A whistleblower seeking to expose the pressures on social workers in an era of cuts, or a traitor to her profession who exploited colleagues without good reason?
Over the past fortnight both labels (and plenty in-between) have been cast on ‘Vicky’, the pseudonym given to a social worker who secretly filmed inside a Birmingham children’s services team as part of a documentary for Channel 4’s Dispatches.
‘Vicky’ has now been referred to the HCPC following concerns her use of covert filming breached the professional and ethical standards social workers sign-up to.
While most social workers’ reaction to the programme itself has been critical, early signs are that opinion is split on whether HCPC action against ‘Vicky’ would be merited.
A snap online poll carried out by child protection social worker and Community Care contributor Social Work Tutor found 53% of 166 respondents felt it was fair for ‘Vicky’ to be called to account by HCPC while 47% disagreed.
Not much in it when polling people on whether ‘Vicky’ should answer to the HCPC.I’ll write about this next week😊 pic.twitter.com/4ge2PtRQ0C
— Social Work Tutor (@socialworktutor) May 30, 2016
The social media debate over the programme reveals the strength of feeling on both sides.
For some Vicky’s actions were “a massive violation of trust”. Her use of covert filming has been described as “spying, not whistleblowing” and concerns raised that the issues she sought to expose could, and should, have been tackled through other means, such as whistleblowing channels.
As for the appropriate response? “She should be referred to HCPC – everyone has a whistleblowing policy and there are ways of raising issues we all face on a daily basis – this is not the way,” was one social worker’s verdict. “Refer to the HCPC – definitely”, was a blunter assessment.
Others defended Vicky, saying she had done social work “a service” by highlighting the reality of the job. The footage “did not attack the profession” but instead exposed “the systems and culture” that constrain staff, was one social worker’s take on the programme.
“Only by exposing those situations will anything change,” said one commenter. “I don’t consider Vicky betrayed her profession, everyone is accountable”, said another. As for punishment? “I don’t think she should lose her career,” said a social worker.
As potential fitness-to-practise issues go, there’s no doubt ‘Vicky’s’ case is unusual. But is it unprecedented? The answer is yes and no.
The documentary isn’t the first to be billed as an ‘undercover social worker’ investigation. Back in 2010, Dispatches sent a staff member to secretly film in Surrey council’s children’s services.
However, the person obtaining the footage for that programme was a journalist who went undercover as a support worker. He, unlike Vicky, was not a registered social care professional bound by the HCPC standards of conduct, performance and ethics.
There have however been cases where registered professionals faced their regulators after secretly filming for documentaries.
In April 2009, nurse Margaret Haywood was struck off by the Nursing and Midwifery Council after a panel found her secret filming for BBC Panorama was a “major breach” of the nursing code of conduct.
Haywood had filmed undercover at the Royal Sussex Hospital for a Panorama documentary screened in July 2005. The film exposed neglect of elderly patients, including incontinent patients lying in their own urine and cancer patients being left without support.
Announcing the decision to strike her from the register, the head of the NMC misconduct panel said Haywood’s misconduct was “fundamentally incompatible with being a nurse”.
“The registrant embarked upon filming many vulnerable, elderly patients in the last stages of their lives, knowing that it was unlikely that they would be able to given any meaningful consent to the process, in circumstances where their dignity was most compromised,” she said.
“Although the conditions on the ward were dreadful, it was not necessary to breach confidentiality to seek to improve them by the method chosen.”
The decision sparked public outcry. Six months later Haywood won an appeal against her removal from the register, with the High Court approving a reduction in her sanction to a one-year caution. She said losing her registration after a 25-year career in nursing had been “devastating” and insisted she had “always put patients’ interests first.”
The NMC said the move to downgrade Haywood’s sanction was a “fair outcome”. It said a lesson from Haywood’s case was that nurses needed clearer information on how to escalate concerns “in a way that will not bring them into conflict with their code of conduct”.
In July 2007 the General Teaching Council suspended a supply teacher from teaching for a year after she secretly filmed in school in order to “expose pupil disorder” for a Channel 5 documentary. Angela Mason told the conduct committee looking into her case that she believed she was acting in the public interest.
“What I felt was that what was missing from the debate was actual evidence of what was actually going on,” she said at the time.
“There may have been discussions in learned journals, but we wanted to bring to the public hard evidence of what was meant by low level disruption and the impact it was having on pupils and the teachers sent to teach them.”
But the chair of the GTC committee said secretly filming students would be unacceptable professional conduct in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
“She was employed and paid by these schools to teach pupils in her care,” he said.
“In fact, her true motivation was to obtain secret film of the pupils for the purposes of a television programme. In that respect we find that her conduct abused the trust of the head teachers, staff and pupils at the schools.”
Channel 5 accused the GTC of deciding to “shoot the innocent messenger”.
There are some key differences in ‘Vicky’s’ use of covert filming compared to the two examples above.
Unlike both the teaching and nursing documentaries, she secretly filmed colleagues but not service users, at least not in the footage shown by Dispatches.
Secret filming is likely to involve a breach of privacy, but Ofcom guidelines say that broadcasters should “pay particular attention” to the privacy of people under sixteen and other vulnerable groups. In this regard Vicky’s footage could be seen as less of an invasion of privacy of vulnerable groups than the other films.
The flip side is that, unlike Margaret Haywood’s nursing footage, Vicky’s secret filming did not reveal abuse or neglect. Instead it revealed social workers struggling with caseloads and management issues while working with serious cases.
One question is whether the footage acquired by Vicky meets the public interest test? Ofcom says any breaches of privacy can be warranted in the public interest and gives examples as: “revealing or detecting crime, protecting public health or safety, exposing misleading claims made by individuals or organisations or disclosing incompetence that affects the public”.
On a related note, aside from the footage ‘Vicky’ actually obtained, what was Dispatches’ public interest justification for sending her in to film undercover in the first place?
‘Vicky’ has given her side of the story. According to her, a whistleblower approached the programme-makers with concerns, but these involved a different council, not Birmingham. Vicky was unable to get into that local authority as an agency worker so ended up trying, and succeeding, in getting a role at Birmingham instead.
This leaves questions for Channel 4 and Dispatches. What were the whistleblower concerns? On what basis was Birmingham selected? If the whistleblower’s concerns were about another council, but Birmingham selected as an authority to investigate them further, presumably the issues were seen as widespread? Why then was the final programme was very focused on Birmingham itself?
According to ‘Vicky’, her motivation to get involved in the programme was the idea that Dispatches wanted to change “the discourse away from social workers being the problem towards looking at environment they work in”. She felt the story of social work being “starved of resources” needed to be told.
The general consensus, in the sector at least, is the programme may have shown the ‘what’ of social work pressures but didn’t adequately address or analyse the reasons behind this. For most social workers, the debate over the programme’s merits will continue. For ‘Vicky’, she’ll probably be weighing up whether it was worth putting her registration on the line for.