The Sun recently unveiled their new crime-fighting team – Dr Sara Payne and Shy Keenan – as the nation’s salvation when it comes to issues of criminal justice and victimisation.
Dr Payne, now with a high-ranking prefix to her name as though to present an image of authority, has recently gone on record as suggesting that the Press is a shining ‘bastion of hope’, citing the example of the News of the World’s shameful ‘Name and Shame’ campaign of outing convicted child sex offenders in 2000, leading to a formal campaign (which was ultimately successful) to introduce Sarah’s Law – a community notification scheme whereby parents can access information about convicted sex offenders living in their areas. Payne stresses how this cause was close to her heart following the murder of her daughter, Sarah, by a previously convicted sex offender, Roy Whiting, but doesn’t address that the new legislation wouldn’t have prevented this tragic event, given that Whiting lived some distance away from the Payne’s family home.
Shy Keenan is a public face in the field of child protection, having been the victim of sexual abuse throughout her childhood. This puts her in a unique position as a very high profile voice for victims groups.
Whilst I sympathise with both of these women for the horrific events that they have experienced over the years, this should not exclude them from the same critical analysis that would befall any columnist working in the mainstream popular press, so here goes…
It appears as though the Sun are using these two very high profile faces, who can be considered ‘normal people’ in the sense that they are identifiable for ordinary people, in order to keep their propaganda-laden messages about crime and punishment circulating within mainstream public thought. I have written at length about the semantics of child sex abuse, particularly around the overuse of the label ‘paedophile’, and it saddens me to say that the women under examination here are two of the worst culprits for overusing this tactic. It appears that the mainstream and populist press ignore, or are ignorant to the fundamental definitions of paedophilia (a sexuality or mindset, as opposed to a set of behaviours), preferring instead to communicate the message to the public that anyone convicted of a sexual offence where the victim was a child is a paedophile. Not only is this simply wrong, it warps public knowledge by reinforcing negative stereotypes, whilst simultaneously reducing opportunities for reintegration of ex-offenders rejoining society after serving custodial sentences.
This is most apparent when considering the case of Craig Maguire who, within five lines of one article written by these two ‘Justice Campaigners’ was called a ‘perv’, paedophile’, ‘vile’, ‘fiend’, ‘sick’ and ‘deranged’. Additionally, he was not sentenced to a period in custody, he was ‘caged’, presenting the image of an animal who needs to be confined to a small holding pen for its own good. Whilst I am not defending the actions of Maguire (who has been convicted for several sexual offences relating to children), I think it is unfair, and misrepresentative, to use this kind of language. The thrust of the argument made by Payne and Keenan was that, because he posed as a teenager to get girls to send naked pictures to him, he should not be able to live near a primary school. This is something that probation would have taken into account and deemed, because of the nature of his offence (including the age characteristics of his previous victims) that he was of no, or little, risk to primary school aged children. Instead of presenting this balanced picture, they instead opt to promote the stereotype that all child child offenders, regardless of victim age or gender, are a threat to all children and should not be trusted. This really is an example of Brown’s (1999) finding in action, whereby people say that they are in favour of community reintegration of offenders, so long as that integration isn’t into their community.
As well as passing off individual cases as being representative of all offenders in a given category, this crime-fighting duo also have judges in their sights, and suggest that sentences for some offenders (again using carefully selected examples) are too lenient, alluding to the public’s view that justice has gone ‘soft’. It would be beneficial for commentators, Payne and Keenan included, to look more holistically at cases before passing judgement, and take into account the merits and pitfalls of all sentencing options available to the judiciary. What may seem, at face value, to be a lenient sentence, may actually be very well suited to the offender in question and significantly improve his (or her) opportunities for long-term desistance from crime.
I suppose what I am getting at is that it would be nice to see is a little more balance, and a less dogmatic, political thesis of crime to be presented by these two women (and, indeed, all crime commentators in the mainstream press). If they really do want to cut crime and reduce re-offending, then they should be representative in their articles and engage in rational, evidence-based debate, as opposed to spouting the age old propaganda that can be found in any copy of the Express or Mail.
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