Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

The tragedy of Baby P's story has become a soap opera

Sharon Shoesmith
Sharon Shoesmith

This ought to be a tragedy, but we are turning it in to a soap opera. Tragedy, in the hands of the Greek ancients, was more than a way of telling a story. It was a mechanism through which viewers could learn lessons about competing and sometimes chaotic social forces.

Goodness knows there is plenty of scope for that in the story of the child we have come to call Baby P, the toddler who died in August 2007 with more than 50 injuries, in spite of being on a social services 'at risk' register and having been visited 60 times in eight months by a phalanx of social workers, doctors and police.

Yet, from all that, we are offering ourselves only a savage soap that parades the failings of two women to reinforce society's sense of safe moral superiority, which is the key purpose of scapegoating. The tragic death of little Peter Connelly is becoming in public just another Sharon and Tracey story.

The hapless baby's mother, Tracey Connelly, has been released from prison having served barely five years for the child's killing. Sharon Shoesmith, the Newtownabbey-born head of children's services at Haringey Council at the time of Peter's death, is to be given a payout of £600,000 for unfair dismissal.

This is a saga of competing icons. On the one hand, we are repeatedly shown a photograph of a blond-haired, trusting toddler. On the other, the police mugshot of his mother embodies the thick-lipped, sullen self-absorption of our age, while photos of the ex-social worker, snatched outside court, speak of a persecuted self-righteousness.

A relative of the dead child's father said: "She should have served much longer. This is not justice." And yet the same cry lies at the heart of Ms Shoesmith's lawyer's insistence that her dismissal was "a flagrant breach of natural justice".

So where does justice lie? Connelly can be taken back to prison if she breaches her parole terms.

But some crimes, like this one, carry an extra symbolic freight and it is wise to ask whether the burden of that has been discharged.

Likewise, though the Supreme Court has ruled that proper procedures were flouted in dismissing Ms Shoesmith, there are wider issues of concern which the law does not address.

Procedural unfairness does not take away from the fact that she headed a department which Ofsted, the healthcare commission and the police inspectorate all found was responsible for "a catalogue of failures" that left a small boy to die in horrific circumstances.

Society needs mechanisms to address that and Ms Shoesmith needed the decency to understand that she should have resigned before she was sacked.

Instead we are left with a system in which everyone presents themselves as a victim.

One academic has counted 24 public inquiries in to child abuse in the 1970s, 25 in the 1980s and 22 in the 1990s. Hundreds of serious case reviews have been compiled over the past decade. In the two years to 2011, such reviews made an average of 46 recommendations. But they raise hard questions about complex issues such as preventive community social work versus crisis intervention.

So, we ignore them and, instead, report the latest on Sharon, or Tracey, who has told a friend that now she is out of prison she is not planning a new relationship but is "just going to shag about for a bit and have loads of fun". How we all sneer.

Soap operas are more fun. But, in the end, they are a cop-out.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz