much of a threat the police
consider the targets to be.

"Merseyside police [...] know the current address of every one of the offenders currently
at liberty."

(Police, Tuesday)

Hall's analysis is not without its problems. Philip Schlesinger and Howard Tumbler
accept that there are powerful sources who can sometimes organise news agendas to
their own advantage, but the emphasis is on the word "sometimes" (Schlesinger and
Tumbler, 1994, pp. 17-21). Journalists can choose to accept the sources, but they can
also decide to find alternative sources. But, as Herbert J. Gans has observed, journalists
are restrained by deadlines and often feel obliged to rely on sources who are able to fit
in with the logistical requirements of busy news organisations (Gans, 1979, p. 121).

Although it is true that official sources do not have to be believed or taken seriously by
journalists, in this case the Echo has done just that. The journalists are not necessarily
biased towards the police and customs and excise, but one suspects their bureaucratic
organisation and cultural assumptions make them conduits of that presentation. As
Brian McNair points out, journalists tend to reproduce preferred accounts and
interpretations of social reality by internalising the dominant value structure of their
society (McNair, 1996, p. 48).

Official sources might also have their own agendas to sell. Philip Jenkins, in his study
of the Satanic child abuse panic of the 1980s, asserts that social workers stood to gain
from the panic both in terms of status and as a result of an increase in public funds for
social welfare services. In this case a child abuse crisis led to perceptions that there was
a major problem requiring the urgent allocation of new resources. A larger and more
specialised child protection establishment would allow more investigation and detection
to take place followed by more concern.

This spiral effect helps to explain the overall growth in the number of social workers in
the UK in the 1980s. According to public opinion polls social workers had little
prestige. The only way to reassert the value of the profession was to show social
workers dealing with truly menacing problems, which they were uniquely qualified to
investigate and combat. Thus exposing a vast prevalence of child sex abuse fulfilled
professional needs and fully justified the need for specialised social service agencies
(Jenkins, 1992, pp. 201-202).

The Echo reproduces uncritically the formal agencies' own accounts of their successes,
especially the police and the customs and excise investigations unit.

"[The customs and excise] run spot checks on suspect mail packages [...] collect
information on potential targets and they begin surveillance once they are confirmed as
suspect. [They are] tackling movements of 'sex industry' clients flying to and from
destinations in the Far East and South America."

(Customs and excise, Wednesday).

Most explicitly of all, the Echo champions the need for more resources to allow
continuing activity.

"The case load is now so enormous that the inquiry [Operation Care], originally
expected to last two years is likely to continue into the next century."

(Police, Tuesday)

Paula Skidmore, in a study of the news coverage of child sex abuse in the UK,
discovered that for a story to be "newsworthy" it had to be associated with crime and
deviance. Stories relied heavily on official sources, such as police, courts, the Home
Office. She also discovered that once a child abuse story was running journalists usually
concentrated on case-studies, thereby looking at child sex abuse as the acts of a
pathological individual, rather than accepting that there is a "complex set of
psychological and other dynamics involved" (Skidmore, 1995, pp. 90-100).

This is evidenced throughout the Echo campaign through testimony from victims. In all
cases - whether abused by family, by a neighbour, by a schoolteacher - the underlying
message was that this could happen to anybody anywhere.

(ii) The editorial content of the campaign

The Echo's investigation into paedophiles cannot be divorced from a commercially

driven development in editorial policy. The Echo, backed by its owners Trinity
International, has invested heavily in editorial content. In 1997 the Echo set up an
investigations unit "to set the agenda on Merseyside" (Morgan, 1997a, p. 3). This unit,
comprising two reporters, produced the paedophile campaign under examination here.
In 1997-98 the unit produced 30 investigations, averaging two cases a month (Urquhart,
1998, p. 15). Clearly, the pressure to produce investigations was paramount. Peers
recognised the quality of the work produced by the unit and the chief investigations
reporter won two industry awards in 1998 (for work published before the paedophile

As Phyllis Kaniss has asserted (writing in the US context) local newspapers have
discovered the economic benefits that can accrue from successful campaigning. A prize-
winning paper can win cachet from people who may not read it but know that it has
received prizes (Kaniss, 1997, p. 88).

Carlin Romano discovered press campaigns in local papers tended to concentrate on

stories that provide government reaction, or policy changes, permitting papers to cover
the reaction (cited in Kaniss, 1997, p. 89). The Echo investigation conforms to this type.
Its week-long campaign culminated in praise from a national celebrity and the handing
of a "dossier" of information on paedophiles to the police, with the implication that this
would lead to the arrest of criminals.

In the UK, Nigel Pickover, an award-winning editor of the Ipswich Evening Star, is
even more explicit about the value of the campaign as a circulation-builder. The basic
starting point for any campaign is a strong commitment to the local community
(Johnson, 1996, p. 15). To succeed in circulation terms, the campaign must show
tangible results and must get a response from its readers. Pickover's advice is to "choose
the target and then go in aggressively". Underlying all campaigns in the Star is the sense
of community. It is by getting involved in the community as much as possible that the
germs of future campaigns appear.

Again, the evidence from the Echo suggests that by championing the "betrayed" the
newspaper has set an agenda on behalf (it would say) of the community.

There is also a greater ideological consideration. Hall et al have identified the "public
voice" in news media. This articulates what the vast majority of the public are supposed
to think and in so doing enlists public legitimacy for views which the newspaper itself is
expressing. This represents the media in its most active campaigning role - the point
where the media most actively and openly shapes public opinion. In so doing it can
demand strong action - because the majority demand it (Hall et al, 1978, p. 63).
This kind of editorial usually takes the form either of support for some countervailing
action which has been taken, or, even more frequently, of a demand that strong action
should be taken, because the majority demand it.

The media can bring pressure to bear on the controllers by summoning up "public
opinion" in support of its own views that "stronger measures are needed" (taking the
public voice). This becomes the external point of reference with these representations of
public opinion often enlisted by the controllers as "impartial evidence" of what the
public, in fact, believes and wants.

The entire Echo campaign is an explicit appeal for vigilance. It assumes that such
vigilance has not been present in the past, hence the slogan used to bring the campaign

The presentation of the facts, the choice of sources and the public voice used by the
Echo, is an implicit justification for law and order authorities to act even if, as a
consequence, civil liberties are contravened. This last point is not explicit in the
campaign, but the unqualified support given by the Echo to law and order authority and
independent campaigning organisations which spy on "suspected" paedophiles can only
lead to this conclusion.

A law does not have to be broken for there to be a call for action. The mere thought that
an individual might offend is sufficient; hence:

"The Liverpool Echo today reveals how children and parents can confront the menace
of the paedophile . . . before it is too late"

(Strapline to story, Friday)

On the last day of the campaign the Echo reproduced a poster prepared by the charity
Kidscape that works on preventing child abuse "before it takes place".


The assumption exists throughout the campaign that the whole community agrees there
is a paedophile menace. This menace exists even if you cannot actually see it. Two
action groups are featured. One, "a paedophile monitoring service passes on intelligence
of the movements of suspected paedophiles to the NSPCC, police and social workers".
The other is "actively monitoring the activities of suspects" (both reported on Saturday).

The key word here is "suspects". What we seem to have are amateurs who have set their
own agenda, have their own view of what a paedophile is, and have decided to
circumvent the law (with the implicit connivance of the police). They are reported
uncritically in the Echo and have, presumably, been legitimised because, after all,
everybody knows there is a threat, even if you cannot see it.

The Echo is not the only newspaper, local, regional, or national, campaigning against
the paedophile; one could be forgiven from reading newspaper coverage that a
paedophile crimewave existed.

