Sharon Shoesmith and tabloid justice

The furore surroundng the legal ruling that Sharon Shoesmith was unlawfully dismissed from her post as Director of Social Services at Haringey Council in December 2008 following the death of Baby P is instructive about the relationship between the media, politicians and the process of public provision.

At the heart of the case is the fact that Shoesmith was dismissed on the fiat of Ed Balls, then Children’s Secretary – the court found that due process was not followed and awarded Shoesmith £500,000 in damages, which is more or less equivalent to the salary she would have received had she remained in post, with interest (some way from being the huge payout that her critics are suggesting).

A few reflections:

First, yesterday’s outcome was inevitable the moment Balls put populism before process.  Balls tried to play the strong man and now, with hindsight, looks like a weak man who has been found out.  It is one of the axioms of Government that advice to Ministers is kept confidential; but in the light of these events – not least the substantial amount of public money that this affair has cost – the content of the advice Balls received is a matter of real public interest (by real I mean, inter alia, the sort of thing a tabloid journalist would not recognise if it fell on him)

Second, the case indicates the utter uselessness – frivolity even – of scapegoating individuals for systemic failure.  There is certainly a case that Shoesmith should have resigned when the extent of Haringey’s failure became clear – and perhaps a case that she should have been disciplined.  But the systemic failure was wider than that, and assuming that purging and individual without due process will deal with deep-seated problems is simply trivial.  Indeed, quite the reverse is the case.  Everyone who has worked in a large organisation dealing with difficult and complex issues knows that there is no greater barrier to collective improvement than a culture of individual blame.  I am assuming that this is what Shoesmith meant in her (admittedly not particularly well-chosen) comments on BBC Radio 4.

Third, it is impossible for justice to be done against the background of a media frenzy.  The tabloid press wanted blood – although the scapegoating that followed is in many respects a result of Ed Balls’ moral cowardice, that’s not the whole story (although one notes in passing that his actions are firmly in the worst traditions of New Labour, which faced with a choice between moral principle and appeasing the Murdoch press invariably and unhesitatingly chose the latter).  This was a classic media job – ignore the facts, which are complex and ambiguous, and reduce the whole story to the gratifying moral simplicity of blood revenge, spurred on by the media’s near-psychotic hatred of public sector professionals in general and social workers in particuar.  Of course it’s so easy – most of us are spectators, who will never have to grapple with the complexities that all those agencies involved in child protection face every day, where the wrong decision can literally cost lives.  I’m not defending the handling of this case – as I said, it is obvious that there were systemic failings – but that the media’s response, and the response of the people who joined in the witchunt, are infantile and deeply frivolous.  And, after all, following the recent revelations of the culture of illegality at the heart of the tabloid press, who are they to read public servants lectures on accountability?

Fourth, it is important to remember that there is a long tradition of vulnerable children being failed by the political system.  Until a Baby P or a Victoria Climbie comes along, such children are off the agenda – certainly as far as funding is concerned.  Both the current Government and the administration in which Balls served appeared quite happy to starve child protection of resources.  To get a flavour of the politics of child protection I can do no better than refer to an excellent post on the Beneath the Wig blog, which gives a chilling account of the political failures on child protection:

As soon as Peter’s death was reported, the public, buoyed by the popular press, began baying for blood. They wanted someone, anyone, to be found responsible for this, and they wanted a public hanging.

The one place they were not looking for their demon was Parliament. No-one, not a media outlet, not one institution, not one childrens’ charity; no-one, looked to Westminster Palace.

Yet that is where the bad guy was hiding. Just four years before Peter, we had the largest review of child protection arrangements we have ever had, in the form of the Laming Report, which arose from the death of Victoria Climbie, on 25 February 2000, with 128 injuries and scars.  The report made 108 recommendations, 82 of which were to be implemented within 6 months.

Yet Peter died because much of what went wrong in Victoria’s case was repeated in his. He died because although the amount of relentless and useless paperwork has increased, nothing of any value changed post Laming.

Peter was failed by each body who had involvement in his life. The list includes (but is not exhaustive):

One social services department;

One police force;

The CPS;

Four hospitals.

Peter died due to a lack of information shared between services. He died due to poorly trained social workers, doctors, policemen and lawyers. All eminently trained in their own spheres, but not trained in how to take an overview of these cases. Not trained in how to share knowledge. Not trained in taking ownership of a problem.

Peter died because of a lack of information sharing technology. Yes, there was a social services file. Yes, there was a police file, and a CPS file, and of course he had medical records. Four separate bodies, four separate files, no proper mechanism for sharing.

Peter died because everyone in child protection is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the work. It is mountainous. The amount of families who need support is huge. The amount of people the system can afford to employ with current funding levels is miniscule. Thus it is very easy for children, especially pre-school children, to slip through the very nets designed to catch them, to prevent deaths like this happening. School is a great saviour to children, particularly children from backgrounds like Peter’s, but it is not infallible.

Peter died due to a lack of funding. There are not enough social workers. There are not enough local authority lawyers. There are not enough officers in the police child protection teams. There are not enough community paediatricians.

There is little funding for training doctors in how to spot non-accidental injuries, to train more police officers, to train and properly staff the social services child protection teams, to put trained staff into the local authority legal departments.

There is little funding to afford those in child protection work time. Time to review information. Time to listen to the suspicions of colleagues. Time to spend with the child, or on the assessments needed. Time to train those coming up behind us, to impart our skills and knowledge, and let them know what to look out for. Hell, we now even set targets as to how much time the court should afford these cases.

Peter died because child protection is not a sexy issue. We are blind to the TV adverts of the likes of the NSPCC. They make us uncomfortable. We want to believe that every child has a Disney-esque upbringing. No-one really hurts them, or uses them for sex, or is so addicted to their drug of choice they forget to meet their basic needs for days, right?

Child protection is rarely, save for when cases like this occur, high on the agenda. And when cases like this do occur, the public fall for the political magic that focuses their attention away from Westminster and towards the likes of Sharon Shoesmith.

Don’t fall for it again. Don’t make today about Sharon Shoesmith, unless you are prepared to stand up and acknowledge the political trickery and why she was scapegoated.

That is, to stop us realising that basically the government is failing children. I am not about to make this a party issue. Frankly, in terms of child protection they are all as bad. There is no funding, there never has been any funding, and children are left in situations where they are injured, suffering neglect and dying because of it.

I’d echo those sentiments totally.  Whatever one thinks of Sharon Shoesmith, we owe it to vulnerable children not to get sucked into the tabloid agenda, and not to allow ourselves the indulgence of scapegoating.  It may make a few rather warped individuals feel good about themselves, but it does absolutely nothing to protect vulnerable children.  We need a cool, hard, rational look at what went wrong in Haringey and to ensure that social service departments are given the skills, the support and above all the resources to do their job properly.  We must recognise that macho posturing by politicians is no substitute for due process.  And we need as a society to understand that the emotional spasm that is tabloid justice is no justice at all.

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One thought on “Sharon Shoesmith and tabloid justice

  1. I am not a fan of Social Services, but in this case I feel sorry for Sharon Showsmith and fully support what happened in court.

    There were far more people involved in what happened, and the way MPs took action to offer her up as a human sacrifice did not make children any safer or improve the way things work.

    There has been a lot of ‘reporting’ in the press about how this had nothing to do with the courts, but I think it had everything to do with the courts. The courts are there to protect us from being targeted by MPs, and Sharon was clearly target by MPs, and is still being targeted.

    This ruling means the next time things go wrong, and they will go wrong again because MPs refuse to put money where their mouths are, MPs will not be able to simply do what a biased press wants done, they will need to assess things and hold everyone to account.

    Good on Sharon.

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