by Deborah Wain
This past week, the often fractious relationship between social workers and television has fallen under the spotlight yet again.
Through the lens of an undercover documentary filmed in an ‘inadequate’ children’s services, social workers were seen struggling to cope with the pressures of their jobs. The fact this was being shown was enough to provoke nothing short of fear and outrage from the profession before it had even aired.
The debate over the merits of that Dispatches programme, and particularly the secret filming methods used, will continue. Yet there’s no doubt television has extraordinary power to shape public perception. Social workers have long felt that, in both documentary and fiction, their work goes largely unrepresented or represented unfairly, which makes the job even harder.
So what do some of those working in television think? What are the challenges of putting social work on to the small screen?
Over the last few years, social services departments have been opened up to television cameras more than ever before. Managers have welcomed ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries as an opportunity to help viewers better understand what their teams do and to reveal the knotty problems they face day to day.
Nick Mirsky, the head of Channel 4 documentaries who commissioned 15,000 Kids and Counting, which focused on the process of adoption, says it is instructive for the general public to see what social workers come up against.
He comments: “Broadly, I think these programmes show what a tough job a social worker has, and how they are thrown into the eye of some of the most challenging social issues in this country today.
You can’t watch these films and think that a social worker is some kind of child-snatcher. You realise they are remarkably committed individuals trying to improve the lives of vulnerable children. And it is a properly tough job they are doing.”
However, the restrictions imposed on film-makers due to the focus on the needs and welfare of children and other vulnerable people makes documentaries about social care hugely challenging and expensive. Programmes require careful planning – there are sometimes hundreds of people to talk to before filming even starts – and hours of footage might need to be discarded due to legal or other issues.
Mirsky says: “It is always C4’s job to reflect what is going on in Britain, and we do that – in part – through access to public services. That is often police and doctors, but it is also social workers.
“The difficulty is compliance. The most interesting area is the care of kids, and you have very serious compliance and legal issues which means it is often not possible to show their faces or reveal their names. It’s all understandable, but quite problematic for television.”
Sacha Mirzoeff, the BBC’s documentaries executive producer, worked on the three acclaimed series, Protecting Our Children, Protecting Our Parents and Protecting Our Foster Kids.
He explains producers usually end up with a tiny number of cases appropriate to show with everyone’s consent in place, and even then stories could be lost months or even years into the process.
He comments: “These are by far the most challenging programmes I’ve ever worked on, and I’ve filmed in several war and conflict zones before. It’s a minor miracle that any of these ever get completed. We start access agreements months, sometimes years, before we start filming and they continue to be a part of our life long after the films are shown on TV. In the cases of filming with children, we know that participants may contact us decades in the future with questions about our time filming with them.“
However Mirzoeff stresses that through shared understanding and process, and involving professionals at every stage, including editing, obstacles were overcome and reward came in the overwhelmingly positive feedback from viewers, local authorities and individual professionals.
“One of my own proudest moments was when a social worker we spent time with said Protecting our Children was a game-changer for him in terms of public understanding. When he knocked on the door of new families, they were now welcoming him in for the first time. That made all the effort worth it,” he comments.
So does Mirzoeff think we will see a more regular, documentary series about social workers, of the sort focused on police forces, hospitals and the like that pepper schedules?
“Given the increasing pressure on TV budgets across the board, this type of series is an increasingly hard proposition for commissioners to take on long-term, and relatively costly with no guarantees on what they will get in the end. In most of the other forms that exist here there’s a packaging or time constraint that makes them slightly more viable.
“However, well-told stories about the kinds of situations that social workers face will always be in demand. So maybe our challenge is to start thinking about these stories in new ways.”
Negative stereotypes of social workers on TV
Maybe those different ways can also include fictional representations. As is the case with factual television, you don’t have to dip too far into listings to find dramas dedicated to the trials and dilemmas of police, medics, and lawyers.
Social work characters, on the other hand, are rarely the focus. When they do appear their function is often to drive the plot, say real social workers, which can reinforce negative stereotypes.
Actual processes are distorted or overlooked altogether as they are squeezed through the wringer of drama.
In 2012 EastEnders’ ‘Lexi and Lola’ storyline prompted a strongly-worded complaint to the BBC by the British Association of Social Workers. It criticised the potential damage wreaked by showing a baby removed from her teenage mother without sufficient grounds to do so. Since then, a social worker has complained about the depiction of foster care in the soap, and a furious response to a social worker in Silent Witness led some to brand it ‘the worst portrayal’ of social work they had ever seen.
To a degree, any dramatic depiction of a particular occupation gives a limited insight into reality. In drama, conflict is inherent and necessarily heightened. Viewers will never see the mundane detail of a job played out.
Certainly the relentless pace of soap production and its collective approach does not always lend itself to meticulous research.
Social workers appear not to be alone in feeling aggrieved with a skewed version of their roles.
Doctors complain about the unprofessionalism and poor conduct displayed by characters in medical dramas in order to keep viewers engaged.
Journalists might well be irked at being endlessly depicted as part of a baying mob publishing with abandon information that, in reality, would be in contempt of court.
The producers of EastEnders insist that its fictional characters are not meant to be representative of an entire profession. This is something, says a spokeswoman for the soap, its regular viewers are “attuned” to. She also stresses that the serial does strive to accurately reflect procedure and works with regular adult and children services advisers.
Chris Parker, who has written episodes of EastEnders along with Hollyoaks and Coronation Street, thinks there is a conscious effort among soap writers and researchers to counter “relentless negativity” in the tabloid press about social workers, and to write against stereotypes and avoid “easy judgements”.
However he points out that the need for dramatic tension inevitably makes roles less than clear cut.
He comments: “In my experience, social workers have been portrayed fairly but rather two-dimensionally – they only exist as professionals doing the right thing under difficult circumstances, rather than individuals first and social workers second. It’s unbalanced because a social worker coming into a story is defined by his or her job, whereas our regular characters are so much more complex and therefore sympathetic – and are not defined by the jobs they do but by their emotional lives and the family ties to those closest to them.”
Parker adds that because soaps are built around families and their relationships, social workers are necessarily outsiders able to stand back and take an objective view of things, bringing them close to the role of a villain in soap storytelling – traditionally a character who enters from outside the community.
He argues: “For soap storytelling to work, our sympathies, to a certain extent, must always be with the characters we know best, for all their flaws and failings, and their relationship to their kids will always be one that is more complex than it appears to outsiders.
A child might have been hurt through negligence, but our day-to-day experience with the character will have made us see that the parent really loves his or her child, so for the drama to be satisfying we will always be rooting for the people we know over those we don’t.”
This begs the question, why are there no regular soap characters who are social workers?
“There may be a subconscious feeling that viewers feel negatively about them in a way that they don’t with a nurse or a fire fighter. Also there is still sometimes a dated concept of what is a working class job, for example a nurse, and what is too middle class to exist in the world of a soap. Social workers are definitely seen as being middle class in a stereotypical Guardian-reading kind of way, which in the ecology of soap is a negative thing,” Parker says.
Could a one-off drama or series offer the opportunity for a more thoughtful, realistic, and in-depth exploration of the job that social workers crave? Perhaps one obstacle to this is that some professions, say teaching or firefighting, have a more clearly defined purpose, while social work can take many forms and is harder to understand.
It may also fall to someone with real world experience to forge new ground when it comes to comedy. Comedian Jo Brand is a former mental health nurse whose mother was a social worker. In the past week, it was announced that her pilot of Damned, set in a children’s social work offices, will become a series on Channel 4.
The initial episode, which aired in 2014, was received warmly by the profession, and its promise to show social workers “swimming against a tide of bureaucracy and pedantry, and contending with the absurdities and nationalities of life in a county council office” has already elicited a positive reaction from social workers.
Villains, fools, heroes
Chris Thompson, who was a social worker for 12 years before becoming a dramatist, says that as social work is about change it ought, on the face of it, to be a good fit with television drama. However he suggests the complexities of social work outcomes prove difficult to pin down by a creative industry more used to presenting black and white rather than grey.
Thompson explains: “In social work we’re dealing with complex, chronic problems – to condense that into an understandable moment of drama is hard. In drama you want there to be resolution. Unlike say a firefighter rescuing someone from a building, social work doesn’t have easy resolution[s].”
Chris might be the writer to reveal the nuances and challenges of the job in a small screen drama. His first stage play Carthage, his response to his time in the profession, was lauded for its authentic insight into the care system. He has a television series set in social services in development which he says has no “villains or fools” – or “heroes”, for that matter.
Thompson adds: “I think there is an appetite for a drama about social work but as an ex-social worker who is going to write about social workers on stage or screen then I need to make sure I am representing my profession fairly. I think social workers do have the right to complain. There’s no real balance in fictional TV.”