Medical Life

Last week was a grim one in the annals of child protection. On the same day that Baby P's abusers were sentenced following one of the grossest professional failures in recent memory, the controversial paediatrician David Southall, who pioneered covert video surveillance to detect child abuse, learnt that his career was over. His appeal to the High Court against a decision by the General Medical Council to strike him off the register was dismissed.

The criticism of the professionals in the Baby P case was that they did not act swiftly or decisively enough to protect the 17-month-old when signs emerged of his ill treatment. The criticism of Southall was that he acted too swiftly and decisively to protect a child he believed to be at risk – acting in an "offensive" and "unjustified" manner.

The end in both cases is tragedy – a baby has lost his life and a crusading paediatrician has lost his livelihood. The hope is that these events will improve the protection of children. But will they?

Social services departments cannot recruit to their benighted profession, because of the Baby P effect, and there is an alarming swing against parental rights, which means more children judged "at risk" will be removed from their homes into the frequently damaging realm of state care.

Meanwhile paediatricians with one of the toughest jobs in medicine – distinguishing accidental from non-accidental injury – are left badly undermined by the spectacle of a doctor of international renown suffering professional extinction.

Southall was found to have accused a mother of drugging and murdering her 10-year-old son, who was found hanging from a curtain rail in 1996. He denied this, insisting he had raised it as one possible scenario to explain the death, in the course of assessing whether it was safe to leave her caring for her other son.

The judge in last week's appeal did not believe him or the social worker who backed his account. The accusation was "truly shocking", "offensive" and "inconsistent with the status of an independent expert," the judge said. He concluded that the GMC had been right to strike Southall off.

Anyone who has followed David Southall's career could not doubt his energy, industry and commitment to the cause of child protection. That very commitment has, however, made him the target of a vicious campaign orchestrated by a small group of affected parents, aided by certain sections of the media. The GMC, and now the courts, have found that he made serious errors of judgment. That is as may be. But given the fevered atmosphere in which he worked – under constant threat of verbal, physical and legal assault – is the punishment appropriate to the crime?

The GMC is confident that, having won the court's backing, it did the right thing by striking Dr Southall off, to "protect the public interest". In truth, this is a nasty case that has decided very little – and will do nothing to encourage other paediatricians in this desperately difficult line of work.