Politics, newspapers and witch-hunts: The tragic case of Baby P

Karen Healy, The University of Queensland

Ray Jones The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight, 2014, Bristol, Policy Press 2014 (339 pp). ISBN 9-78144731-622-0 (paperback) RRP $39.99.

On 3 August 2007, Peter Connelly died of injuries sustained at his family home in London aged just seventeen months. ‘Baby P’, as he became known in the media, was subject to horrific torture in his final days. In 2008, Tracey Connelly (his mother), Steven Barker (her boyfriend) and Jason Owen (their lodger) each pleaded guilty and was convicted of allowing or causing Peter’s death.

An autopsy revealed that Peter sustained 22 injuries, including the loss of a fingernail and toenail, seven broken ribs, loss of a tooth (found in his colon), numerous bruises to his face and body, seven fractured ribs and a broken spinal cord. Many of these injuries had been sustained several days before his death. Some of these injuries had occurred up to a month before, during which time social workers, health and police had all had involvement with the family. Even more startling was that the consultant paediatrician who assessed Peter only two days before he died failed to diagnose his broken spine. Child protection services regularly visited the family and both Peter and his two older sisters were on the child protection register. Police had intended, but failed, to investigate the living circumstances of Peter at the time of his death.

In The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight, Professor of Social Work Ray Jones charts the course that saw this tragic case become the focus of a vicious political and media campaign against the social service personnel involved. Jones’ account suggests that Baby P was a convenient vehicle for media interests in boosting newspaper circulation and politicians concerns with promoting a positive and heroic perception of themselves in the lead up to UK general elections. The irony is that the ‘story’ was never really about Baby P, and, if not for the Leveson Inquiry, we might not ever have fully understood the relationships and interests at the centre of this case.

THE ‘CAMPAIGN FOR JUSTICE’

In the aftermath of Peter’s death, Rebekah Brooks, the then editor of The Sun newspaper, led what she termed ‘a campaign for justice’ for Baby P; a campaign that went on for years (p. 253). The initial campaign focused on achieving the dismissal of the social service personnel, a feat largely achieved within six weeks. Day after day, The Sun ran highly emotive headlines, alongside the names and photographs of the social service workers with accounts of their practice that maligned their integrity and competence. Readers were encouraged to sign a petition for them to be sacked. Media camped outside their homes and their families were also stalked by journalists.

Baby P’s story was a convenient vehicle for media and political interests.

Jones recounts how this campaign was exploited by political leaders of all persuasions. As opposition leader, David Cameron raised the matter in parliament and, despite demonstrating a poor knowledge of the facts of the case, chastised the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown for not immediately dismissing the social and health care personnel involved. There was apparently no need for due process in the handling of the matter. Local politicians took a similarly hard line, consistent with the views presented daily in The Sun. The Labour Government established a taskforce into social work, which astonishingly, included the ‘agony aunt’ from The Sun as one of its members. Notably, no task force into health care professions or policing was established despite their central role in this tale.

Rebekah Brooks’ ‘campaign for justice’ wrought a path of devastation in the lives of the social service managers and frontline social work and health professionals involved. The campaign culminated in Ed Balls, the Children’s Secretary, announcing the dismissal of the social services director, Sharon Shoesmith, on national television. The social workers named in media reports, and their families, were subject to public harassment and death threats. The consultant paediatrician who was the focus of some negative media coverage lost her job and endured such psychological distress at the coverage of the events that she was reported to have considered suicide.

Eventually, Sharon Shoesmith sought judicial review of her dismissal by Ed Balls. In 2011, the Court of Appeal found Shoesmith had been ‘unfairly scapegoated’ and that her removal by the Children’s Secretary had been ‘intrinsically unfair and unlawful’ (British Broadcasting Corporation 2013). Media reports indicate that the amount paid to Shoesmith as compensation for earnings lost was more than £600,000. Prior to this, Sylvia Henry, a social worker with Haringey Council, also successfully sued The Sun. She received a financial payout and a public apology for false and defamatory statements made against her. While these compensations go some way to redressing the wrongs endured by these workers, they occurred years after the initial campaign. Moreover, it seems the legal costs and payout to Ms Henry did not deter the Murdoch media in their self-righteous ‘campaign for justice’. More recently, The Sun has published information about the release dates, locations and photographs of Peter’s mother and her accomplices in the lead up to their release from prison, thus recklessly endangering their safety. In other words, the campaign continues.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

One of the remarkable features of this modern day witch-hunt was the selection of targets for vilification. Breath-taking in its ideological orientation and gendered focus, the media campaign concentrated almost entirely on the female social service personnel involved with the case. Jones notes that the police officers who had twice failed to investigate Peter’s home environment were ignored in the ‘campaign for justice’ and limited attention was given to the medical personnel who had, among other errors, failed to diagnose that the child had a broken spine. Consistent with an anti-welfare state agenda, the campaign ignored the systemic difficulties inherent to Baby P’s circumstances, including the limited availability of home-based support for struggling families and their social exclusion. Tabloid media coverage presented those responsible for Baby P’s death as depraved monsters and showed no curiosity whatsoever into understanding the circumstances that may have contributed to their crimes. In seeking to provide such background, Jones observes that Peter’s mother had been subject to child abuse and neglect and that the single-parent household she headed experienced poverty, housing stress and isolation. Media reports in The Guardian point out that Stephen Barker, also convicted in relation to Baby P’s death, was also the product of abusive childhood (Laville 2009). Not once did the ‘campaign for justice’ spearheaded by Rebekah Brooks seek justice for vulnerable families of which Baby P had been a member.

At one level the public furore at the death of Baby P is easy to comprehend.

At one level the public furore at the death of Baby P is easy to comprehend. This outrage reflects a human response to the tragedy of a life lost in horrific circumstances. It also reflects impossibly high expectations that all child deaths can be avoided. One of the ironies of the Baby P case was that it occurred against the backdrop of substantial improvements in the prevention of child deaths due to abuse in the United Kingdom. Jones reports that in 2006, the year before Peter’s death, child death rates due to abuse in the United Kingdom were at their lowest since records began and much lower than many other comparable countries. This broader picture of success was of no interest to political and media commentators who sought scapegoats rather than a considered review of situation.

Jones’ account points to the unique set of circumstances at Haringey Council as a compelling factor in the escalation of the matter. In 2000, Haringey Council had overseen another shocking case; that of Victoria Climbié. Only eight years old, Victoria died after being wrapped in a plastic bag covered in her own excrement in a bath-tub at her aunt’s home, having previously endured months of horrific abuse resulting in at least 128 injuries identified at autopsy. Like Baby P, Victoria had been assessed by health care, social work and police officers. Prior to her death she was hospitalised for injuries and a skin disorder which health and social care officers failed to recognise as requiring protective action. Victoria’s death led to a national inquiry by Lord Laming (2003) and to sweeping reforms of the UK child protection system. However, the recency and horror of Victoria’s death provided a platform from which The Sun and various political actors could launch their campaign against the social services at the council. Jones suggests that the fact Haringey Council was a Labour stronghold was also convenient to Brooks’ other campaign, namely, for the election of her close friend David Cameron and his party.

The use of scapegoats by political actors is nothing new. As O’Flynn, Monaghan and Power observe ‘scapegoating is a deeply political process which occludes critical attention that might otherwise challenge deeper structural relations’ (2014, p. 923). The Sun, like other papers in the News Corp empire regularly engage in public campaigns ostensibly to defend innocent children, though as Leveson Inquiry (2012) exposed, these campaigns often involved the contravention of the rights of these children and their families. Moreover, as Jones observes, Brooks’ ‘campaign for justice’ was shaped within a narrow frame that scapegoated individuals for Baby P’s death, but which was oblivious to the socio-economic conditions that contributes to the risks faced by children like Baby P and which also constrain the options for intervention available to frontline child protection workers.

The use of scapegoats by political actors is nothing new.

