Child protection reporting 'vindictive' and 'simplistic'

A journalist who played a key role in the Munro Inquiry into child protection has criticised ‘vindictive” and “simplistic’reporting of child protection issues which he says can go against the interests of children.

Richard Vize – former editor of Local Government Chronicle and Health Service Journal – was a member of the communications sub-group of the Munro Inquiry set up to examine child protection services following the death of Baby P.

Writing for the Press Gazette magazine this month, Vize argued that while media scrutiny has in the past forced governments to act, it was also guilty of demonising individual social workers and maintaining ‘the myth that it is possible to design a system that never lets a child die”.

Vize, who was interim communications head at Ofsted after leaving the Health Service Journal last year and now works as a freelance, said there was strong evidence to suggest the media response after Baby P had created a surge in the number of children referred to social services.

That figure was up from 547,000 in 2008/09 to 607,000 in 2009/10, he said.

Peter Connelly died aged 17 months in August 2007 after sustaining horrendous multiple injuries at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and his brother. The three were jailed in May 2009. It was later found that Haringey council health and social services workers had been in contact with the boy 60 times in the eight months before he died yet failed to take action which could have saved his life.

Last month former director of children’s services at Haringey Council Sharon Shoesmith won a Court of Appeal ruling stating that she was unfairly sacked.

Vize believes there is a ‘pattern of hostile coverage’in the media that can be traced back to the 1970s, and cites an analysis of press coverage between 1997 and 1998 which found that of 2,000 articles devoted to social services, 80 per cent of the messages were negative. The recurring themes were ‘incompetent”, ‘negligent”, ‘failed”, ‘ineffective”, ‘misguided’and ‘bungling”.

This is not just down to ‘antagonistic journalism’– councils and social workers also need to shoulder the blame, he said.

‘When a case reaches the press, too often councils hide behind the cloak of ‘client confidentiality,”he said. ‘When details of squalid living conditions and horrific injuries have already been publicised, ‘no comment’ smacks of trying to hide from tough, legitimate questions.

He continued: ‘Councils have sometimes exacerbated media and public anger by failing to express sorrow for a death – one of the crucial misjudgments by Haringey council in its public response to the death of Baby P.

‘Lawyers have often wrongly advised councils that any expression of regret is tantamount to an admission of liability, leading to media statements that sound shifty and uncaring.”

Among the recommendation contained in the Munro report was the creation of a new College of Social Work to improve public understanding of the profession. It will have a major communications service to provide information on how social care works, explain the law, and offer spokespeople to help journalists get to grips with complex cases.

Vize said it will also help councils ‘be more open about their social work by providing media training for local managers and encouraging social services teams to talk to their own press offices”.

The government is also considering whether to creating a chief social worker role similar to the chief medical officer, a nationally recognised figure who will develop relationships with journalists and essentially become the ‘face of the profession”.

‘The press is passionate about keeping children safe,’said Vize. ‘But when that passion spills over into vindictive, simplistic coverage that undermines the child protection system it no longer serves the interests of vulnerable children.”

You can read Richard Vize’s feature in full in the June edition of Press Gazette magazine: Subscribe to Press Gazette

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