Our love of soap opera is a real killer

The collective urge to simplify events such as the Baby P case means these grim tragedies will continue to happen – and make headlines

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This ought to be a tragedy, but we are turning it into a soap opera. Tragedy, in the hands of the Greek ancients, who invented the form, 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, despite 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 reportedly been released from prison having served barely five years for the child's killing. Sharon Shoesmith, the head of children's services at Haringey Council at the time of Peter's death, is to be given a payout as high as £600,000 for unfair dismissal after the case.

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. They are only images. Reality is more complex.

But many responses are not. A relative of the dead child's father told one newspaper: "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" in which Haringey Council decided not to follow proper procedures in order to satisfy tabloid bloodlust.

Where lies justice? We have systems to adjudge that but they are fallible. Connelly has been released by the Parole Board, which has a duty to balance the rehabilitation of prisoners against the continuing danger they represent to the public. It will undoubtedly have placed restrictions to ban Connelly from returning to Haringey or contacting her remaining four children, and will insist that she remains under probation supervision. She can be taken back to prison if she breaches her parole terms.

Parole Board members – judges, psychiatrists, psychologists, probation officers and independents – have decided she is no longer a danger. Overwhelmingly, they are better qualified to do that than are red-top editors. But with high-profile cases there are wider considerations than the progress an individual has made in prison. Some crimes, like this one, carry an extra symbolic freight and it is wise to ask whether the burden of that has been discharged.

It is easy to mock the demotic response of Daily Mail readers who appended website comments to the story such as "she helped torcher and kill an innocent child and she gets a poxy 6 yrs" or "that is a discrase she allowed out … faulted system as usual". But they have a point. There was something singularly shocking about the callous, cowardly cunning of Connelly: her lies to doctors, clear attempts to manipulate the jury at her trial and her deliberately smearing chocolate over her child's bruises to deceive social workers. The dissonance between that and what the professionals now say underscores a legitimate concern which goes beyond the issue of public confidence in justice. It is about the best way to prevent injustice to children in the first place.

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 and declines to accept responsibility for their actions, or lack of them. This newspaper's revelation today that there are yet more cases in the pipeline in Haringey is shocking but unsurprising. A terrible litany of dead children's names – Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford, Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly, Daniel Pelka, Hamzah Khan – testifies to inadequacy in British systems of childcare. After each, a serious case review pointed to the same thing: social workers, police, teachers and doctors do not communicate effectively. Yet the lessons seem never to be implemented.

One academic has counted 24 public inquiries into 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.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor of Public Ethics at the University of Chester

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