Jones argues that three motivations lay behind this witch-hunt. First, the campaign was good for news circulation. The campaign engaged and inflamed public indignation and directed it against specific targets; primarily Sharon Shoesmith and the frontline social workers involved with the matter. Second, the campaign reflected the conservative agenda of the News Corp empire. It was essentially a campaign against the British welfare state, with damning and later found to be untruthful representation of frontline staff. Jones also highlights Brooks’ newspaper’s silence on the police role in the matter. Perhaps this reflected her reliance on them as an information source, as the Leveson Inquiry would reveal.

The forthcoming national election was a third and vital factor in understanding the vitriol unleashed in the ‘campaign for justice’ for Baby P. Thanks again to the Leveson Inquiry and the court proceedings that followed, the reader is also aware of Brooks’ political and personal support for the then opposition leader David Cameron, who was building a campaign for election as Prime Minister. But all sides exploited the situation for political advantage. Jones’ analysis suggests that the Conservative leader David Cameron, Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone and Labour’s Ed Balls rode a wave of public indignation at great cost to the frontline workers who were caught in the maelstrom.

This again is a familiar tale, as Gainsborough’s (2010) study of politics and child protection scandals in the United States identified. Gainsborough observed that child protection scandals are frequently exploited to advance policy agendas, such as to increase the state’s authority to permanently remove vulnerable children, and to boost the election chances of individual politicians. She notes that these agendas rarely benefit vulnerable children and families and often do much harm. For example, political campaigns drawing on individual child protection cases do not typically promote systems improvements that might actually keep vulnerable children safe, through, for example, increased support services to vulnerable families. Instead, they result in the further stigmatisation of at-risk children and their families. Indeed, Jones concludes that ‘a thread running throughout the “Baby P story” is that blame and vengeance has overwhelmed learning and commitment’ (p. 259).

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

At 339 pages, The Story of Baby P offers a detailed account of this remarkable episode in the history of the modern welfare state and of the convergence of media and political interests in attacking one arm of this state: child protection services. Very much grounded in British politics, a glossary of the main actors and institutions would have helped to make this account more accessible to the international reader. Nonetheless, in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, many of the main actors in this tale and the relationships between them will now be transparent to the reader in a way that were not evident at the time of the Baby P tragedy or in Brooks’ ‘campaign for justice’ that followed.

Jones’ account, though referred to ‘setting the record straight’, is partisan.

Jones’ account, though referred to as ‘setting the record straight’, is partisan. He sides strongly with the frontline workers, whom the Courts later found to have been defamed and scapegoated. Given the apparent lack of balance in previous government management and media reporting of the matter, Jones’ account might more appropriately be referred to as another side of the story. Jones is highly critical of the extent to which government reviews and media reporting largely neglected the role of other actors, particularly the police, in the tragedy of Baby P. Jones is also keen to ‘set the record straight’ about Peter’s mother, Tracey Connelly. Carefully tip-toeing through the mine-field involved in presenting Tracey Connelly’s story, Jones highlights her own history of abuse and neglect and the remarkable fact that the media turned to her mother, from whom Tracey had been removed, for commentary on the case. The tabloid media apparently found in Tracey’s mother an ally in their vilification of Tracey with her mother describing her as ‘pure evil’ and demanding an increase in her prison sentence (p. 245). Jones presents a comprehensive picture of the depressing and unhygienic circumstances in which Baby P’s family lived; a picture that is only too familiar to those who have worked in child protection but perhaps new to those unaccustomed to lives of the marginalised. He also shows how Tracey’s efforts to gain medical and other social service support for Peter was an important factor in the miscalculation by health and social services of the risks presented to the child.

WHAT CAN AUSTRALIAN AUDIENCES LEARN?

Many of the dynamics of the Baby P story are familiar to Australian audiences. Child death due to abuse is rare but when it occurs the Australian community is, understandably, outraged. Politicians and community members often seek a target for that outrage. Typically, the targets of that outrage are the families and child protection services.

