I recently read this whilst on holiday – not exactly a relaxing vacation read, but I found myself with a burning desire to understand just what had happened in this appalling case. Last night a documentary, Baby P: The Untold Story, was aired on the BBC based on this book, so I thought I’d post my thoughts.
A lot of people I’ve spoken to were wary of watching the documentary and reluctant to read the book, fearful of facing horrific accounts of abuse, but in fact neither book or documentary dwelt too much on the abuse of Peter Connolly by his mother, her boyfriend and his brother, but on the media frenzy that followed, so although it is not comfortable reading it is not gratuitous.
Ray Jones presents a chilling analysis of what happened in the aftermath of this poor boy’s murder. The Sun newspaper, under the direction of Rebekah Brooks, launched a campaign ostensibly to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again, but in reality the campaign was a witch-hunt, hounding the individual social workers involved with the Connolly family. It was unprecedented in its vitriol, inciting the nation to express not only disgust and rage but to form a virtual lynch mob, blaming the social workers, and the Director of Social Services Sharon Shoesmith, for Peter’s death rather than the actual perpetrators of the crime. Jones charts the progress of the campaign, how it misrepresented events, gave inaccurate information and repeatedly sought spurious connections with other incidents to keep the story in the public eye. The campaign forced Ed Balls to take decisive action and he fired Shoesmith live on television. But this was still not enough for The Sun, who relentlessly pursued her. Yet Shoesmith later went on to win her claim against her sacking and the Courts decided that she had been scapegoated.
Jones carefully picks out the other players in the drama. Social Services, stretched to breaking point, had made some errors in dealing with the case but there were other services that had made more grave errors – and yet these were effectively airbrushed out of the picture. Social Services twice reported suspicions of abuse to the police – who twice failed to investigate. The GP who examined Peter did not report any concerns despite repeated presentation of injuries. And the Great Ormond Street doctor, who infamously “failed to spot” Peter’s broken back (which may actually have occurred after his visit to the hospital), was an insufficiently trained locum who had no support and arguably should not have been appointed. (The tragic outcome for this doctor, detailed in the documentary, was very distressing.) So the blame should have been shared out more honestly. (It’s important to note that without evidence from health services and the police, Social Services cannot remove a child from its parents – a court would not allow it.)
But then came the investigation. And here Ofsted shows its colours. Despite having given Haringey a good inspection report shortly after Peter’s death, they redacted this report and produced a new one, rating Haringey as inadequate. Jones charts the progress of each draft of this report and how it was altered to suit a specific agenda. Likewise the recommendations of the first Joint Area Review, which initially laid the blame on all services involved, was repeatedly redrafted until it focused only on the social workers and let everyone else off the hook. So Ofsted, the police, Great Ormond Street and the GP’s surgery all fade into the background with sighs of relief.
And so we were all lied to. “A boy died because social workers did not do their job.” Why the lies?
It’s hard to read the book without becoming aware of the role of the politicians and the press, again which Jones dissects thoroughly. Call me paranoid but I spot an agenda. The Sun, led by Rebekah Brooks, had led other campaigns focused on the death / abuse / disappearance of children, all of which were suspect in their motivation to some extent. David Cameron, then in opposition, was very closely linked to Brooks and supported her campaign, attacking Ed Balls in the House of Commons (interestingly, getting his details of the case wrong). The message both are keen to promulgate is that Social Services, which are led by local councils, aren’t doing their jobs properly. Our children aren’t safe in the hands of social workers. When we are now in the situation that the Tory government, headed by Cameron, wants to dismantle public services and local councils, and privatise everything – including child protection – we see the connections more clearly. There is money to made out of misery. They can make us pay. This discourse of public service incompetence and failure serves to prepare us for a “better option” – private, profit-making companies like G4 and Serco can succeed where social workers can’t.
I couldn’t help feeling, as I read this book, that Cameron’s been playing the long game. Did he see an opportunity to use a child’s murder to gain political points and to bolster his agenda to dismantle public services? This book makes me think it’s possible. Oddly, the pernicious role of the media and the politicians were slightly skirted over in the otherwise excellent documentary, with one ITV journalist laying the blame on public anger for the longevity of the story (but that anger was clearly incited, stoked and manipulated by the tabloid press).
The key point is that neither Cameron’s policies or The Sun’s campaign has made children safer. It’s actually had the opposite effect.
It was never about child protection.
Sadly, Peter’s story is not an unusual one. A child dies at the hand of a parent every ten days in the UK. Children in every city, town and village are being abused. Social workers do an incredibly difficult job trying to protect them but it will take us all as a society to make a difference. The scapegoating of social workers is a travesty of justice, and this whole case brings shame on us all.
The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight is an excellent, thought-provoking book that will enrage you. I thought I was unshockable, but I was wrong. My one criticism is that structurally it is a little repetitive, so some passages are hard to get through, and it could have done with a stronger edit. But in terms of the message, it’s hard to deny its power. Read it, and watch the documentary, because the lies need to be exposed – for the sake of Peter, and every child.
Policy Press, 2014, ISBN 9781447316220