When did it all go wrong between social work and the media?

To mark JKP’s 30th anniversary year, Martin Barrow discusses the relationship between social work and the media, and the negative impact it has on society’s views of social workers. Martin (@martinbarrow) is a foster carer and writer for The Huffington Post having previously worked as editor for The Times back in 2008. He writes about social work, mental health and child welfare. He is also an editor of the upcoming title Welcome to Fostering, publishing in May. 

When did it all go wrong between social workers and the media? You can do worse than to look back to 1987, exactly 30 years ago, to the Cleveland child abuse scandal. This was a profoundly disturbing case in which dozens of children were removed from their families on the basis of diagnoses given by two paediatricians. In the face of a public outcry the doctors were challenged and, eventually, many of the children were allowed to return home. By then, an entire community was traumatised and social workers, as well as paediatricians, had become demonised.

Cleveland was far from being the first case of its kind, in which the competence of professionals tasked with child protection was questioned. But it came at a particularly sensitive moment, when the whole ethos of public service was being challenged by Margaret Thatcher’s government (her “There’s no such thing as society” speech also took place in 1987). The case remained in the public consciousness well beyond Cleveland for several years, with a report by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss into the case, and implementation of the Children Act 1989. It weighed heavily on media coverage of cases that were investigated in the following years, such as the ‘satanic abuse case in Rochdale in 1990 and the Orkney abuse scandal in 1991. Just as 24-hour rolling TV news was gaining traction, the public’s appetite for details of each case appeared insatiable and social workers became big news.

There was no turning back, and with each harrowing case came a demand for individuals to blame and to hold to account. I was News Editor of The Times from 2008 to 2012, a tumultuous period for social work that included the Serious Case Review into the death of Baby P (a case that triggered a surge in interventions); the kidnapping of Shannon Matthews; the life-threatening assault on two children by two brothers aged 10 and 11 in Edlington, Doncaster; and the death by neglect and starvation of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq in Birmingham.

Throughout this period the narrative around social work was relentlessly negative. They were all complex cases in which multiple agencies and individuals shared responsibility for the tragic outcome yet social workers, invariably, were left to shoulder the blame. Police, doctors, teachers or the courts were rarely singled out by the media in cases of severe neglect or abuse, even when there was clear evidence of culpability. This situation persists to this day. There is no more powerful example of this than Sharon Shoesmith, who was dismissed as Director of Children’s Services at Haringey Council in the wake of the Baby P case.

Why is this? The reasons are complex and vary from case to case, but a number of general points can be made. Social workers still feel more inhibited than most other public services in responding to criticism, through fear of breaching client confidentiality. Often this concern is well-founded, but I have no doubt that there is room for more openness and transparency. Social workers also lack an authoritative, national voice, such as the BMA for doctors or the NUT for teachers. Those who speak on their behalf are often beholden to other stakeholders including politicians, lawyers and even insurers. The head of children’s services or chief executive of a local authority is unlikely to provide the robust soundbites that will give the headlines that frontline social workers would like to see in the next day’s papers. In effect, officials are giving responses hardly changed from 30 years ago to a media that has changed beyond recognition.

Harsh financial reality means that newsrooms have fewer journalists struggling to produce more content than ever before around the clock. On the whole, journalists are younger and less experienced now than they were (just as social workers are), and they answer to editors who demand stories to be told succinctly and unambiguously. The presumption is that readers will drift away after a couple of hundred words, and that they want stories about people, not processes. This demands a simple narrative that does not lend itself to unpicking the complexities of a case involving multiple agencies. It requires a victim and somebody to blame. It requires grief, and it requires somebody calling for justice. Anything beyond that is unlikely to survive the first cut.

News organisations rarely send journalists to cover anything other than the highest profile court cases. Reporters are highly unlikely to attend inquests or family courts. All nuances are lost in the scramble to distil lengthy and complex serious case reviews to just two or three bullet points and soundbites. Few specialist correspondents have survived the newsroom cull, but even they are likely to be swept aside by crime or political reporters for the biggest stories of failings in social services. This means that coverage is in the hands of journalists who don’t know, or simply don’t care, how the system works.

It would be wrong to suggest that there ever was a golden age in which journalists and social workers saw themselves as kindred spirits. But there is no doubt that the gulf between the two sides is as wide as it ever has been. Some of this is down to the politics of austerity. We know that dwindling resources has a huge impact on the effectiveness of social services. Yet any attempt to invoke austerity as a factor when things go wrong invites opprobrium.

Digital media offers some respite. There is a proliferation of outlets for social workers to share their views and experience, from the Guardian’s professional networks to Facebook and Twitter. They can reach policy makers and commissioners of services and, occasionally, these stories spill over into the mainstream media. The challenge is to escape from the echo chamber to challenge public perceptions of social work.

Are social work and the media a hopeless case in 2017 and the age of post truth? It certainly feels like a long way back. But it matters, profoundly, because without public support there can be no meaningful, lasting change. Individual social workers have a role to play in challenging the narrative by celebrating their successes as publicly and as widely as possible. They can exert pressure on managers to be less defensive and show pride in the achievements of social work. Much of what social workers do doesn’t get talked about because, ironically, it is taken for granted. In the end, it is about open, confident and inclusive leadership to engage with the media on equal terms.

Click the link to find out more about Learning from Baby P.

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