William Creasey and media responsibility, redux

This is an edited version of an op-ed originally published by the Cape Argus (October 21).

The recently revised South African Press Code confirms that the role of the press remains – at least from the point of view of the Code – pretty much what we’ve always understood it to be. To summarise, the press serves society by allowing us to make informed judgements regarding events of the day. In doing so, they should refrain from violating the dignity or privacy of others unless justified in doing so by a legitimate public interest.

Whether one has sufficient justification is a matter of judgement. This is especially the case with regard to deeply emotive issues such as paedophilia. On Friday, October 14, the Cape Argus carried a front-page exposé of convicted paedophile William Creasey, which was later defended in a follow-up op-ed as serving the public interest.

In the op-ed, High Court Reporter Fatima Schroeder argued that the exposé “drew attention to the need for formal monitoring mechanisms being incorporated into the sentencing of sex offenders”, and that the Argus was “convinced of our duty to contribute to limiting the exposure of children to risk”. Editor of the Cape Argus, Gasant Abarder, concurred with this view in an exchange I had with him on Twitter.

But if this is a justification, it is interesting to note that in the initial article only around 10% of it dealt with the general issue of how best to treat and monitor sex offenders, while the rest dealt fairly explicitly with Creasey himself. While there is no question that Creasey has committed wrongs in the past, one can wonder whether the general issues involved could be debated without so much attention to his particular case – especially because he is – to the best of our knowledge – innocent of any current crimes.

My concern is that a focus on the particulars of this one man blurs the boundary between the press operating as a purveyor of news and as a moral watchdog. That this line is being blurred is exemplified in the prominent role of the Independent Newspaper group in the LeadSA campaign, where certain forms of behaviour are endorsed and others censured, as in the Bill of Responsibilities.

When the legitimate interests of others are at threat, we all – including the press – have a moral duty to not be silent. This is particularly true of the especially vulnerable, such as children. But alongside our interests in protecting children from predators, we also have an interest in protecting the role of the media as a trustworthy and principled source of information.

In this case, it is important to note that Creasey himself has neither denied nor confirmed his intentions to offer art classes to children, insisting that he would be seeking legal counsel. We should remember that just as some might consider the publication of the exposé as an act of vigilantism, it remains possible that the advertisements offering art classes to children were published by a person who knew Creasey’s history and wanted to expose him.

Normally we would wait for the facts to be established in a court of law before releasing them to the public. This case is treated differently, and the reasons are clear: It is widely believed that paedophiles cannot be rehabilitated, and therefore remain a threat in perpetuity. But as is so often the case, what is widely believed is not necessarily the truth.

The truth is that we don’t know. Those afflicted with these compulsions are heterogeneous, and existing research is compromised by the fact that we can only study the paedophiles that commit crimes and are caught doing so. It should therefore not surprise us that the results of such research present a pessimistic picture. What is more difficult to study are those who have deviant sexual fantasies, yet never act on them.

A further obstacle here is a psychological one: The topic of paedophilia invokes such disgust that we are inclined to fear the worst, and to engage in pre-emptive strikes such as this lead story in the Cape Argus. The fact that parents – and especially parents whose children might be exposed to Creasey – would welcome this does not justify the conclusion that it was the best way of responding to the situation.

Paedophiles can and should be held criminally responsible for their actions. Creasey was convicted, and later released on parole. This might not have been the appropriate response. It’s perhaps desirable to institute chemical castration as in countries such as Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Germany and the United States, where remarkable declines in recidivism have resulted. It’s also desirable to have a better populated registry of sex offenders, so that parents and schools can establish whether a prospective teacher has committed such crimes in the past.

If different responses are merited, such as chemical castration or enforcing no contact with children whatsoever, then those debates should be taken up on a legislative level. Creasey cannot be expected to bear a disproportionate share of the public’s outrage, as if he were an elected representative of paedophiles everywhere. If it’s not appropriate for him to walk the streets, or to teach children, it should be illegal for him to do so. Until it is, the (potentially very real) fears that parents and children have don’t allow for singling one man out for this sort of attention.

So it does not seem obviously true that the fear of potential recidivism necessarily justified the public exposure of one named individual – especially if alternatives were available. One such alternative was attempted, in that the police were approached. Their response was to say that there was “nothing they could do until they had proof that Creasey had committed an offence against a child”. As the article itself points out, Creasey’s parole had come to an end and he was now a “free man” – although according to the Argus, not as free as the rest of us.

Instead of exposing him, perhaps Creasey could have been encouraged to seek professional help in light of the signs that he might be engaging in “grooming” (attempts by a sex offender to target and prepare children for sexual abuse). The newspaper could even have warned him that they would be publishing such an exposé in the near future, unless they received independent confirmation that he was in treatment, and avoiding unmonitored contact with children.

But instead, The Cape Argus leapt immediately to red alert. And while I have absolutely no interest in defending paedophiles, we all have an interest in a balanced and responsible media, which does all it can to serve the public interest – including our interests in fairness, dignity and privacy. But in this case, moral panic, sensationalism and prurient interests seem to have won the day.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.