The events

The disappearance

On Saturday 1st July 2000, eight year old schoolgirl Sarah Payne went missing in West Sussex, Great Britain, and within a very short space of time (merely a few hours) a hunt was started for the girl, nationwide (see also: Soham). She had left her grandparents home after a bust-up at 8pm GMT and was then reported missing. Police searched the immediate area, but could find absolutely nothing of any use.

The investigation

The day after, 130 people combed the countryside of West Sussex for evidence, and police arrested known paedophile Roy Whiting. He was then released on bail. On the 3rd of July, Sarah's parents made a tearful TV appeal for Sarah's safe return, and a second man was arrested in connection with the affair. The day after this, both Whiting and the other man were held in an identity parade (and then rereleased on bail).

The information gathering

By the 7th, things were getting frantic. It had been a week, DNA samples were inconclusive, there was a nationwide search for the girl, and the two men had been released on bail with the police no closer to finding Sarah's abductor than they were two days ago. On the 8th, police started to sift through the thousands of telephone calls received since the start of the investigation, and set up roadblocks to glean any information that they possibly could.

The sighting

On the tenth day of the hunt, police tell the public of a new sighting at a police station of a schoolgirl matching Sarah's description, which police call the "best sighting yet".

On the twelfth, Steps (Sarah's favourite pop group) make an appeal for her safe return, and it is revealed that the whole operation has cost GBP250,000. The girl's parents are told to prepare for the worst.

The hunt is concluded as the body of a young girl is found near Pulborough, it is positively identified as Sarah's body and a murder investigation begins.

The media

The media were quick to pick up on this, especially tabloid The News of The World. In a move that would have made Hitler feel slightly uneasy, TNOTW campaigned for the immediate publication of the sex offenders register so parents could know about the "immediate paedophile threat to their children" (also known as "Sarah's Law", similar to the American "Megan's Law") and took it upon themselves to give descriptions, addresses and names of 49 known paedophiles. The net result of this was the starting up of vigilantes, hatemail being sent and a condemnation from the Home Secretary. The rest of the media was more moderate, and a campaign on BBCs Crimewatch programme attracted 270 calls in relation to the abduction.

The arrests

On the 20th, what was believed to be one of the young girl's shoes was found near Coolham. By the 6th February 2001, Roy Whiting was arrested for a third time and was charged with the murder of the girl. On 12th December 2001, he was found guilty of the abduction and murder of Sarah Payne.
So what can we learn from this? We can learn that the media can wave their "It's for the children" banner around and gain support from anyone. We're naturally protective of children (and so we should be) and so anything or anybody perceived to be a threat to them immediately gets people murderously angry (especially young girls, whom we immediately associate with chastity-therefore sexual abuse of one of these vulnerable sectors of society is regarded as an outrage. I do remember one person on a political mailing list saying that if a 9 year old boy had been abducted, nobody would care, which is a very true statement IMHO). The News of the World in particular should be chastised for their witch hunt like approach to the investigation, and the consequences of their publication of data that would usually be kept only for police and certain other figures, such as school headteachers. This is adequately summed up by a columnist in broadsheet The Guardian:
...they devote huge space and energy to turning a real life horror story into an episode of Cracker or Inspector Morse . For the awful truth is that there is a huge market for these ghastly stories because we, including me and including you, are completely gripped by the unfolding saga. We do want to hear the perverse detail that Sarah was found naked, that the murderer seems to have customised his van for committing the crime and so on. We do pay attention as the narrative is unpacked for us.

80 children are murdered in the UK every year, 70 by someone they knew (Thx for correction, Albert Herring). In the year 2000, the British public heard about one. Think about it.

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