How a Young Girl's Death in 2000 Gave Birth to an Urban Legend
On July 1, in a tiny English village, eight-year-old Sarah Payne was playing with her brothers and sister in a country lane. Then she wasn’t. The media panic that followed is a case study in how urban legends are born and spread.
Photo illustrations by Ben Giles
Early on the balmy evening of July 1, 2000, in the tiny English village of Kingston Gorse, eight-year-old Sarah Payne was playing with her brothers and sister in a country lane flanked by cornfields. Then she wasn’t.
Forty-eight hours later, Sarah’s mother, distraught, stared out from every TV set in the land. A national manhunt spilled into blanket coverage, until, 16 days later, Sarah’s naked body was discovered in another field, some 15 miles north. So began Britain’s summer of pedophilia obsession.
Perhaps it was the sheer gilded calm of Britain’s actuality—prosperous, politically beige—but news was a lot harder to come by back then. If Sarah Payne’s murder was a match flung on this bone-dry social kindling, we’d imagined into existence a long, hot pedophilic Summer of Sam, in which child killers seemed to stalk the land. Through this lens, social class began to come into sharp focus again in Britain, and as the year went on, the pedophile-behind-every-tree delusion was joined by another: the illiterate lynch mob. Both were confections of the media, except one was made by the chiefly working-class press, while the other was an expression of consequent middle-class panic over blue-collar mores.
By 2000, the “stranger danger” myth had taken hold in most Western societies, despite the actual incidence of random child sexual assault being very low and static. Of all nonfamily abductions, a 2002 US Justice Department study found, about 1 in 500 were “stereotypical kidnappings,” like the one involving Payne. Yet America had its milk cartons with missing kids staring back at you from the breakfast table. And England had News of the World, the nation’s top-selling tabloid, which specialized in tugging at heartstrings while peeping through the keyhole at the gore.
In the immediate wake of Sarah Payne’s disappearance, News of the World announced that it would be publishing the names and addresses of every convicted sex offender in Britain. The tabloid ended up publishing only 87 names in those first two weeks, before the campaign was suspended, but regardless, here was some petrol on top of the initial match on top of the social kindling. The register’s details were publicly available anyway, but it seemed pretty irresponsible to start listing the addresses of people who, in reality, spanned a wide range of crimes: from underage teenagers having sex, to possessors of child pornography, all the way up to serial rapists.
Some worried that News of the World’s publication of the names would provoke certain readers into taking matters into their own hands. (At the time, News of the World was selling almost twice as many copies as its nearest Sunday rival, or about as many as its next three competitors combined, and its predominant readership was working class.) In fact, many in the more middle-class sectors of the newspaper business openly said that publishing the names would be reckless.
And as the national consensus around the murder began to divide along class lines, many of those who’d said so seemed to be proved right. Later that year, the Glasgow Herald, a Scottish institution and the longest-running national newspaper in the world, bemoaned the “hysteria over alleged sex offenders,” and cited the “illiterate lynch mob” that had attacked a pediatrician’s home.
“Who can forget the targeting of an innocent children’s doctor in Portsmouth,” the Daily Mail chimed in, in 2000, “by a populace too ignorant and enraged to recognize the difference between pedophile and pediatrician?” The same year, a Guardian article noted how this pediatrician was not only attacked but, “hounded from her home” by her own neighbors, “who confused ‘paediatrician’ with ‘paedophile.’”
The tale of the pediatrician/pedophile mix-up became an emblem of the age. It was instant folklore, a damning indictment of the mob, of outrage culture, and of what happens when the press doesn’t do its due diligence.
One small problem: It didn’t happen.
At least, it didn’t happen anything like the way anyone had said it did. There were no working-class herds, driven mad by News of the World naming names, involved in the making of this parable. No pediatricians were harmed, either. There was no mob, no lynching, and indeed, no provable link to anything reported in the news.
The truth is so buried in misremembered versions that it takes a bit of sleuthing to wind back the picture from 2019, but the germ of it can be traced to then-trainee pediatrician Yvette Cloete, who came home one day in 2000 to find the word paedo scrawled on her front door. The local police chief speculated it might have been the work of a couple of teenagers with a spray can. Who could tell? And so it’s remained an unsolved incident of minor vandalism, a chit on a sheet in a police station.
If anything, we know the thing that didn’t happen didn’t even happen in Portsmouth: At the time, Cloete was based 100 miles away at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Wales, another country altogether.
Ironically, the news had been well covered by the press when it broke. For his part, Cloete’s local police chief remembered having done 18 interviews in the first week. Yet just as soon as it emerged, the pedophile/pediatrician element warped in a game of telephone, becoming ever more gruesome with each retelling. In 2003, for example, a Northern Irish newspaper incorrectly recounted that “paedophile-hunting locals” had “chased a paediatrician down the street.” A student newspaper at the University of Essex went so far as to add arson to the charge sheet: “A group of people in Portsmouth,” the paper claimed, “burned down a paediatrician’s office in righteous anger.”
As the police chief later told the BBC, “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?”
Cloete herself even displayed symptoms of having bought the media narrative. “I suppose I’m really a victim of ignorance,” she told reporters at the time of the incident. Of course, there was no evidence suggesting the episode was based in ignorance because there’s simply no evidence of anything. No fresh facts ever emerged. It might have been a knowing joke between two tweens who’d discovered a naughty word and aerosol paints. Again, who knew?
One question still dangled: Why did so many of these misremembered reports point to far-off Portsmouth? It turned out that around the same time, on a Portsmouth estate called Paulsgrove, residents had set fire to a car, whose 55-year-old owner was not a pediatrician. He was, however, on News of the World’s sex offender list.
And while Cloete certainly wasn’t “hounded” from her home, she did choose to stay with friends for a while, before moving “somewhere more upmarket,” as she told reporters. (At the time of the vandalism, her house backed onto a large estate of low-income housing. Cloete did not respond to requests for comment before this issue went to press.) It would seem her own vague class prejudice mirrors that of the media: In warning us about tabloid scaremongering, the bourgeois press had mongered a scare of its own, knowing that something didn’t have to be true to feel true. In a way, that made the press the “illiterate lynch mob.”
As the Sarah Payne story went on, News of the World started calling for “Sarah’s Law,” a measure (similar to “Megan’s Law” in the US) that would ensure the public’s right to be notified if a sex offender moved into the area. In 2001, Payne’s killer was sentenced to serve a minimum 40-year prison term, and News of the World would be forced to close in 2011 as a result of another kind of mob: public outcry over the paper hacking into the phones of the victims of the 2005 London bombings, as well as relatives of British soldiers killed in action and a 13-year-old who was murdered.
The allegations came by way of the more upmarket Guardian, which claimed News of the World had deleted crucial last voicemails from the slain teenager. But the Guardian ended up having it wrong. As authorities came to realize, the messages had probably been auto-deleted by the service provider.
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