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Social workers deserve better treatment by the press

Source:  Journalism.co.uk

Social workers deserve better. Routinely vilified in sections of the national press, they work with some of the most difficult people in our society and under some of the most challenging circumstances. Whether it be in mental health, disability, elderly care or child protection they do a job few others would be willing to do. The Local Government Association estimates that 50,000 social care workers are assaulted each year in the course of their jobs.

They don’t expect praise from the media but surely balanced coverage is not too much to ask? Unfortunately, in some sections of the press that does seem to be too much to ask.

Balanced coverage is not what they got in the aftermath of the tragic Baby P case. Accompanied by the headline ‘Blood on their hands’ the Sun appeared to lay the blame almost exclusively on the heads of social workers, launching a petition calling for every social worker who had been involved in the case to be sacked and prevented from working with children again. Readers were encouraged to contact the newspaper if they knew any of the social workers involved.

In 27 consecutive editions of the Sun following the conclusion of the trial of Baby P’s killers, the newspaper singled out Maria Ward, the social worker allocated to Baby P’s case, over and above the other professionals involved. She was named 55 times, in 31 articles, editorials, opinion columns and readers’ letters. Editorials labelled her ‘lazy’ and ‘useless’, while one story speculated on her mental health.

Of course the Baby P case was shocking and serious mistakes were made. But the people with blood on their hands were those convicted in court of killing Baby P, not the professionals who had made mistakes, been duped or had failed to communicate properly with their colleagues.

And child protection is now a multidisciplinary process, involving health professionals and police officers as well as social workers. We don’t yet know the full nature of the mistakes that were made because a second ‘serious case review’ is still underway. And the social workers involved are still under investigation by the General Social Care Council (GSCC), the regulatory body for social care.

Yes, the Sun garnered 1.5m signatures for its petition demanding justice, a remarkable achievement. But it did that on the basis of misinforming its readers. There is not an accountability vacuum in social work that can be filled only by campaigning tabloids. When social workers make mistakes they are held to account by the GSCC just as doctors are held to account by the General Medical Council.

But the Sun has seemingly found this difficult to grasp, incorrectly pointing out in a recent story that although the doctors involved had been suspended by the GMC the social workers had effectively got away scot-free. In fact, the social workers had also been suspended by the GSCC. Meanwhile, the police officers involved in the case have been scarcely mentioned.

And this is what social workers find particularly unfair about their treatment in much of the national media. Social workers are fair game when it comes to media witch hunts in a way that other public servants, such as police officers, teachers or nurses are not.

The Baby P coverage is sadly not a one-off. Ironically, in the months before the Baby P case hit the headlines, social workers were regularly being criticised in the press for taking children away from their parents too readily.

In one of the most widely reported cases of last year, social workers took a baby into care in Nottingham without getting the proper legal authorisation and had to hand the child back to the mother. Clearly a serious procedural mistake had been made. But the social workers demonised as baby snatchers did a few days later gain the proper legal authority to take the baby back into care.

A year later and a court case revealed that those social workers were absolutely right in their judgement after the mother was convicted of child cruelty. This was picked up only by the Nottingham Evening Post but no national newspapers, doing nothing to correct the impression given in the original stories that social workers did indeed ‘snatch’ children without good reason.

Of course it’s not just a matter of fairness. Constant criticism of the profession is having an effect on social work morale, as illustrated by the strength of feeling generated by a recent blog post on the Sun’s coverage. And it is impacting on the numbers willing to enter the particularly thankless arena of child protection. Who would want to embark on a career where the stakes are so high and press outrage is just around the corner? Councils are increasingly having to rely on agency staff and Croydon has had to turn to the US to try to fill its vacancies.

This is why Community Care is launching a campaign tomorrow (March 12) to improve media coverage of social work – ‘Stand Up Now for Social Work’. If you’d like to support us please sign our petition.

One of the first matters the campaign will hope to address is this month’s British Press Awards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Sun’s Baby P coverage has been shortlisted for campaign of the year. Unsurprising in that it garnered such an impressive number of signatures.

But what message would it give the country’s 95,000 social workers and social work students if such a misinformed witch hunt were held up as the pinnacle of journalistic achievement? And what message would it give the country’s journalists?