Can Social Workers and Journalists Ever Be Friends?

This is the question posed by BASW’s press officer on today’s Huffington Post blog, which makes the case for politicians pledging sustained support for social workers if they wish to see them portrayed in a more positive light in the media:

“Journalists report what politicians say. A really simple way of improving the media’s portrayal of social workers is for politicians to get behind them and start being supportive, not blaming them for society’s ills. Of course many politicians say they are supportive, and sometimes, often on a podium in public, they can be. It isn’t a matter of simply backing the profession in general, during periods of relative calm, but about staying with practitioners when sometimes unavoidable tragedies happen, and resisting demands for a scapegoat.”

BASW Professional Officer Nushra Mansuri, herself a social worker, here offers her perspective.

It is quite timely to be writing this, as we are now well and truly immersed in the Christmas season and undoubtedly one of our great festive traditions at this time of year is an annual outing to a Christmas panto.

What joy to shout to the lead characters, ‘behind you, behind you’ or to engage with the seemingly endless banter of ‘oh know it isn’t, oh yes it is’.

No pantomime worth its salt would be complete without its evil villain of the piece, and I have to say, that when social work stories are reported in the press, that is often the role we occupy courtesy of our friends at the red tops and presenters of hysterical radio and tv programmes that are all too keen to dissect the findings of a case and tell the public and professionals how it should have been done, all with the benefit of hindsight.

While we may appreciate that for a story to be news worthy it has to have a certain sensationalist element, it does feel like the continuous stereotyping of social workers as either over- zealous state sponsored child snatchers, or lackadaisical professionals who don’t remove children at risk early enough, means that ‘man bites dog’ has become the norm in social work reporting.

I remember two cases where social workers were not involved – one was a serious case review and the other concerned a vulnerable adult with mental health issues. Some of the reporting exposed a persistence to pin the failings on a social worker. In the latter case, an attempt was made to pass off para professionals as social workers, and to intimate in the former that social services had still been remiss in not being involved, when there was no involvement from them in the case. Unfortunately, in these kinds of cases, for some we will always be the prime suspect.

Social media has undoubtedly intensified the scrutiny of social work public servants who can be vulnerable. They can find themselves and their family members at risk, given the freedoms of the internet which permit personal details to be shared, including in some cases people’s home addresses. One doesn’t have to cast one’s mind too far back to recall the enduring images of those who are associated with some of the most horrific child abuse tragedies. Many will remember seeing Lisa Arthurworrey’s picture plastered over the front pages during the reporting of the trial of Victoria Climbié’s carers. BASW is very aware of the personal suffering Lisa endured as a result, including a breakdown.

No public servant should be exposed to this kind of hounding and trial by media in a democracy. Sadly, almost a decade later it was the turn of Sharon Shoesmith and her colleagues from Haringey to be subjected to some of the most extreme vitriol which was made worse by leading politicians of the day appearing to legitimise a ‘crusade’ led by the Sun newspaper for justice for Baby Peter Connolly.

In June 2011, Sylvia Henry, a Haringey social worker targeted by The Sun in its Justice for Baby P campaign received an apology and substantial damages.  She was named in 80 articles, including around 11 front pages, and the High Court was told that she also featured in a petition which was signed by 1.6m people and delivered to Number 10 Downing Street.

While we concur that it is right and proper for some of the most appalling child abuse tragedies to be reported on as they clearly are in the public interest, we would condition this with the need for the reporting to be balanced and proportionate, rather than seeking to attribute blame and effectively sanctioning witch hunts of almost exclusively, social work professionals. This is in no-one’s interest, particularly the vulnerable children in our society who need our protection; how can turning the public against the profession that safeguards them serve them well?

Interestingly, I learnt as a social work student, that the attitudes displayed by the British press in the wake of such tragedies do not necessarily accord with other parts of the world who take a very different stance on these issues.  I trained in the early 90s at a time when Jamie Bulger was horrifically tortured and killed by two eleven year old boys in Liverpool. I myself was a mother of a toddler and felt the same abhorrence that we all did that such a thing could happen.  However, demonising Jon Venables and Robert Thompson surely is not the role of the media.

A similar incident happened in a Scandinavian country, where the community was clearly shocked and in grief as a result of the child in question’s death.   However, the attitude of the people in the town, the politicians and the media, was to ask how such things could happen and to unite in grief but to also move forward as a community, including reconciliation, which is by no means a ‘small ask’ but a noble act of humanity. The parents of the children’s assailants were not ostracised from their community, as all were deemed to be victims and suffering together.

I was reminded of this very different cultural perspective as tragedy struck Norway last summer, when Anders Behring Breivik killed a number of people, mainly young students at a summer camp in Utoeya. It was moving to observe how politicians and the people came together and acted with such dignity in the most painful of circumstances. Surely we could take a leaf out of their book, rather than immediately playing the ‘blame game’.

As a result of the death of another vulnerable child in 2002 in Surrey and the recent revelations of phone hacking by journalists at News of the World, we finally have an inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press in this country. This is surely to be welcome by so many different voices in our society, including those of social workers.

There are some excellent journalists out there who do an exemplary job in representing the facts to their audience in order that we can be more enlightened about stories in the news. However, as already stated, we certainly take issue with those whose primary motive appears to be personal in smearing the reputation and standing of individuals who in many cases have little redress and even when they do, the damage has already been done.

It has almost become a national sport by some media outlets, and as social workers we condemn this scurrilous practice, together with many others individuals from all walks of life. So yes, our plea from a profession that is independently regulated, is that our colleagues working in the world of communications also have some clear and binding standards that guide their work in order that the stories can still be told, but there are also boundaries that they adhere to which will give us greater confidence in their professionalism and conduct.

Ironically, on the one hand the job of social workers is to try to decrease the suffering of human beings whilst conversely, the media can perpetuate it through irresponsible practice and behaviour.  So all social workers want for Christmas is a more objective press that will at least give us a sporting chance when reporting stories about our practice, and oh yes, world peace too of course!