As part of our focus on impact for Academic Book Week, author Ray Jones talks about the terrible and tragic death of Peter Connelly, the devastating fallout for the social work profession, and how his book, The Story of Baby P, has made a difference.
The terrible and tragic death of 17 month old Peter Connelly in Haringey, North London, in August 2007 became a major media story in November 2008 when his mother and two men were found guilty of ‘causing or allowing’ Peter’s death.
To avoid prejudicing a further trial, when one of the men was convicted of raping a little girl, the media was not allowed to publish Peter’s real name so he became known as ‘Baby P’. The press, politicians and police worked together on shaping the ‘Baby P story’ so that it targeted social workers and their managers who were described by The Sun newspaper as having ‘blood on their hands’.
The police and health services faded unseen and uncriticised to the margins of the media coverage, although it is now known that there were significant failings and omissions in their contacts with the Connelly family.
‘A campaign for justice’
It was The Sun newspaper and its editor, Rebekah Brooks, who had full page ‘Baby P’ stories day-after-day as she ran ‘a campaign for justice’ demanding the sackings of the social workers, their managers and, in particular, Sharon Shoesmith, Haringey Council’s director of children’s services.
“A shameful and sordid bullying use of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid power.”
Ed Balls, as the then Labour government’s Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, delivered at a media conference on live television in December 2008 Sharon Shoesmith’s dismissal as demanded by Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron, the then leader of the Conservative opposition. It was a shameful and sordid bullying use of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid power.
But this was not a little local parochial example of the vindictiveness of a newspaper editor and her political associates. It was a story which ran around the world. In 2010 I was in the Altai in Siberia working with over 250 Russian social services policy makers and social services directors. They readily recognised the pictures I showed of Peter Connelly and of Sharon Shoesmith. It was also not a story which was told and then faded. Nine years after Peter’s death there are still frequent media references to ‘Baby P’ when another child is abused and killed.
The media’s creation and peddling of the ‘Baby P story’ has also had a dramatic overwhelming and undermining impact since November 2008 on children’s social work with an increase of 90% in child protection workloads at a time of a 40% cut in government funding to local councils. It is now a service and system beyond the point of break-down.
Setting the record straight
But the ‘story of Baby P’ as created by the press and championed by The Sun is now known to be distorted and discredited. This is, in part, a consequence of the publication by Policy Press in July 2014 of ‘The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight’.
So how did I come to write the book? From April 2008 I was for part of my time a professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. This enabled me to increase my understanding of the real story of what happened with the Connelly family. Based in south London, I was easily able to respond to requests for media comment and interviews on the ‘Baby P story’.
“It was not the story which was being told in the tabloids and by other media.”
I am also a social worker who for 14 years was a director of social services. I have over 40 years’ experience of children’s and child protection services. And from 2008 until 2016 I was regularly working on child protection improvement in six areas of England. This combination brought me the freedom of working within a university which supported my challenging of the narrative created by powerful politicians and press editors.
And by frequently commenting on the developing ‘Baby P story’ I came to understand what had actually happened prior to Peter’s death and about his contact with different agencies, and discovered it was not the story which was being told in the tabloids and by other media. Working with local authorities and others also underlined the damaging impact of the story.
This led to the writing of the book. But how to get it published? Which publisher would stand against the public frenzy vilifying and threatening violence against the social workers who had had contact with the Connelly family? Which publisher would promote a text which was so out-of-line with the comments and actions of such powerful forces as the Murdoch press, politicians and the police, now known through the Leveson inquiry to have had self-serving symbiotic relationships.
Having been rejected by several agents and commercial publishers, it was Policy Press, a university-owned publisher, which accepted the book for publication. It went through multiple legal reads and iterations before finalised. We also received legal advice that its publication should wait until of the end of the phone hacking trial in early 2014, where Rebekah Brooks was a defendant, so that the book was not seen to interfere with or influence the trial.
The impact of the book
So what impact did the publication of the book in July 2014 have? Prior to publication in December 2013 it had prompted a national conference on ‘Baby P: Five Years On’ which was the first occasion on which Sharon Shoesmith gave a conference presentation since being targeted by The Sun and others.
In the nearly three years since publication, it has been frequently cited in academic papers, books, and other reports about child protection. I have given radio and television interviews, including an interview for Russian television, and commented in the public and professional press, including in Australia, and informed a major BBC One documentary broadcast in November 2014.
And I have spoken at more than 150 conferences to over 20,000 social workers, police officers, health professionals, teachers and others as well as giving several public lectures and book signings, including a packed evening in a Haringey bookshop when I was interviewed by Patrick Butler from The Guardian (who wrote the Foreword for the book).
The book has sold almost 5,000 copies in print and nearly 2000 ebooks. The revised edition of the book includes a new afterword that tells how children’s social work and child protection continues to be distorted by a mistold story shaped by the press and politicians eight years ago and where, as confirmed by Ed Balls’ recently published autobiography, they have learnt few lessons from the damage and destruction they have caused.
Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.
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