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Prejudice and preconception: Social work & the Media – Opinion piece by: Bronagh Miskelly

When in 2008 the Baby P case hit the headlines, I found myself on live TV thinking: “Why am I here?”

This wasn’t a philosophical crisis but rather a musing on the relationship between the social work profession and the press. As the then group editor of Community Care I was doing another interview about social work in the wake of Baby P, where I challenged and corrected misunderstanding, misinformation and what sometimes seemed like wilful ignorance.

This wasn’t a philosophical crisis but rather a musing on the relationship between the social work profession and the press. As the then group editor of Community Care I was doing another interview about social work in the wake of Baby P, where I challenged and corrected misunderstanding, misinformation and what sometimes seemed like wilful ignorance.

I was doing it because news organisations found it difficult to find social workers and social work leaders to speak to. This was either because social workers wouldn’t speak to the press – not surprising given the media climate and because they feared employers wouldn’t approve – or because journalists didn’t even know where to find social work representatives.

There were social work spokespeople talking about Baby P but they weren’t being heard enough and it seemed that social work was in a vicious circle. The media and great swathes of the public and politicians were ignorant about the realities of social work but this ignorance created a climate where social workers were reluctant to speak out.

This was why Community Care launched a campaign to encourage social work to get its positive stories out there and to create resources that helped the mainstream media understand more about social work and to find spokespeople.

The BBC series, Protecting Our Children, made with Bristol Council, also has its roots in that post-Baby P movement to inform about social work. It makes a brilliant if stark contrast to much of the reporting of social work. The decision-making and practice shown is subtle and nuanced – we are not seeing “politically-correct do-gooding” nor “baby snatching” but the complexity of child protection decisions.

And, certainly, the programme has worked in that aspect, to judge by reactions in the press, on social media and in the one-to-one conversations I’ve had or overheard. But nobody should sit back and think job done. Excellent as it is, Protecting Our Children portrays only one dimension of social work and there is a risk that it could reinforce certain preconceptions. It would be easy to watch the first two programmes and assume that social workers work with one family at a time rather than juggling many similar situations at once and that all child protection issues occur in the “underclass”. And of course just as in party political discourse “health” has come to mean “hospitals”, this series could add to the public conviction that social work means child protection.

Of course this series couldn’t show every aspect of practice but it would have been useful to understand that other social work teams exist and may even have contact with these families.

Creating a public understanding full range of social work activity remains an urgent challenge.

What these programmes do reveal is the innate prejudice that social workers face from the service users – the immediate assumption that social work has a negative purpose to split up families. It is to be hoped that the series will challenge some of these preconceptions – but are the people most likely to hold these views going to watch a BBC2 documentary at 9pm?

Protecting Our Children is probably the most high profile piece of positive social work publicity but there has been other good work. Radio 4’s series Who’d be a social worker? revealed the challenges faced by newly qualified social workers last year. But most significant is the emergence of frontline social workers as spokespeople for the profession, mainly through the work of the nascent College of Social Work.

However, while the college’s recruits go some way to addressing my “why me” concerns of three years ago, there is still much to be done for social work to have a media presence similar to some other professional groups such as midwives. If birth or pregnancy hits the news, you are almost guaranteed to find a working midwife or two gracing the breakfast show sofas. It is still a significant red letter day to find a social worker in the same position and certainly the profession is not called upon enough to comment on stories related to disability or services for older people.

So these are the challenges for social work:

  • Making the public perception of social work wider than the “sexy” discipline of child protection. For example, I was recently told by a TV producer that broadcasters would not be interested in something following dementia sufferers and their families through the various stages of and decisions about care.
  • Helping the whole profession, not just brave enlightened sections like Bristol children’s services, to be confident in dealing with the media.
  • Embedding the idea of social workers as experts in the minds of journalists.
  • Making the good news stories sound as interesting as the bad. It was Ed Balls, I think, that summed up the problem here: when a fireman rescues a child there are flames and drama but when a social workers does it the important think is the lack of drama.

The solutions lie in challenging public and press prejudices and preconceptions about social work but equally challenging social workers’ and social work employers’ prejudices about the media.

The situation is dramatically better than 2008 but social work has only started on changing its media image for all the good press that Protecting Our Children has attracted.

Bronagh Miskelly  (@bromiskelly)is a Freelance writer and editorial consultant specialising in health and social care and former group editor of Community Care. 

Join us on Tuesday, 21 February, at 20:00 GMT / 15:00 ET when we shall explore “Social Work in Media: Protecting Our Children” @SWSCmedia.  We’re pleased to announce that Annie Hudson (Director of Children and Young People’s Services) from Bristol Council will also join our debate on that day.



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