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Van man abductor story 'a myth' -

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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: It's a notion that haunts all parents from time to time: the thought that a
stranger might abduct their child. In recent years, there've been numerous media reports about a
man in a white van trying to snatch children off the streets. But criminologists say most of the
reports are false and maintain the story is largely an urban myth. John Stewart reports.

JOHN STEWART, REPORTER: Last month, the report about two men in a van attempting to abduct a
nine-year-old girl on the NSW Central Coast sent the media into a frenzy.

SIMON BOUDA, CHANNEL NINE NEWS REPORTER: Peter, a truly terrifying experience for this young girl.

REPORTER, CHANNEL SEVEN NEWS: They tracked her down again and grabbed her. She fought them off and
raced home with a bloodied nose and bruises.

ANONYMOUS WOMAN (on 'Channel Seven News'): Oh, they're just scum, yeah, absolute scum.

JOHN STEWART: Two days later, the NSW police informed the media that the attempted abduction report
was false and the young girl had made it up.

There was little media interest in the clarification. The 'Daily Telegraph' reported the story was
false on page nine.

DON WEATHERBURN, NSW BUREAU OF CRIME STATISTICS & RESEARCH: There's nothing more frightening to a
parent than the idea that some complete stranger could snatch their child and inflict harm or
murder the child. That is a really frightening thing to conceive of. The media know that and they
exploit that.

JOHN STEWART: In September last year during the school holidays, the NSW police received 30 reports
about attempted child abductions in one week. No child actually disappeared, but that didn't stop
images like this appearing in the media and the story about the man in the white van became a major
news item.

REPORTER (on Channel Nine): Last Friday, here in Auburn, a 12-year-old girl was being followed
round by a man in a white van. A few weeks ago in Tempe, a 14-year-old girl was walking home when
two men in a white van a bit different to the other two white vans ...

REPORTER (On 'Channel Ten News'): In a getaway car described as a white van.

RON WILSON, PRESENTER ('Channel Ten News'): Daniel, seems to be a growing number of these attacks,
particularly on schoolchildren. Is this one linked to any of those others?

REPORTER: Ron, we've had four in about the past month involving white vans.

JOHN STEWART: Sydney mother Natalie Morris has four children and lives in a street where one of the
attempted child abductions was reported to have taken place.

NATALIE MORRIS, MOTHER: Apparently the little child was outside playing in his front yard and a car
came past and opened the door and tried to get the little boy to come into the door, into the car.

JOHN STEWART: The police were unable to establish a case. Six months after the story about the
attempted abduction, Natalie Morris says parents and children in her street are still living in
fear.

NATALIE MORRIS: You've got a pit in your stomach thinking, "Oh, my goodness, I can't let my kids
even walk next door. I can't let them do anything without me being there. They've lost their
freedom."

JOHN STEWART: The NSW police say that despite last year's wave of reports about men in vans, no
child disappeared and it's unclear if any of the reports were true.

JOHN KERLATEC, NSW POLICE: No child disappeared. No child was abducted, per se. And I would say the
great proportion of those either remain under investigation or we've proven to date to be false.

JOHN STEWART: Criminologists say the media know that the vast majority of reports about men in
white vans trying to snatch children off the street are false, but the story is given front page
prominence, regardless of whether it's believed to be true or not.

DON WEATHERBURN: They've got no interest whatsoever in reassuring people or telling people
subsequently that it was a false report or that there was no evidence that an abduction took place,
and they're certainly not interested in correcting anything they might've said wrong at the time.
So people are left with this aftertaste, this feeling that abduction is extremely prevalent and
they really need to watch their children extremely closely when they're in and around strangers.

MARK FINDLAY, SYDNEY UNIVERSITY: We're not just talking about reporting news here either. We've got
situations where some media outlets get actively involved in creating the story. The story is
something which, if you like, is orchestrated and generated around community fear.

JOHN STEWART: The myth of the man in the white van sometimes even arises in cases where a crime has
occurred. In 2007, the body of a two-year-old boy was discovered in a lake in Sydney.

REPORTER, ABC NEWS, 2007: And in recent weeks, schools have put out a warning about a suspicious
white van approaching children regularly in the area. Its driver is described as having a North
American accent and is blond.

JOHN STEWART: Natalie Morris want the media to change the way it reports child abduction stories,
especially during the school holidays.

NATALIE MORRIS: If it was untrue, print something just as big, just as bold and say that, "Due to
further investigations, we've found that it wasn't true."

JOHN STEWART: The police say they take all claims of attempted child abduction seriously, but
reports about men in white vans often peak during the school holidays. The false reports also waste
valuable police resources.

JOHN KERLATEC: It seems to be a common theme. Whether each and every one is made up I can't really
confirm because I don't know what took place at the scene. But I can say there are several matters
that have been totally false involving white vans. Why they do it I don't know. I think, if some
matters we've identified we're they're trying to hide other behaviour they've been involved in and
wish to tell their parents another story.

JOHN STEWART: Psychologists say that children invent stories about abduction for a variety of
reasons.

CHRISTOPHER LENNINGS, FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGIST, SYDNEY UNI.: They might be in a lot of trouble, they
might need sympathy, they might need to try and get some kind of support for themselves because
they're having tough times in other parts of their lives. There might also be simply a need to be
famous.

JOHN STEWART: Forensic psychologist Dr Christopher Lennings says the urban myth about the man in
the van probably began when the American FBI created a profile for a highly organised killer.

CHRISTOPHER LENNINGS: And the typical profile was a person who had, you know, the duct tape and the
knife and the scissors and all that kind of stuff, drove around in a the van because it was
something that they could place offenders in and they could - no windows and those kinds of things.

JOHN STEWART: The FBI profile of the man in a van was then picked up by Hollywood movies like 'The
Silence of the Lambs'.

(excerpt from 'Silence of the Lambs')

ACTRESS: Can I help you with that?

ACTOR (standing next to white van): Would you?

ACTRESS: Sure.

ACTOR: Thank you.

ACTRESS: That's alright. You look kinda handicapped.

ACTOR: Yeah.

(end of excerpt)

JOHN STEWART: In America, stories about strangers in white vans are also running on the nightly
news.

WITNESS (on American news program): White van, appeared to be waiting for children exiting the bus.

JOHN STEWART: Criminologists say that children are far more likely to be harmed by domestic
violence than by strangers.

DON WEATHERBURN: The stranger danger issue is grossly overemphasised in the media. It's not
interesting to the media to know that the majority of harm inflicted by kids is by parents or
relations of some kind or other. The idea of the stranger walking in, abducting a child and then
murdering a child is just given way too much emphasis, when the prosaic reality is it's people the
child knows who represent the biggest threat.

JOHN STEWART: If the criminologists are right, the stranger in the white van is largely an urban
myth and the biggest threat to children is people in their own homes. John Stewart, Lateline.