Like the rest of the world I was appalled at the recent revelations about the phone hacking and illegal wiretapping scandals that have caused Great Britain’s News of the World (NOTW) to shut its doors. Members of senior staff have been arrested for criminal conspiracy and corruption charges. Allegations of bribing police officials, anti-competitive practices, computer and phone hacking among other charges have been leveled at News Corporation and its iconic Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Cell phone messages from celebrities, politicians, and members of the royal family were illegally accessed, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. However, the incident that really made my skin crawl was learning that thirteen-year-old kidnap and murder victim Milly Dowler’s cell phone account was manipulated by NOTW operatives leading her family and the police to believe that she was still alive. However, it is the NOTW response to another missing child case that I would like revisit.
On July 1, 2000, eight-year-old Sarah Payne disappeared from West Sussex, England. Seventeen days later Sarah’s remains were recovered from a cornfield about fifteen miles away in Pulborough. Convinced that their daughter had been the victim of a sex predator, Sarah’s parents Sara and Michael demanded changes that would be more protective of Great Britain’s children. The Payne’s then joined forces with leading tabloid newspaper News of the World to campaign for life-prison terms for child killers and public access to identifying information on Great Britain’s 110,000 registered sex offenders. The campaign became known as Sarah’s Law.
Utilizing its formidable resources and with broad public support, the newspaper launched a petition drive demanding public access to and longer sentences for convicted sex offenders. The NOTW then published the photographs and addresses of 50 known sex offenders. This action ignited vigilante reprisals despite appeals against violence.
Because of our work to legislate sex offender registration and community notification (Megan’s Law) in the United States, the NOTW contacted KlaasKids and invited us to Great Britain to help advocate on behalf of Sarah’s Law, and counter scathing governmental and conservative media condemnation. During a July, 2000 meeting with British Home Office Junior Secretary Paul Boateng, I was told that the government intervened and warned unsuspecting women only when incarcerated sex offenders place lonely heart ads trolling for single mothers of young children. However, the minister then condemned the NOTW ‘name and shame’ campaign. He stated that community notification was not an option because the government believed that ‘outing’ sex offenders would drive them underground, and that disclosing their addresses would promote vigilantism. I told the Secretary that suggesting that community notification will drive registered sex offenders underground belies the real problem. The offenders are already underground and community notification is a remedy, not a symptom.
The American example of Megan’s Law demonstrated that punitive penalties for failing to comply with the terms of sex offender registration did not force offenders underground: instead, they promoted compliance. Numerous studies also indicated that imposing prison penalty enhancement for individuals who misuse sex offender registration information to exact vigilante justice were effective as very few registered sex offenders had been publicly threatened.
On September 12, 2000 Sara and Michael Payne delivered 700,000 petition signatures to the British Home Office. On September 25, Violet and I returned to Great Britain to join Sara and Michael Payne in addressing the annual Labor Party convention. It was our fervent hope that the British Government, which now stood alone in opposition, would acknowledge the will of the people and replicate America’s bold and successful experiment with community notification.
Unfortunately, it was not to be so. In December 2001, recidivist sex offender Roy Whiting was convicted of murdering Sarah Payne and sentenced to 50-years in prison. In the end it took a more than decade to convince the government and the authorities that Sarah’s Law was sound policy. In April 2011, that the Home Office finally announced that Sarah’s Law would be implemented. Like Megan Kanka’s mother before her, Sara Payne’s belief that her daughter would be alive had she known that a sexual predator lived in her community forced a change in national policy. Now, parents can access information on registered sex offenders in their neighborhood and use the information to protect their children.
During our work on behalf of Sarah’s Law we befriended NOTW editor Rebekah Brooks and her successor Andy Coulson, both of whom now face serious criminal charges. They helped a grieving mother achieve her dream of protecting children through legislative change. Their benevolence seemed genuine as they asked for nothing in return. We were proud of our work on behalf of Sarah’s Law and grateful for the experience, as grueling as it ultimately became.
However,a few months ago it was revealed that the NOTW had also hacked into Sara Payne’s cell phone account. That, in turn, leads me to wonder if they did the same to me after insisting that I use one of their cell phones during our visits across the pond?