'IS ANY child safe?' the Daily Express thundered last week. In the wake of the tragic murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the tabloids are seeking to boost circulation by playing on parents' fears. The News of the World is planning a repeat of the 'name and shame' campaign against paedophiles it ran two years ago.
This is a despicable attempt to stir up the same vigilante violence that resulted in scores of innocent people being attacked. It has absolutely nothing to do with Holly or Jessica's deaths. The man accused of their murders was not a registered paedophile and there is no evidence of a sexual motive for the killings.
The coroner at the inquest in the girls' murders accused the newspapers of hindering the search for them by offering large rewards for information. It's not just the tabloid papers that are manipulating the grief for their own benefit. Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith is hoping to claw back some popularity. A newspaper has reported that he is about to call for a return of the death penalty for child killers.
The murder of the girls has understandably shocked and horrified many people, but such murders are extremely rare. The press rants about rising numbers of child murders, but most surveys say that the child murder rate has stayed the same for decades. Columnists hark back to the 1950s when children could play safely in the streets, but the number of child murders was no smaller then, and could even have been larger.
World Health Organisation figures show that the number of children murdered in Britain halved between the 1970s and the 1990s, from around 100 to around 50 a year.
Only four of the top 26 industrialised countries have fewer child murders a year than Britain. The stories of children abducted and murdered by strangers dominate the headlines precisely because they are so exceptional. home office figures show that 95 percent of child murders are committed by parents or carers.
The figures for children killed by strangers include those who die in hit and run accidents. As Mary Marsh, director of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said last week, 'There isn't a child killer lurking on every street corner. The major threat to children remains in the home.' The majority of children killed in the home die between being born and going to school.
This points to the unbearable pressures put on families as people struggle with poverty, insecurity and a lack of childcare. The picture is the same in cases of other types of child abuse. Of 1,003 cases of abuse reported to the charity Childline in one year, only eight involved a stranger.
This does not diminish the horror of child murders when they do take place. But it does help a rational assessment of the mounting evidence that an exaggerated fear of strangers is restricting children's lives. The more children are kept indoors, the less they become used to dealing with adults, and the less children there are around on the streets to look after each other.
If the papers are so worried about children, why don't they campaign for a cut in the speed limit? If speed limits were cut to 20mph it would reduce by at least half the 200 children killed every year on the roads. Instead the papers who talk about child killers promote the fast car culture and motorists' rights.
And they could campaign against the homelessness, poverty and alienation that blights too many young lives.