Mark Fishman has identified how "crime themes", an awareness of crime brought to
public consciousness through the news media, become "crime waves" if the media
collaborate by reporting the same crime theme. The "crime wave" emerges out of an
interaction among news organisations. When journalists notice each other reporting the
same crime theme it becomes entrenched in a community of media organisations. The
"reality" of the theme is confirmed to the news organisation who first reported it: the
theme must be there because everyone's covering it (Fishman, 1981, pp. 98-111).

As soon as a crime theme looks as if it is catching on and becoming a wave, journalists

have another kind of news to report: the responses of politicians, police, and other
officials. By making public statements and taking official action on the basis of the
assumption the wave exists authorities make the wave look even more real and
guarantees that the wave continues.

The coverage of the paedophile in the regional evening press conforms to Fishman's
model. A key date in the process was July 1996 when the Bournemouth Evening Echo
(BEE) was thought to be the first newspaper to draw up a register of child molesters.
The rationale for this, according to the newspaper, was the lack of a national record of
convicted paedophiles available for public viewing.

The BEE used names, addresses and details of crimes dating from 1990 to compile the
register. It also undertook to publish the names, addresses, ages and other details of
newly convicted Dorset paedophiles.

The BEE said it acted because police and social workers did not have full information
about suspected paedophiles because the government had not legislated to create a
national register. The BEE campaign demanded a change in the law to prevent child
abusers returning from prison and living in the neighbourhood of their victims (Morgan,
1996a, p. 7).

The action of the BEE prompted local evening newspapers across the country to similar
action. The BEE had legitimised action against the paedophile as a news story. The
Manchester Evening News (MEN) announced that it would consider a register of its
own. Meanwhile, it decided, against police advice, to publish the name and photograph
of a man accused of being a former paedophile. After the report six men destroyed the
accused man's car in retribution. The MEN claimed it acted on behalf of the parents.
The editor Michael Unger said: "I argue that the kids, who don't have any defence as
such, have greater rights than the paedophile" (Morgan, 1996b, p. 8).

The Oxford Evening Mail (OEM) set up its register in 1997 to "prevent these perverts"
infiltrating groups and organisations whose line of work brought employees, voluntary
and paid, into contact with children. The OEM editor Chris Cowley called paedophiles
a growing cancer and predicted the number of paedophiles in Oxfordshire would grow
exponentially (Cowley, 1997, p. 15).

The Birmingham Evening Mail (BEM) set up its own register. It also published on its
front page, the name, address and photograph of a paedophile on the day he was
released from prison. The editor Ian Dowell said: "While authorities won't tell families
that these people are living in their midst, we will ... Monitoring by the various agencies
has failed time and time again let parents do some of it." (Slattery, 1997, p. 8).

The bogus claims from newspapers that they had set up local registers because a
national scheme did not exist was exposed after the government announced a national
register. The BEE, BEM and OEM all said they would continue their own registers. The
BEE's excuse for this was that their campaign had been very popular with readers
(Morgan, 1997b, p. 4).

(iii) Ideological significance of the messages

Stuart Hall has observed that news organisations do not merely report events, but are
active agents in constructing the social-political environment that frames those events in
the public imagination. Journalists have a key role to play in shaping readers'
perceptions of what news is and how to react to it.
The Echo has chosen to present the paedophile as a "problem", by fanning public
indignation and to an extent helping to sustain a "moral panic".

The Echo did not create this panic, but it has misled its readers into believing a danger
exists when it does not. In every particular, the Echo encourages a moral panic.

The concept of the moral panic was developed by Stanley Cohen. He observed that the
news media operated as agents of moral indignation, even if they were not self-
consciously engaged in crusading or muck-raking, their very reporting of certain "facts"
could be sufficient to generate concern anxiety, indignation and panic. He studied
newspaper coverage of disturbances between groups of young people (Mods and
Rockers) in the 1960s, and recognised that when such feelings coincided with a
perception that particular values needed to be protected, the preconditions for new rule
creation or social problem definition were present (Cohen, 1980, p. 16).

