Sunday 1 December 2013

Another PR Disaster for Social Work- Why We Need to Stop Blaming the Media and Stand up for an Open and Accountable profession.

A pregnant woman was sedated against her will and her baby removed by caesarean section and taken into care after instructions from social services, it has been claimed.
Social workers went to the High Court to get a court order which allowed them to take the child from the mother's womb, according to reports.
The above is the first two lines of an article on the Sky News website. It has been tweeted by about 580 people. The original story in the Sunday Telegraph has been tweeted by about 1000. Difficult to imagine that that many people are interested in social work.
The twitterverse is full of indignant social workers saying that this is terrible. Not what happened but that newsagencies have dared to publish what is perceived to be an unfair and one-sided version of events. Why people think it is unfair I don’t know –it does not seem unfair an unfair judgement in light of what has been actually been made public.
The charge that it is open-sided is however, a valid one. The reason that it is one sided can be found in the final paragraph of the Sky news item.   
Essex County Council told Sky News in a statement: "Essex County Council does not comment on the circumstances of on-going individual cases involving vulnerable people and children."
That’s it. The sum total of what they have to say.
 Not –‘We are very sorry – we realise that there is much public interest in this story but we reassure that we have at all times acted in the best interests and the interests of her baby’. Not- ‘We are very sorry but we have been forbidden by a court order from responding to questions. We wish we could say more but it might prejudice proceedings.’
Such alternative statements would not really hold a lot of water. The fact that the story is being reported in the way that it is- draws great deal of media attention  that simply would not be there if a fuller account of the story had been told. In fact, now an MP is going to raise it in Parliament so it is difficult to see how there could be any less of a spotlight on the story.  
So, a response like ‘We are sorry we can’t say anything’ would not have cut much ice. However it would be a vast improvement on what they did say. What the terse statement by Essex council is saying is ‘Sod off- we don’t have to tell you anything and its none of your business anyway’.
Well –I’m afraid in a democracy public servants are accountable to the public for what they do through democratic processes and the only way that the democratic process can work is if people have information. We would not tolerate the Police using sweeping powers like this without being expected to explain themselves.
If there is a genuine legal reason why the council can’t give details of the case then ought to say this and apologise to the public for the fact they can’t comment. Furthermore if such constraints are a general problem then social services directors ought to be campaigning for changes in the law so that they can make more information public.
The statement by Essex seems to suggest that they are simply not commenting because of a policy- allegedly to protect ‘vulnerable people’. Clearly it is okay to seriously interfere with the liberty and health of a vulnerable person but not okay to respond to reasonable public interest in what is being done to them.  This has echoes of a case a few months ago where social workers condemned a man with learning difficulties for putting a video on Youtube of his child being taken into care and he had to take social services to court to get  permission to make the world aware of his story. Rather than saying he needed support to be able to tell his side of things many social workers said he was making his children vulnerable by putting the video online.
Surely an important part of protecting vulnerable people ought to be making judgements taken on their behalf open to democratic scrutiny.  
Vulnerable should NOT equal No right to speak or have your story heard.
Many of my friends who would normally be supporters  of public services think this present situation is terrible. The only people who think this is a case of press victimisation are social workers. I think the profession has to take a long look in the mirror and think about how other people see us.Look at the Independents headline - It says that this is the 'stuff of nightmares'. Actually its the sort of stuff that can be a death blow to the credibility of a profession. It needs some good PR and damage limitation double quick. Not falling back on jobsworth -'Its not our policy to comment ......'
I have been in social work now since 1986 and all through this time I have been constantly angered by the attitude of my profession to the media. On one hand there is a paranoia the media is against the profession  and on the other hand an arrogance about ordinary people not being able to understand complex social work situations even if they were told the information. Over the years few people have given my view any credence.  They have all fallen back on the idea that these things have to kept private to protect ‘vulnerable people’.  I guess I have always been a curmudgeon. This is one of the many popularly held views I have never agreed with.
In the meantime the image of the profession has sunk lower and lower and people just blame the media rather than thinking about whether we need to think of another way of engaging with the public.
I would not trust another profession which operated in secret so why should I expect people to trust my own when it is doing this.
It is true that newspapers do tend to favour certain political viewpoints and groups over others. However, they will report both sides of a story if they get it-even if they do give one side more credence. And most people do give their side. Even the toxic waste disposal industry will respond to media criticisms. They will make a press release that says that toxic waste burning  creates jobs or that it is all quite safe really. That might not convince many people but it is at least a response and an attempt to change public opinion.
Social work wants to improve its image and it ought to be capable of doing better than the toxic waste business.
The Essex response says ‘Social Work doesn’t care what the public think and they don’t have a right to know or the ability to understand.’
That is the attitude we should be fighting – not the media.

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