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Tabloids' bigger crime to foster fear

By Crispin Hull - posted Monday, 18 July 2011

A less-obvious evil and danger lies behind the News of the World's hacking of the phones of the missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler and the victims of terrorism.

And the closing of the paper and the inquiries that ensue will not address it.

News organisations like to play on fear. Human emotion is a key news value. It is not necessarily to gain more audience, but because journalists, too, are human and stories about victims of crime and terror touch them, too.


Journalists will do a lot to get those stories, even stooping to illegality, as the News of the World scandal illustrates.

The story of Milly Dowler plays on every parent's worst fear – the kidnapping, sexual abuse and or murder of their child. Appealing to that primal fear results in saturation media coverage.

"Milly Dowler" yields hundreds of thousands of hits on Google, nearly all of them from mainstream media sites. The investigation into the 2002 abduction lasted more than six years and the man responsible was found guilty last month.

Similar media treatment was give to British three-year-old Madeleine McCann who went missing in Portugal in 2007 and the Beaumont children (1966) and Graeme Thorne (1960) in Australia.

These cases got, and still get, massive media coverage. Nearly all the stories are completely accurate, but overall the picture is a distorted one. And a dangerously distorted one.

Parents can easily imagine their child being abducted. They can empathise and identify with the parents in the highly publicised examples. And they do this fairly frequently. As a result, parents believe the incidence of child abduction by a stranger is far higher than it actually is. They greatly over-estimate the risk.


In fact, the risk is so minimal that parents can, and should, dismiss it.

In the US, which has a substantially higher crime rate than Australia, the Justice Department puts incidents of child abduction a little over 100 a year. There are about 75 million children in the US, so the chance of a child being abducted in the US is less than one in half a million. The UK figures are similar to those in the US.

In Australia, precise figures are more difficult to come by. The Australian Institute of Criminology's latest (2009) figures put the total number of kidnappings at 564 and murders at 264. But the bulk of the murders are among brawling young men; victims of robberies gone wrong; or victims of domestic violence. The bulk of the kidnappings involve adults or in-family abductions.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on July 16, 2011.

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About the Author

Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times, admitted as a barrister and solicitor in the ACT and author of The High Court 1903-2003 (The Law Book Company). He teaches journalism at the University of Canberra and is chair of Barnardos Australia, the children’s charity. His website is here:

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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