The case of Chloe Valentine, a four-year-old girl who died in Adelaide in January 2012 as a result of negligence by her mother and her mother’s partner, is a case in point. The mother and her partner were subject to intense and damning media scrutiny during the trial and following their convictions for manslaughter. Frontline social workers and Families SA were also heavily criticised in the media for failing to remove the child after 22 notifications of suspected harm and despite knowing of the mother’s misuse of illicit substances. That many families with whom child protection agencies work experience a range of problems, including but not limited to parent misuse of substances, largely escaped media analysis of the tragic case. The South Australian Government is currently reviewing the management of Chloe’s case and the educational preparation and professional capacity of frontline workers. While such a review about frontline decision-making may well be in order, the systemic factors that contribute to an individual child’s death rarely receive the attention they deserve. These systemic issues include the limited availability of intensive support services for vulnerable families and institutional design factors, which result in the least experienced workers being accountable for the most difficult and complex decision-making with vulnerable families. In addition to the fact that many frontline child protection roles are classified as ‘entry level’ positions, career structures within child protection authorities all too often fail to adequately support newly qualified child protection workers in the transition to practice. Indeed, it is common for experienced workers to be promoted out of the direct practice, sometimes into roles in which their main function is review the mistakes made by less experienced workers, after the harm is done (Healy & Oltedal 2010).

The systemic factors that contribute to child death rarely receive the much needed attention.

There is no doubt also that the politics and child protection intersect in Australia in ways that do not always serve the best interests of vulnerable children. For example, in 2003 in Queensland, Premier Beattie announced a review of the child protection system following evidence of abuse in foster care. Child protection reform was a key plank in his successful campaign for re-election as premier in early 2004. The re-elected Beattie Government established a separate and well-funded Child Safety authority the priority of which was to keep children safe through an increased focus on forensic investigation, while responsibility for family support was shifted to the department, with little increase in funding for these services. The child safety reforms were extremely expensive—and disastrous for many vulnerable families. There have been huge increases in children being taken into in care, particularly from Aboriginal communities, and unprecedented rates of workforce turnover among frontline workers (Healy 2009). After a year long investigation into the failures of these reforms, the Carmody Inquiry (2013) recommended an entirely different approach to child protection. This new approach seeks to divert lower risk child welfare matters to the non-government sector and to keep children safe by increasing support services to vulnerable families.

At the heart of this problem is that in many parts of the world, including Australia, government approaches to the provision of child protection service reacts to political pressures, rather than developing in response to emerging evidence about best practice with vulnerable children and their families. This political reactivity results in an approach much akin to a pendulum, which swings between a forensic approach largely focused on child safety to be achieved through forensic investigation and child removal from at-risk situations at one end, to a family support approach focused on maintaining the child within their family and community environment at the other. Within the child protection field there are champions for both ends of this pendulum and there is much finger-pointing when a child death occurs. Yet both ends of the pendulum involve costs and risks that their champions rarely acknowledge. For example, a forensic approach contributes to increased numbers of child removals, while a family support approach increases the child’s exposure to ‘low’ to ‘moderate’ levels of abuse and neglect, such as through exposure to illicit substance use, as workers seek to maintain the child within their family and community. Political leaders rarely have the courage, or indeed the knowledge of the system, required to weigh the strengths and the risks of each approach and to develop systems that take advantage of strengths of each while addressing their limitations. It is hardly surprising, then, that political leaders also look for scapegoats, rather than to accept that child deaths are inevitable events that require systemic review and a commitment to continual improvement of our child protection systems. We can and must do better in preventing child abuse and neglect but even with the very best of systems, we can never guarantee that all children will be protected from harm.

An important difference between the United Kingdom and Australia are the protections available to frontline service workers from trial by media such as that witnessed in the Baby P case. Individual staff involved in child protection matters cannot be named in the Australian media unless they have been individually charged in relation to the matter. This is a vital protection for frontline workers. Nonetheless, all child protection authorities have a child death review process and frontline workers are called to account for their actions through these processes. The tragic irony is that these reviews usually involve panels of more experienced workers reviewing the actions of relatively inexperienced frontline workers who, if they had more experience or if they had the opportunity to avail themselves of these experienced workers’ support prior to the child death, might have made very different decisions. In other words, the child death review process replicates the very systemic problems that contribute to decision-making problems with the least experienced workers being central to the most difficult decisions in highly complex matters. This structure reflects the low social status of the families and the low value placed by governments and the public on child protection work in Britain and Australia.