Cohen believes that there is a tendency for groups to be identified as a "personification

of evil" (Cohen, 1980, pp. 41-44). He labelled such groups "folk devils". Folk devils are
stripped of all favourable characteristics and imparted with exclusively negative ones.
In short, folk devils are deviants; they engage in wrong-doing; their activities are
harmful to society; they are selfish and evil; they must be stopped, their activities
neutralised. Only an effort of substantial magnitude will permit us to return to normal.

For Hall et al, a moral panic begins when the reaction to a person or group is out of all
proportion to the actual threat offered, when "experts" in the form of police chiefs, the
judiciary, politicians and editors perceive the threat in all but identical terms and appear
to talk "with one voice" and media representatives universally stress sudden and
dramatic increases in the numbers involved in events (Hall et al, 1978, p. 16).

Hall studied the reporting of the crime of "mugging" in the 1970s and concluded
"official" statistics were used to back up subsequent action "however accurate or
inaccurate the statistics [on mugging], they were used to identify the existence of a
mugging crime wave and to justify public reaction to it" (Hall et al, 1978, p. 10).

Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda offer a useful summary. For a moral panic to
exist there has to be present concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality and
volatility (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994, pp. 33-43).

There needs to be a heightened level of concern over the behaviour of a certain group
and the consequences that that behaviour presumably causes for the rest of the society.
There is ample evidence that the Echo's campaign had the tendency to fuel a moral
panic. It heightened concern among readers:

"Some [paedophiles] might enter into voluntary organisations like the Scouts, or local
sporting clubs and leisure organisations for youngsters."

(Custom and excise official, Wednesday)

"Paedophiles are protected because they feel safe in an environment where the subject is
not talked about."

(Custom and excise official, Wednesday)

The Echo builds a picture of a shadowy group of sex beasts who are plotting to capture
children. No one is safe.

"[The Echo] will reveal how paedophiles seek out their chosen victims and groom them
for months or even years, before they exploit their naiveté and trust."

[Echo introduction to campaign, Monday]

For a moral panic to exist there needs to be an increased level of hostility toward the
group regarded as engaging in the behaviour in question. Not only must the condition,
phenomenon or behaviour be seen as threatening, but a clearly identifiable group or
segment of society must be seen as responsible for the threat.

Underlying much of the Echo campaign is the belief that paedophiles are not individuals
who act on impulse, but a highly organised group that must be thwarted.

"Paedophiles are notorious for meticulously planning ahead for what they want to do
and so we need to be ahead of the game."

(Senior police officer, Tuesday)

There is constant repetition of the theme of organisation, planning and stealth.

"Many [paedophiles] are adept at keeping an extremely low profile and can groom their
proposed victims to the extent that they do not complain in the event of a sexual

(Senior police officer, Tuesday)

There is evidence to support Hall's assertion that "experts" perceive the threat in
identical terms. A criminal psychologist's view of the menace, is uncannily similar to
that of the senior police officer.

The psychologist reveals the "extraordinary lengths paedophiles will go to in pursuing

and grooming their intended victim."

"They are well-organised, cunning and tend to blend so well into the community that
nobody suspects them."


Paedophiles are so far outside society that they have no sense of shame or guilt there is
no prospect of redemption.

"Most of them fail to accept that what they do is wrong, and they are people who never
seem to change."

(Criminal psychologist, Tuesday)

This aspect of the Echo's campaign is worrying. Nowhere over the entire six days is any
discussion allowed that might undermine the campaign's central point: these men are
evil. Prison is no answer, because they only learn how to be more effective paedophiles

"Paedophiles tended to network closely, often sharing their victims.

"One of the best network locations is in prison. This means they are able to plan joint
activities for when they are released.

"And that makes it all the more important that we know just where they are after they
serve their sentences."
(Criminal psychologist, Tuesday)

The moral panic needs a substantial widespread agreement of consensus, or at least a

certain minimal measure of consensus, that the threat is real. Sentiment must be
widespread, although the proportion of the population who feels this way need not be
universal or make up the literal majority.

