Munro debate: Shifting media and public perception of social work

A key task of Professor Eileen Munro's review of child protection is to examine the public perception of social workers and the media coverage of the profession. Interim children's services manager and consultant Nick Berbiers proposes some changes

A key task of Professor Eileen Munro’s review of child protection is to examine the public perception of social workers and the media coverage of the profession. Interim children’s services manager and consultant Nick Berbiers proposes some changes

In terms of the public’s view on child protection it could be summarised: “You do it, we want you to do it well but, day to day, we would rather not think about it.” This is an understandable attitude, but it does leave us in social care with a problem because our success is affected by how much the public engages in the protection of children.


Semantics might seem an odd place to start, but we need to recognise that the words and terms we use about our work shape the public’s perception and understanding of it.

“Child protection” and “child safeguarding” are a perfect case in point. I remain perplexed as to why we have ended up with two terms that mean the same thing. I find the argument that one (protection) is a component of the other (safeguarding) nonsensical. If we went on to the streets and asked people whether they understood that esoteric distinction, would they? I certainly don’t get it, despite 30 years steeped in social care language.

“Safeguarding” is an exceptionally woolly term, whereas the unfashionable “protection” is clear and strong. Equally out of favour are “abuse” and “neglect”, yet they are hard words that more accurately describe difficult and uncomfortable subjects. We need to be clear and purposeful in describing our endeavours and use words that ground the subject in reality for all of us. How else can we expect the public to relate to the issue?

Let us therefore consign the term “safeguarding” to history.


It is strange how often one hears the word tragedy used to describe the death of children known to children’s services. We would not refer to the murder of a child by a stranger as the Child X tragedy, yet the Baby P tragedy is an oft-heard phrase even though his death was caused (or allowed) by three people close to him.

Tragedy implies something fatalistic and predestined. But the deaths of children known to protective services are not tragedies, they are gross failures. We let those children down and we should not be mealy-mouthed about it.

The argument that there will always be some known children who are severely injured or killed is, in my view, unacceptable. Zero is the only acceptable figure to aspire to, otherwise we accept our failures before they have even occurred. The holy grail of child protection is the public, professionals and everyone working together to keep children safe. Yet how can we achieve this if we tell the public that some children will always die in our care?

Mass media

Research I did in the late 1980s found that, of 98 separate national news stories with a significant social work component, only two were positive. Both related to social workers providing counselling to survivors of disasters.

I doubt even the most ardent critic of social work would argue that 98% of national practice is bad. Yet if the public’s main perception of social work is the mainstream media, and things are much worse now than in the 1980s, they will not hold a good opinion of it.

We are all to blame: the mass media for focusing on negative news: the public for consuming it: and us for not correcting it. It frustrates me how little I hear anyone who the media might be inclined to report say something like this:

“Over the past 50 years we have protected tens of thousands of children and young people who have gone on to have safe, happy and positive lives. During the same period there have also been gross, unacceptable failures where we did not adequately protect some children. We acknowledge and learn from those failures. But equally, it would be a great disservice to all those children who have been, and are being helped and protected, and to their families, carers, and the professionals who work with them, not to recognise their success.”

If you agree with that statement, and you are in a position where the mass media are listening to you, please say it.

Safeguarding boards

Local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) have a crucial role in shaping and encouraging public ownership of child protection. There should be a national association or forum of LSCB chairs meeting three or four times a year. Among their other activities, they should be sharing best practice in reaching out to the public and the media. The chairs are skilled and experienced people who work with many colleagues across many agencies: let’s make the most of them. I for one would like to hear their input.

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