The reforms were extremely expensive and disastrous for many vulnerable families.

If there are any lessons for Australia from Peter Connelly’s death, it is this: unrealistic expectations about the capacity of child protection services to prevent all child deaths contribute to public outrage and the search for scapegoats when those deaths inevitably occur. All child protection service systems must strive to learn from the past to provide the best quality services, and scapegoating does not build a context for learning and improvement. Every child death due to abuse is a tragedy for the child and those who care about them, yet these deaths also require that we critically review our service systems to understand how they can be improved to further reduce risk of death. We must commit to system improvement, knowing that such risk can never be eliminated. The glaring problems evident both in Australia and the United Kingdom are the need for better services for highly vulnerable families who could benefit from more intensive support and better preparation, support and career structures for our frontline workers that enable excellence in making the difficult decisions inherent to child protection practice. To resolve these issues takes courage from our political and professional leaders who must resist the temptation to scapegoat those at the frontline of this demanding and important field of work.

CONCLUSIONS

The Story of Baby P is an important tale of the troubling intersections between the media and political interests that converge in the highly volatile field of child protection. I write this review in a week where a baby was found abandoned, but alive, in a drain in western Sydney. Tabloid media headlines scream ‘How could she do it?’ in their condemnation of the mother. Crowds gathered at the court, many to shout abuse at the family, who had known nothing of the pregnancy and were likely to be in shock at this heart-breaking and unexpected unfolding of events. Media and public outrage may quench some thirst for justice, but this outrage does nothing to help the mother, her extended family or her baby to come to terms with this event in the years ahead.

The central irony of the Baby P story is that the ‘story’ is hardly about Peter at all. Post the Leveson Inquiry, we can see that the underlying dynamics that played in Rebekah Brooks’ ‘campaign for justice’ were far more complex than were recognised the time. This book is strongly recommended for scholars of social and public policy, media and child welfare. The final chapter offers a small glimmer of hope that the revelations of Leveson Inquiry regarding the improper use of media power might encourage the public to be more critical and cautious towards the news media. Yet, overall this book offers a frightening reminder of just how easily sections of the community can be whipped into a frenzy of hatred against those targeted as scapegoats for the failure of child protection systems to achieve the unrealisable goal of preventing all child deaths. Jones provides us with an unsettling insight of the irrationality that lurks within society and the ease which this can be exploited for commercial and political ends.

REFERENCES

British Broadcasting Corporation 2013, ‘Ed Balls: Sharon Shoesmith Baby P payout “leaves a bad taste”’, BBC News, 29 October [Online], Available: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-24723404 [2014, Nov 10].

Carmody, T. 2013, Taking Responsibility: A Roadmap for Queensland Child Protection, Queensland Government, Brisbane.

Gainsborough, J.F. 2010, Scandalous Politics: Child Welfare Policy in the States, Georgetown University Press, Washington DC.

Healy, K. 2009, ‘A case of mistaken identity: Social welfare professions and new public management’, Journal of Sociology, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 401–418.

Healy, K. & Oltedal, S. 2010, ‘Child protection systems in Australia and Norway: An institutional comparison focused on workforce retention’, Journal of Social Policy, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 255–274.

Laville, S. 2009, ‘Tracey Connelly: The story of a woman defined by abuse’, The Guardian, 11 August [Online], Available: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2009/aug/11/tracey-connelly-baby-p-mother [2014, Nov 26].

Laming, W.H. 2003, The Victoria Climbié Inquiry, Report presented to the Parliament, United Kingdom Government, St Clements, Norwich.

Leveson, B.H. 2012, An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, The Stationery Office, London.

O’Flynn, M., Monaghan, L. & Power, M. 2014, ‘Scapegoating during a time of crisis: A critique of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland’, Sociology, vol. 48, no. 5, pp. 921–937.

Karen Healy is Professor of Social Work at The University of Queensland. She is currently the National President of the Australian Association of Social Workers.