Sharon Shoesmith, the former director of children’s services at London’s Haringey council, talks to the media in 2011 after winning her court of appeal battle over her sacking. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images MORE
“It was politicians behaving very badly,” concludes Barry Sheerman MP at the end of tonight’s compelling BBC film Baby P: the Untold Story. Take a bow Ed Balls and David Cameron. But, as Henry Singer’s relentlessly clear-sighted documentary demonstrates, it wasn’t just politicians. Take a bow too, the media, Ofsted, the Metropolitan police and even the saintly Great Ormond Street hospital. This really, really was not your finest hour.
We may think we know the story of Peter Connelly, the 17-month-old boy killed at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and his brother in Haringey in 2007. Soon after his killers’ conviction the following year, a narrative took hold – we might call it the Sun version of events – which blamed this terrible event essentially on the team of Haringey council social workers who worked with Peter, and their boss, Sharon Shoesmith. They had responsibility for Peter (who was on the child protection register), they failed to spot the tell-tale signs of abuse; it was essentially, their fault.
This version is nonsense of course, as anyone who has seen the excellent reporting of BBC London’s Tim Donovan (who uncovered the lamentable performance of the Met police and Great Ormond Street hospital) or read Professor Ray Jones’s superb book (which outlines in detail the extent to which this was a failure of multiple agencies), will know. But it was nonetheless a surprisingly effective distortion – one that an entire political class (Sheerman was an honourable exception), much of the media, and a nation of rage-filled online talkboard ranters – accepted unquestionably: that this was not a complex multi-agency failure, but a series of errors by individual social workers. The question remains: why did they abandon their critical faculties in such supine fashion?
This lucid, beautifully stitched film, painstakingly researched by Jenny Saunders, digs out the roots of fear, shame, and panic that took hold in the higher echelons of Whitehall, Westminster and key public institutions during two months of hysteria in late 2008. Emergency inspections were hastily ordered, previous inspections were, it is alleged by a whistleblower in the film, tampered with. As a result, people who ought to have insisted on a period of calm reflection instead jostled to escape or divert blame for what happened and shape a partial version of events. It is essentially an anatomy of an establishment cover-up, aided and abetted by an incurious, opportunistic media.
They were, you suspect, terrified of the Sun. It is remarkable to look back on the Murdoch paper’s crude, vicious (and sometimes factually inaccurate) coverage at the time, which entailed the relentless personal harassment of Shoesmith every day for weeks. There was the notorious front page, with the headline “Blood On Their Hands” alongside pictures of the social workers and Shoesmith. It launched, in effect, a witch-hunt and encouraged its readers to join in. When they did, it piously justified its aggressive, self-serving crusade for justice for Baby P as reflecting public anger. This year the unapologetically gung-ho former Sun editor, Rebekah Brooks, admitted “balance went right out of the window” in her paper’s coverage of Baby P, as close to a “sorry” as we are likely to get.
Brooks turned down the opportunity to appear in this documentary. So too did key figures in the Met at the time. The heads of Great Ormond Street hospital and Ofsted (who, it is alleged by a whistleblower in the film, launched a “cover-up” by secretly downgrading a previous report into Haringey council from “good” to “inadequate” in the wake of the Baby P furore) were asked to appear but did not.
Balls, the then children’s secretary, at least has the grace to be interviewed, though his claim that he resisted the personal lobbying of Brooks to take summary action on Shoesmith and Haringey is both revealing and unconvincing (he waited just weeks before dramatically removing Shoesmith from her job, live on TV). Cameron, the leader of the opposition, who arguably set in train the whole sorry fiasco with his opportunistic and ill-judged attack on Haringey and Gordon Brown at PMQs soon after the court case, does not appear.
This film is probably as near as we will get to a true and fair account of what happened. There was no public inquiry – perhaps surprisingly given the profile of the case. No eminent lord was summoned to examine what had happened (until, of course, Shoesmith took Balls, Ofsted and Haringey council to the high court). There has never been an inquest into Peter’s death. Common sense and good practice – indeed, official policy – tells us we must learn from child protection tragedies. The aim of the establishment here, however, was to allocate blame, force “closure”, and move on. Cameron’s party, ironically, had published a pamphlet on child protection only two years previously entitled No More Blame Game, warning against media finger-pointing in the wake of high-profile tragedies. Donovan muses at one point in the film on why it was that no political figure or institution was “grown up” and honest enough to embrace the complicated, inconvenient truth about what had happened. Well indeed.
We do hear from those individuals directly involved in the case whose reputations were traduced and whose lives and careers in some cases were utterly obliterated by the witch-hunt. Shoesmith, the social workers Gillie Christou and Maria Ward. The husband of Sabah al-Zayyat, the inexperienced Great Ormond Street paediatrician employed at its understaffed clinic in Haringey who saw Peter shortly before his death (she was not qualified for the job, but the hospital hired her anyway) describes plaintively how his family has been wrecked as a result of his wife’s brutal hounding by the media. The film reveals another startling fact: it is plausible that Peter’s broken back was caused after he had been examined by al-Zayyat; that she failed to spot the injury because it may not have yet occurred (there was no consensus on this among pathologists involved in the case). It is too late for the doctor. Her career is over and she is back in Saudi Arabia, having suffered a breakdown said to be “permanent”.
So, seven years on, what have we learned? For all the grandstanding about how such tragedies must never happen again, the film estimates that more than 260 children have since died at hands of a parent or carer since Peter’s death. The response of the child protection system, fearful of the “next Baby P” was to adopt a no-risk approach. It has led to a huge rise in the number of children being taken from their families into care. Arguably the social work profession is increasingly fragile, demoralised and insecure. Recruiting and retaining social workers is difficult, despite some lucrative incentives. Children’s services departments struggle to cope with demand – we might call it the Baby P effect, or even the David Cameron effect – at a time when local authority budgets have been cut by a third. The government’s response appears to be to suggest that councilsoutsource child protection.
Praise to the BBC for bravely commissioning this film and giving it a prominent showing. Its tormentors in the Sun and the Mail will hate it, naturally. But take that as another recommendation: in the best traditions of the corporation, this superb film does us a great public service. You may wonder why public institutions often seemingly “never learn” when things go badly wrong. Baby P: the Untold Story goes a long way to telling us why.
• This article was amended on 27 October 2014. Baby P: the Untold Story, produced by Sandpaper films, is not part of the Panorama strand. This article was further amended on 28 October 2014. It originally stated that Sharon Shoesmith won her high court case against Ed Balls, Ofsted and Haringey council. In fact, the case against Ofsted was dismissed.