Moral panics come in different sizes; the sense of "panic" does not have to seize
everybody, or the majority, in a society at a given time, but a substantial segment of the
public must see a threat for the concern to qualify as a moral panic.

There is an implicit assumption that a sizeable number of individuals are engaged in the
behaviour in question than actually are. If the figures are cited to measure the scope of
the problem are grossly exaggerated, Goode and Ben-Yehuda say, that the criterion of
disproportionality has been met. If the attention paid to a specific condition is vastly
greater than that paid to another, and the concrete threat or damage caused by the first is
no greater than, or is less than the second, the criterion for disproportionality has been
met (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994, pp. 33-41).

The degree of public concern over the behaviour itself the problem it poses, or
condition it creates is far greater than is true for comparable, even more damaging,

The moral panic conveys the implication that public concern is greater than appropriate
if the concern was directly proportional to objective harm. In moral panics, the
generation and dissemination of figures and numbers is extremely important and most
of the figures cited by moral panic "claim makers" are wildly exaggerated.3

The Echo launched its campaign by suggesting that the threat of the paedophile has
been underplayed:

"This week the Echo will reveal just how many paedophiles there really are in our
community today."

According to the Echo the truth about the paedophile menace has been clouded in

"We are bringing out into the open the last British taboo".
"We would not be carrying out our duty as a newspaper if we failed to open the eyes of
the public to what is happening on our doorstep."


It gave disproportionate weight to the threat of the paedophile:

"A conservative estimate suggests that there will be at least one paedophile resident in
every square mile of a densely populated residential area."

(Customs and Excise investigative officer reported Monday and repeated on


"I can't imagine there is a large housing estate on Merseyside without a resident

(Customs and Excise investigative officer, Wednesday)

Moral panics are volatile; they erupt fairly suddenly, and nearly as suddenly subside.
Some moral panics may become institutionalised in the sense that concern about the
target behaviour results in, or remains in place in the form of, social movement
organisations, legislation, enforcement practices, informal interpersonal norms or
practices for punishing transgressors, after it has run its course.

At the time of writing the panic continues and it is too early to say with any certainty
what stage we have reached. With the Echo and Merseyside it is the case that action
groups have been formed and continue to monitor suspected paedophiles and legislation
is being enacted by Parliament.


The Liverpool Echo used selective sources of information and opinion to demonise the
paedophile and misinform the public about the extent of child sexual abuse. It also
helped to encourage a moral panic against paedophiles, while encouraging readers to
believe that official agencies were successfully countering the threat from child sex
The Echo failed in its stated objective to tell its readers the truth. It over-stated the
danger of child sex abusers and as a result quite possible increased anxiety among
Merseyside parents to a level approaching paranoia. The use of case studies within the
campaign suggests that children are not safe on the street, at school, at youth clubs or at

Perhaps, worst of all, the campaign also has the potential to increase the danger from
paedophiles. No space is given to question any aspect of the anti-paedophile campaign.
As vigilante-style action groups seek out suspected paedophiles, real sex abusers might
find it necessary to go into hiding after release from prison.


1These statistics are from the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo media pack. BJM
Research interviewed 2,430 adults in the group's circulation area in 1997. The full
report is available on the Internet at www.Liverpool.com
For a comprehensive introduction to these debates see McNair (1996).
No one knows how many paedophiles there are in the UK. A Home Office report suggested
that here were fewer than 5,000 sex offenders convicted in 1996 and less than one per cent of
recorded crime consisted of sexual offences. It also recognised that criminal justice
professionals dealing with sex offenders often had to do so without having specialist knowledge
about these offenders. No reliable classification system of sex offenders existed to help policy
makers make decisions (Fisher and Mair, 1998, p. 1).

This paper was presented at the

Protecting The Innocents, a case study of the coverage by the Liverpool Echo
of the Paedophile Question, paper delivered at Association of Journalism
Education, Children and the Media Conference, London, UK, May 1999.

At the time of writing Richard Rooney was Principal Lecturer and Head of the
Journalism Department, Liverpool, John Moores University, Liverpool, UK.