How a crusader against abuse provoked the anger of accused parents

Near the beginning of "A Very Dangerous Doctor", next month's Cutting Edge documentary on Channel 4, there are a few seconds of grainy footage that are among the most shocking to be broadcast on TV.

They show mothers smothering their youngsters – one using a T-shirt to stop her child breathing, another holding a hand over her child's mouth and nose and a third lying prone across her child's face while its tiny arms and legs thrash frantically as it struggles for air. They were taken by covert video surveillance of women whose babies were being investigated in hospital for breathing difficulties.

The secret videos, introduced by Prof David Southall more than a decade ago for detecting abuse, proved doctors were looking in the wrong place. The problem lay not with the children but the parents.

Dozens were convicted as a result and their children removed to safety. Dr Southall was hailed by colleagues for "thinking the unthinkable" – that parents could harm their children. He became an expert in Munchausen's syndrome by proxy (now called fabricated or induced illness), in which mothers injure or poison their youngsters to gain doctors' attention.

But like many doctors working in child abuse, he soon felt the anger of parents who claimed they were wrongly accused.

For more than a decade they have campaigned against him and his colleagues, filing thousands of complaints and triggering investigations by hospitals, the GMC and police.

Four appear in the Cutting Edge documentary, including Justine, suspected of smothering her two-year-old daughter Rosie. The child had been kept in hospital, hooked up to monitors for five days with nothing to do but watch a Thomas the Tank Engine video over and over again.

"To me that was tantamount to child abuse," Justine says. But she lost her daughter, who was taken into care and not returned for a decade. She has since campaigned for more than a decade to have Dr Southall struck off.

He remains unmoved. "The lies told by parents doing this to their children are continuous," he says. "I remain of the view that I did the right thing for all the children involved."

There are 47 cases pending against him, according to the film, (although the GMC said it did not recognise this figure) and the Medical Defence Union has spent £750,000 defending him – and is still doing so.

In 2004 he was found guilty of misconduct by the GMC and suspended from involvement in child protection work for three years after he accused the husband of solicitor Sally Clark of murdering her children on the basis of a TV interview he had given. Following that verdict, 53 UK paediatricians wrote to protest that the GMC verdict "conflicted with child protection laws and guidance for professionals".

Filmmaker Leo Regan says the dispute between Dr Southall and parents is unlikely ever to be resolved.

But in a tribute to his skill, both sides say his documentary, which they have seen, is fair.

Dr Southall's critics say he did not just test the boundaries, he crossed them and was overzealous in his conviction that children must be protected at all costs. Like many pioneers attacked for their beliefs, he deals in absolutes and is unrepentant. Hope now rests with the GMC's working group and the new guidance it is due to provide to doctors involved in child protection. GMC chief executive Niall Dickson says: "We need to build confidence in what will always be a difficult area of practice."

'A Very Dangerous Doctor' will be shown by Channel 4 on 12 May at 9pm

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Office Manager - Part Time

    £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital agency based in Ashford, Ke...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales and Marketing Executive

    £19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

    Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

    £40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent