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

Share

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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing