Where’s The Care In Social Work Coverage?

Earlier this year, the Daily Mail ran a feature headed: “Social workers took our children away … because of an incorrect hospital diagnosis”. The story concerned a young professional couple from Stockport, near Manchester, who took their six-month-old son to hospital after a fall. A paediatrician found a skull fracture. Social services moved quickly, taking the boy and his sister into care. Only four months later did a court clear the parents of abuse.

As the headline implies, the reporting was wholly sympathetic to the parents. Similar cases – some involving alleged physical abuse, others sexual abuse – appear regularly in the press. Other Mail headlines have included “How social workers took away our children for 11 months without a shred of evidence” and “My baby had cancer but social workers falsely accused me of child abuse”.

However, other stories about social workers have a quite different angle. For these, the headlines read “Toddler found starved to death … hadn’t been seen by social workers for nearly a year” or “Social workers ‘failed to act’ on risks to toddler tortured to death”. The latest example surfaced last week when a mother and two men were convicted of responsibility for the death of a 17-month-old boy (Baby P) in Haringey, north London, despite 60 visits to their home by social and health workers.

“Blood on their hands” was the Sun’s headline, extending the blame to Haringey council. The culpability of the council and its social workers seemed all the greater because Victoria Climbié was murdered eight years ago in the same borough. “How many more children have to die?” demanded the Daily Express.

The Sun took no prisoners. It insisted the social workers responsible (“this disgusting lot”) should be sacked, prosecuted for negligence and barred from working with children again. A paediatrician who failed to spot Baby P’s broken back should be struck off. Readers were invited to sign a petition in support of these demands. Several papers pictured five (in some cases, six) “guilty” people, all looking as shifty and insouciant as skilful picture editors could make them look.

Social workers are damned either way. If they take children into care, they represent an intrusive, authoritarian state destroying family life. If they don’t, they represent a lax, uncaring state failing to protect defenceless tots. A trawl of newspaper websites suggests that one or other of these stories gets reported about twice a month, with wronged parents slightly more common than wronged children. Wronged social workers don’t exist.

No professional group gets such a consistently bad press. Even politicians and estate agents get a more respectful hearing. The press berates failings by doctors, teachers and police, but they often get positive coverage, while social workers get virtually none. Why?

The answers include the tendency of rightwing newspapers to assume social work and socialism (along with sociology) are the same sort of thing, and that the profession’s very existence contributes to “the dependency culture”. But the main reason is that social workers’ “good stories” rarely fit the requirements of news. They do not have the doctors’ “miracle cures”, the police’s arrests of “deadly terrorists”, the teachers’ Oxbridge entry successes. Most social work is slow and complex. There is no climax, only, perhaps, a painfully engineered improvement in a family’s circumstances or a reluctant acceptance that a child has no future at home.

The crucial decision is usually to identify the lesser of two evils: leaving children with unreliable parents; or taking them into care where they are at high risk of, for example, drug abuse. Only years later can anybody know the right course was taken.

In other words, the positive side of social work lacks immediacy, not least because children can rarely be named or pictured. The negative side has it in abundance. Stories about children taken from their parents or toddlers beaten to death can be personalised and dramatised. The pictures can be heartbreaking ones of a battered baby or more poignant ones of a happy, healthy family torn apart by interfering social workers.

Perversely, the Baby P story, where the child could not be identified, demonstrated the importance of pictures. Most papers, including the Guardian, ran pictures of bloodstained clothing and computer-generated images of the child’s injuries. Some readers protested they were unnecessary and voyeuristic. But any news editor would argue that, with no other images of the child available, they were essential to engage readers’ sympathy.

To some extent, social workers are themselves to blame for their negative press. Reporting of cases in family courts – where decisions about a child’s future are made – is severely restricted, and social workers strongly oppose more press access. If journalists could report the courts, they may convey a better sense of the complexity of the issues, while still getting the narrative drama they require. But that is probably an optimistic view. Social workers do not trust the press to report sensitively and even-handedly, and I can’t say I blame them.

Several papers made some attempt to go beyond simple denunciation in their coverage of Baby P. For example, the Mirror provided a textbook example of how tabloid journalism can both simplify and explain. The overwhelming impression from headlines, pictures and columns, however, was that social workers are incompetent, and probably wicked too. Yet these badly paid professionals deal with the most vulnerable people in our society. That their public image is so bad reflects as little credit on the media as it does on them.

Conjuring up a threat to spark a Sunday stir

Are you sleeping easy at nights? If so, you haven’t been reading the Sunday papers. It’s not only the Islamists we must worry about – last weekend, the Sunday Telegraph splashed on “thousands of extremists” planning “mass-casualty attacks” – but also “eco-terrorists” who, the Observer reports, are even more bloodthirsty.

The paper’s page 17 lead warned they want to reduce the earth’s population by four-fifths. Police were “monitoring” a movement called Earth First! and a “source” said: “They haven’t started yet, but we believe they will come up with a strategy and tactics.”

I am reminded of a Sunday Times story in 2005 warning that, during the G8 summit in Gleneagles, burning lorries would block roads. Sensational Sunday stories are not new.

Even further back, journalists predicted that, during a 1968 demonstration against the Vietnam war, protesters would seize Broadcasting House and other vital power centres.

My attempt to spread alarm as a young Observer reporter in 1970 – the anti-apartheid movement would release mice on cricket pitches during a forthcoming South African tour – seems rather, well, mouselike by comparison.

A familiar chorus for the festive season

In the shops, it is said, Christmas comes earlier every year. So it does in the press. I have already spotted the first stories about a local council banning Christmas.

This year, Oxford council, according to the Mail, Sun and Telegraph, has “axed” Christmas in favour of WinterLight and “scrapped” its Christmas tree.

As usual, the story was almost wholly wrong. Oxford council will send Christmas cards, put up Christmas trees in the town hall and main street, organise carols and switch on Christmas lights.

WinterLight is organised by a local charity and even that includes Christmas celebrations.

But who cares? The story is now as traditional as Santa Claus and herald angels singing. And nobody believes in them either.