In George Orwell's novel 1984, there is a daily ritual known as the "two minutes' hate". Workers gather in front of a screen to watch images of enemies of the state; Orwell describes the scene as "a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness" in which every participant becomes a "grimacing, screaming lunatic". The novel is a satire, of course, but sometimes it's hard not to regard it as a slightly exaggerated prediction of a world in which the role of Big Brother has been gleefully adopted by the media.
Social workers, MPs and celebrities are all targets of an indiscriminate rage with an insatiable appetite for new victims. Take Sharon Shoesmith, former head of children's services at Haringey Council in north London, who last week narrowly failed in her attempt to get a judicial review of the decision to sack her after the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly. Ms Shoesmith has become a hate figure since the toddler died of horrific injuries in August 2007; her decision to contest her dismissal in court – an employment tribunal is still to hear her claims that she was unfairly sacked and a victim of sex discrimination – has been presented as selfish and unfeeling, as though she bears almost as much responsibility as the three adults serving prison sentences in connection with the toddler's death.
Ms Shoesmith, her daughters and elderly mother have been harassed, and she has claimed that the police warned her to keep away from the edge of Tube platforms in case she was recognised by a vengeful member of the public. "I'm just living with humiliation on a daily basis," she once said. David Cameron and The Sun led demands for her dismissal, with the latter delivering a petition containing 1.2 million signatures to Downing Street. Her supporters were ignored, even when more than 60 head teachers praised her work as head of children's services at Haringey.
If nothing else, their intervention should have raised questions about the Government's controversial decision to merge child protection and education services. Ms Shoesmith's background was in teaching and school inspection, not child protection, but like many heads of children's services she found herself in charge of both. Experienced social workers remain critical of the merger, and one told me last week that what happened in Haringey was "a disaster waiting to happen".
Whatever the shortcomings of Ms Shoesmith's department, and we should never lose sight of the fact that a child died in dreadful circumstances, the causes of this tragedy are much more complex than the relentless media focus on Ms Shoesmith suggests. Earlier this month, it emerged at the High Court that officials in the department of the Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls, told Ofsted to "beef up" a report used to justify her sacking. Two days ago, when the judge refused her application for a judicial review, he acknowledged some "unease" and said she didn't have a "full and fair" opportunity to defend herself.
One newspaper immediately bellowed that Ms Shoesmith is in line for a £1.5m payment at an employment tribunal, ensuring that public hostility towards her is maintained. In this atmosphere, it might be argued that she is foolhardy to continue with her legal action, but I can't help feeling that someone has to make a stand against bullying in the media.
Orwell knew all about the manipulation of an "abstract, undirected emotion" that switches from one object to another "like the flame of a blowlamp". Feel the heat and remember: next time, it could be you.