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

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

Systems Analyst (Technical, UML, UI)

£30000 - £40000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Cost Reporting-MI Packs-Edinburgh-Bank-£350/day

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Cost Reporting Manager - MI Packs -...

Senior Private Client Solicitor - Gloucestershire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - We are makin...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Support Developer

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A unique and rare opport...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A screengrab taken on July 13, 2014 from a video released by the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, showing the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau  

Boko Haram is a vicious sideshow - Nigeria's self-serving elite is the real culprit

Kevin Watkins
 

We need to talk about homophobia in the police

George Gillett
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn