Social workers on TV: why is it so difficult to get right?

Deborah Wain speaks to the people responsible for putting social workers on TV and asks how it can be done well

Photo: Andrey Burmakin/Fotolia

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?

Opened up

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.”

Stories lost

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.

‘A game-changer’

“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.

Not alone

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.

Dramatic tension

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.

Clear purpose

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.

Photo from the pilot of Damned, screened two years ago, starring Alan Davies, Kevin Eldon  and Jo Brand star in the social work-themed show

Photo from the pilot of Damned, screened two years ago, starring Alan Davies, Kevin Eldon and Jo Brand star in the social work-themed show

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.”


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6 Responses to Social workers on TV: why is it so difficult to get right?

  1. Ellie June 1, 2016 at 2:46 pm #

    I’m inclined to think that some of what is described here hits the mark – it is utterly accurate. However, some of the excuses given are nonsensical!

    The issue of Social Workers’ portrayal on T.V. is a thorny one. It is not necessarily a problem that is created by the airing of documentaries, which is what this article tends to focus on. Indeed, documentaries may be useful, for they show Social Work as it is. They are reality, following real Social Workers as they do their day-to-day jobs. Documentaries highlight the fact that Social Work is a complex and difficult job, and that Social Workers do many and varied things. True, there may be difficulties in filming documentaries about Social Work, but it is not really these that have created the problem of which the article speaks – the negative public perception.

    The REAL problem in the way in which Social Workers are portrayed on Television comes from FICTIONAL “soap opera” style programmes. Basically, these are programmes that are NOT TRUE, but which the general public ignorantly believes anyway! I can list examples of the type of programmes that are at fault, and you may come to spot a theme, which I also spotted – a theme which I think is VERY IMPORTANT and which is the driving factor behind the negative portrayal of Social Workers. The programmes are as follows:

    The Bill
    Silent Witness
    Waterloo Road
    Call The Midwife
    Coronation Street
    Cardiac Arrest
    Above Suspicion
    Holby City
    The District Nurse
    Holby Blue
    Garrow’s Law

    … And many, many more…

    Now, apart from maybe things like Emmerdale, Hollyoas, Eastenders… which are soaps with generalized themes about supposed “real life” and “everyday” situations, the rest are obviously divided into three main camps:

    1. Police, detective and crime dramas or soaps
    2. Medical and NHS dramas or soaps
    3. Teaching dramas or soaps

    It is important to remember that ALL these programmes are utterly FICTIONAL – but for some odd reason the general public treat them as though they are TRUE and as though what goes on in them reflects what actually goes on in real life. I suspect the problem, here, is twofold – firstly that the general public, ahem… generalize far too much (pardon the pun!). That is, they make assumptions that these programmes are actually reflective of reality without questioning. Secondly, the programmes (and their makers/producers) themselves deliberately mislead by claiming in their descriptive write-up (e.g. in T.V. magazines, or online) that they are realistic, gritty and so forth. By laying claim to being realistic, the programmes fool the public into the belief that they ARE realistic. Put simply – if the public read in the “TV TImes” magazine that this week’s “Holby City” will be a gritty and realistic episode following a story about teenage pregnancy, then they believe that gritty and realistic is what the episode is. basically, the public believe what they read!

    In the same vein, they believe what they see… EVEN THOUGH IT IS FICTIONAL, AND UNTRUE. Thus, the general public often believe soaps and T.V. dramas, even though they are fictional. Instead of remembering that the programmes are untrue, the public treat the storylines of such things as “Eastenders” or “casualty” as though they actually happen. Whilst in some cases these tales may reflect a degree of reality, in many other cases they are simply dramatizations intended to thrill or delight an audience; for this reason, the storylines are often overly-dramatic, or excessively hyped in some other way. In other words, they DO NOT reflect reality. They are more like titillating gossip – they are exciting and interesting because they are all hype, but with very little (if any) truth!

    Still, it is notable that SOME professions (though not all) have cashed in on the general public’s ignorance. They have been aware of the fact that the public will often believe anything they see or hear – even if it is actually nonsense – and have used this, quite literally, to promote a glorified image of THEIR OWN profession, sometimes at the expense of others. Hence the proliferation of certain types of soaps. Clearly, Nursing, Policing, Teaching, Solicitors, Doctors… have all got governing bodies, or some sort of P.R. relation system, that actively seeks to PROMOTE their professions, and which has exploited soap operas and other T.V. fictional series in order to get the message across that “THEIR profession is the best”! THAT is why in medical soaps, doctors and nurses are always “angelic” or “heroic”. It is why in Police soaps the Police are always “heroes” or “saviours”… and so on… It is also why Social Work comes in for a beating.

    The Social Work profession has had NO such P.R. exercise going on. In my comments to many of your articles, I have consistently highlighted the P.R. activities of such organizations as the Royal College of Nurses, or the Royal College of Physicians. I have done so for a reason – to show the Social Work profession that others are attempting to steal a march on them. To highlight the fact that Social Work has NO such Royal body or charter. Has NO such P.R. relations body (or, if it does, certainly one that is nowhere near active enough). To show that without such P.R. activity, Social Work remains a hidden, shadowy and unknown – hence misunderstood – career choice. To show that because other professions are more actively engaged in their own P.R. Social Work loses out – because these professions can raise their own profile by LOWERING the profile of other professions like Social Work.

    THAT is why Social Work has a negative image on T.V., as far as I can see. Because it has not engaged in any form of P.R. exercise that sough obviously to GLORIFY the image of Social Work, in the way that say, Nurses, Doctors or Police seek to glorify THEMSELVES. Whilst other professions were busy metaphorically blowing their own trumpets, Social Work stayed silent. Indeed, Social Work became the butt of other professions’ jokes; Social Work became the “scapegoat”.

    This is ALL about POLITICS and about PSYCHOLOGY. Not Politics in the sense of Governents and Prime Ministers (though no doubt that has an influence too). No, I mean politics in the sense of the following Oxford Dictionary definition…

    Politics – meaning “relating to a person’s or organization’s status or influence”…

    THAT is why I talk about it as politics. Because some professions have realized that there is a sort of “science” – a technique – to increasing their status and influence. THAT is also why I talk about Psychology – because there is a Psychology behind all of this. The technique used to increase status and influence is psychological in effect. It is all about the psychology of getting inside the heads of the general public. It is about the psychology of taking an idea – in this case the notion that YOUR PROFESSION is “the best” or “angelic” or “heroic” (or whatever else you want the public to believe) – and firmly implanting it in the general public’s heads. How do you implant the idea? Well, even if the idea is FALSE, even if it is WRONG, you still want to get the message out there and reach as many people as possible. You want to do it as easily as possible, and in a way that is not obvious. So, you use the most accessible method, one that reaches a huge audience, and one that for some reason the general public tend to believe without even questioning. YOU USE THE MEDIA. YOU USE T.V. AND SOAP OPERAS, AND DRAMAS.

    This is the Psychology side of it. call it “marketing” if you like – it is still Psychology. The psychology of SELLING! Of selling YOUR PROFESSION! What some professions realized, and what Social Work seems not to have realized, is that you can get the general public to believe ANYTHING. I mean, no offence, but people believed HITLER! Isn’t that proof enough that people will buy into anything – even rubbish – if they are sold it in a way that is convincing, believable, appealing enough? If you find the right method via which to market, package and sell your product, you are onto a winner!

    THIS is what Nurses and Doctors and Police and Teachers, and Lawyers… did when they discovered that the general public not only watch loads of soaps and T.V. dramas, but LOVE them and even BELIEVE them. They realized that if they could get their profession portrayed in a favourable light during these soaps and dramas, then they could reach the general public via the soaps and dramas, and make them believe the hype. Added to that, they could also portray other professions in a negative light, making themselves seem even MORE important, even MORE caring, even MORE efficient, even MORE professional. It’s called compare and contrast – you want to look good, so to make yourself look good you compare yourself to someone or something that looks bad. Simple! Psychology again! We ALL do it – maybe it’s part of human nature. To look good, you make a comparison to something that looks bad. THAT is why Social Work gets a negative portrayal; it is a foil for the professions that want to look good. They are looking good at the expense of those who look bad.

    I note that your article does suggest that there are negative portrayals of other professions in T.V. fiction, however, this is much more rarely the case than for Social Work, and the reasons why that are given make perfect sense. What concerns me more is the fact that your article shows that even when interviewed, those involved in making T.V, continue to find excuses for why Social Work is vilified and why jobs like Nursing, Medicine of Firefighting are not. I have to say this – THE EXCUSES DO NOT WASH.

    It’s all well and good to say that people clearly know what Nurses, or Police, or Firefighters do, and that this makes them good T.V. subjects; whereas the fact that Social Work is not a clear-cut job makes it harder to portray on television. This is NO excuse for persistent negative portrayal of Social Workers. Indeed, it is an excuse that does not even add up. I mean, DO we know exactly what Nurses, Doctors, Police, Firefighters… do? Or do we just understand what televisions tells us they do? If I asked a person what, for instance, a Mental Health Nurse does, would they know? Oh, yeah! I forgot! That’s right… Mental Health Nurses are rarely portrayed on T.V. and few people do seem to know what they do! What about the sort of firefighters who become consultants specializing in security measures, or investigating arson? No! Don’s see them too often either! I reckon some people won’t even know they exist! How about an Infection Control Nurse? A Gynaecology and Urinary Incontinence Specialist Consultant? A Youth Custody Suite Officer? No? BUT they are ALL Nurses, or Police, or Firefighters, or Doctors!

    Ah, that’s right! THAT proves it… You see, when we start to talk in detail about ANY of the professions mentioned above, it becomes clear that the general public haven’t the faintest clue what they do – what you are talking about. Why? Because in the main, the public only know about said professions from what THEY SEE ON TELEVISION. They only have a generalized sense of what such professions do – either from firsthand contact (i.e. they had to go to the G.P. , or they experienced a house fire), or from what they see in the media. Other than that, they know little. They have no idea as to the existence and meaning of specialist roles. They do not know the full diversity of roles that exist. In their eyes, a Policeman is what they see on “The Bill” and does what a Policeman on “The Bill” does. A Doctor is as they see on “Casualty”, and so forth… Put simply, unless a member of the public has PERSONALLY come into contact with a Doctor, Nurse, Policeman, Firefighter, Lawyer, Social Worker… then he or she will only know about that profession what can be learned either by watching television, reading newspapers and magazines, or chatting to other members of the public. This information may contain myths, fallacies, and even glaring errors – but IT WILL BE BELIEVED.


    Is THAT not now the task for the Social Work profession? Heed my words!

  2. Ellie June 1, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

    Apologies for writing so much, but this additionally came to mind…

    The suggestion that Social Work cannot be portrayed positively on T.V. because “In drama you want there to be a resolution… Social Work doesn’t have easy resolutions”, as Thompson claims, is absolute and utter NONSENSE. This is somewhat worrying, coming from an alleged ex-Social Worker. Indeed, Social Work is ALL about resolutions – small and incremental resolutions that lead eventually to a larger one. Allow me to elaborate…

    Imagine a Social Worker works with a mentally ill client who refuses to take his medication, and is aggressive and abusive as a result. The fist resolution comes quite simply when the client trusts the Social Worker enough to let them into his home, and talk to them! The next resolution may come when the client finds the confidence to explain to the Social Worker why he refuses to take his medication. Another resolution comes again when the Social Worker and client work together to find an alternative treatment for the client – maybe a medication with less side-effects, or else a course of counselling. Are these NOT resolutions? How stupid to suggest that in Social Work there are none! There are LOADS.

    The problem is with that of EASY resolutions – easy in the sense of what a television soap opera requires. Let’s be blunt here – soap operas “spoon feed” the public. All the action that goes on in them is in-your-face, blatantly obvious stuff. THAT is why the emphasis is on EASY resolutions. So, a fireman saving a child from a burning building is such an obvious resolution that it IS easy – easy to spot, easy to understand and easy to digest. My point being that soaps and T.V. dramas are what people watch WHEN THEY DON’T WANT TO THINK. They watch without thinking, thus the programme must be so easy to follow, and blatantly obvious, that the viewer views almost as an automaton. Hence the fact that the public don’t tend to question the “reality” of what goes on in soaps. It’s a bit like action movies – the viewer suspends belief. Rather than questioning, the viewer simply accepts what happens as fact.

    An example… Some action movies tend to show cars going over the edge of a cliff and bursting into flames. Viewers (well, maybe with the exception of me!) do not tend to ask things like… Why did the car do that? Why did it burst into flames? How could that happen? There was NOTHING to make it ignite, so how did it explode? Instead, they just watch the car nonsensically burst into flames and ACCEPT IT!

    Ditto what goes on in soaps and T.V. dramas. For example… Social Worker takes kids off distraught single mother, and the audience just accept it happens. Some even grumble about how unfair it is. Yet they don’t stop to ask things like… WOULD that happen in real life? What evidence did the Social Worker collect to show that the mother was unfit to keep her kids? Were the kids abused? How come she is a single mother? Where is the kids’ father? Was he interviewed about the removal of the kids? Did he maybe have evidence against the mother?

    You see, in my opinion, EASY resolutions, as far as T.V. fiction is concerned are simply quick, and sometimes therefore nonsensical, actions – things that happen in the blink of an eye and that are not questioned. Things that happen for dramatic effect. THEY WOULD NOT HAPPEN LIKE THIS IN REALITY. Yet the public think they would!

    So… the claim is that Social Work portrayed on television would be difficult because it offers no easy resolutions? Nonsense! How about this for a Social Work storyline that is both positive in its portrayal of Social Work, and offers an easy resolution along the lines of those favoured by soaps…

    A family of asylum seekers turn up, say, on “Eastenders”. They have kids, and because they are seeking asylum, and the kids especially are seen as vulnerable, they have a Social Worker. The eldest kid is at Secondary School. It is noted that he is always covered in bruises, which his G.P. and even Nurses at the local Hospital question, but fail to act upon effectively. The Nurses wrongly suspect that the child’s home is abusive. However, in a final exciting twist, the child reveals to his patient and supportive Social Worker – the one professional whom he trusts, because she alone has worked to build a long term relationship with him, and she alone has been consistently working with him since the family arrived in London – that he is bruised as a result of being bullied at school because he is the only Syrian boy in his class. Talk about an easy and exciting resolution! talk about drama! Talk about portraying Social Workers positively in soaps! And you claimed it could not be done?!!

    Still, this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg in respect of the full nature of the problem, and its causes. A truly MAJOR issue is the attitude of WORKERS themselves. By this, I mean that certain people, upon becoming members of a particular profession, adopt a particularly unpleasant stance. In brief – there are some members of some professions who are by CHOICE, DELIBERATELY HOSTILE to members of other professions; even professions that may be allied to, or support, their own. For example, some Police may be hostile towards Social Workers, or Youth Workers, Judges, or Probation Workers; perhaps blaming them for not doing enough to tackle crime, or else seeing them as the source of some of the problems that also afflict policing (e.g. a policeman who blames Youth Workers for the rise in youth crime rates and associates this with Youth Workers not doing enough to help disaffected teens). Some Nurses may be hostile towards Social Workers, or Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists or Doctors (e.g. a Nurse working in a hospital ward who despises and blames Hospital Discharge Social Workers for bed blockages, and who criticizes Social Workers for not doing enough to get patients quickly out of hospital).

    Personally, I feel that there may be many more such staff with these kinds of attitudes than we care to acknowledge. I have worked amongst such staff, and have lived experience of their unpleasant and unhelpful attitudes. As a result, I have come to see that such attitudes may have various foundations; some may be based in a lack of knowledge or understanding concerning the nature of other professionals’ roles (e.g. a Nurse who dislikes Social Workers because she does not understand what they do, and thus does not see the point in them). At other times, members of one profession who have a negative attitude towards members of other professions may do so because they see these professionals as a threat to their own professional standing (e.g. a Policeman who fears and mistrusts Probation Workers because he sees their role as encroaching into his “territory”), or because they feel that they can make themselves and their role look good at the expense of others (e.g. a Doctor who feels that he can add to his air of authority and superior knowledge by belittling and demeaning Nurses). Sometimes, such attitudes are a reflection of the inner nature of the worker him- or herself.

    I married into a family where my mother-in-law was a Nurse. The WHOLE family glorify Nurses, talking about Nurses as “angels” and endlessly commenting on how wonderful Nurses are. When I began work as a Social Worker, I experienced hostility from my husband’s family, who seemed to treat Social Work as a threat to Nursing. In their eyes, Nurses were BETTER than Social Workers, because THEY had a NURSE in the family. It felt almost as though I were being seen as disloyal (perhaps I should have trained as a Nurse instead?). Speaking to my husband’s family, I got an impression of people who did NOT understand Social Work at all, but who thought of Nursing as superior to every other career choice I could have made. Why? Because my mother-in-law was a Nurse, and because somehow the fact that she was a Nurse made her feel superior. I got the impression that she saw work, and careers, as a competition – as did my brother-in-law and his wife. In their eyes, what THEY did for a living HAD to be better than what anyone else did. After I began work as a Social Worker, they made belittling and nasty comments. They spied on, and endlessly asked inappropriate questions about, my career progress – making it their business even when it was private. They compared their salaries, and personal possessions, to what I had. My brother-in-law even began making Facebook and Social Media posts that negatively described Social Workers. Other posts he made described Nurses as “angels”, and talked about how the country needed to support the NHS. Nowhere did he say that the country needed to support Social Services – even though he had a disabled child whose care came from SOCIAL WORKERS and NOT from the NHS or NURSES! In the eyes of my husband’s family members, Nursing was “the best” because my mother-in-law had been a Nurse. They identified personally with Nursing. Had my mother-in-law been a Social Worker, then I do not doubt for one second that Social Work would have been “the best”.

    The trouble with attitudes like this is that a person becomes utterly engrossed with what they personally identify with – often to the exclusion of other forms of identity. They become so blinkered as to see other identities as “enemies from without” – you might like to consider, here, another post I wrote in which I described the psychology of groups, and identification with “herd mentality”. The existence of “in groups” and “out groups” is important, as is a person’s need to identify with a given “in group”. Some people like to think that they, and they alone, are always a part of the “in group” – to the extent that they can only identify with themselves, or with things that are familiar and known to them. As a result, their personal identity and things with which they are associated with become a sort of familiar “in group” – everything else is an “out group”. In this way, even people who have different career paths to their own, or people who come from different family backgrounds, are unfamiliar entities and thus remain misunderstood and alien. Such is the level of some people’s ignorance. They do not stop to consider that, to other people, THEY are the “out group”. Indeed, each and every one of us can, at one time or another, be part of an “in group” or an “out group”. We ALL have people and groups with who we do identify, and with whom we don’t. The issue is whether we take our identification with particular groups to the extreme of becoming a be-all-and-end-all. In other words, do we act in a way that seeks to glorify OUR OWN experiences above and beyond those of others?

    People who take the above attitude into the workplace are a scourge – they are the sort of people who create and maintain a sort of “them or us” mentality in which integration of different working groups, different roles, different professional identities and workforces becomes nigh impossible. A “them or us” mentality is an automatic barrier to it. The fact is that Nurses are NOT better than Social Workers, or Police, or Doctors, Teachers or any other public sector professional. Social Workers are NOT better… Teachers are NOT better… Police are NOT better… Doctors are NOT better… NO profession is automatically better than another – AND THIS DOES NOT CHANGE JUST BECAUSE YOU, PERSONALLY, SIGN UP TO BECOME A MEMBER OF A GIVEN PROFESSION.

    The way to ensure professional integration, and better understanding – as well as to ensure that all public sector professions have an equally good public image (including in the media) – is to start from the premise that each profession is no better than any other. ALL are equal. They may perform different tasks, but these are tasks of equal value. That value is TO BE OF SERVICE AND ASSISTANCE TO THE PUBLIC. Pardon me for seeming ignorant, but I had thought THAT was the purpose of the public sector professions. each and every one performs a function which is of value to the general public, and without which the general public cannot thrive.

    Teachers teach. Policemen and women police. Social Workers do social work. Nurses nurse. Firefighters firefight… And so forth… And without workers to perform these functions society loses out. THAT is why the public sector professions exist. THAT is why they should be valued, and seen as important, and cherished, and fought for. THAT is why they should have good pay, good working conditions, equal rights, fair terms and conditions…

    THAT is what the GOVERNMENT should recognize, too. For a society in which the public sector professions are not valued, are not treated equally with respect, are not even understood is a society that devalues and disrespects people who do vital roles. People without whom society could likely not survive. WITHOUT Nurses, Doctors, Social Workers… could elderly people survive the winter, cope with heart defects, arthritis, dementia? Could disabled children continue to live safely within the community? Could mothers safely give birth to healthy children? Would surgery still continue? Would we even have health and social care? WITHOUT teachers would our children learn even basic literacy and mathematical skills? Could they survive in a society that requires them to use such skills to get work? To go shopping? WITHOUT the Police, Probation Workers, Youth Workers, Social Workers… would disaffected teens be protected from joining gangs? Would crime spiral out of control? Would things like domestic violence, honour killings, FGM and suchlike remain more hidden behind closed doors than they are now? Would they be harder to tackle?

    Ought society not to ask questions like this? Ought our Government, too, not have to ponder them? AND the answers? This is a question of what we – our society, the general public, those in power – value and hold dear.

    Workers who identify only with their own job title, and who do not attempt to understand or accept others’ roles are a dangerous breed. They sow malcontent wherever they go – especially if permitted to rise to positions of authority. Just imagine the dangers of a teacher who is also a racist. Such a person could teach racist attitudes to every student with whom they had contact. Just imagine the dangers of a teacher on a Nursing, or Medicine, or Physiotherapy course, for example, who did NOT understand or appreciate what other professions such as Social Work, or Policing did. Such a person would be in a position to pass on ALL their ignorance and associated job biases or prejudicial ideas to all of their students. Thus, a Nursing Lecturer who did not understand the role of Social Workers could spread ignorant and incorrect ideas concerning Social Work to Nursing students and so “infect” yet another generation of staff with the wrong attitude. I give this as just one example – it could happen in any profession where staff are ignorant as to other professionals’ roles and jobs. This is why I state that in my eyes it is important that allied professionals do some of their training together – perhaps as a common foundation year. So that they come to understand and appreciate just what each-other does, and to see the links between one profession and another. There is NO need whatsoever for “territoriality”.

    When it comes to how professions are portrayed on television, it is NOT acceptable to make excuses for the negative portrayal of some more than others. ALL should have equal chance to be portrayed AS THEY REALLY ARE. We need to accept reality – not fiction. ALL professions are equal, especially in the respect that sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they do not. Some staff are good, some are not. That is the nature of every profession. Why? Because professionals are HUMAN BEINGS, no matter what job they go into. Maybe it is time that society somehow grew up a little in terms of its attitudes, and put aside immature, unquestioning belief in such things as soap operas or dramas. T.V. fiction is just that – FICTION. We would be considered ridiculous of we actually BELIEVED “Harry Potter” stories were representative of reality. So, it is just as ridiculous to believe that television soaps are representative of reality.


  3. Kate Blair June 2, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    whilst not on TV there is the Radio 4 comedy series about social workers called Clare in the Community which has been broadcasting for 10 seasons now, The last episode was broadcast on 4th May and can be heard at

  4. Dave June 2, 2016 at 11:41 am #

    Well, I just want to say that whenever I have seen anything on the television (documentary or fiction)about anything I know something about, it has been WRONG! (Just look at any medical drama, for example!)

    so, no surprise to me that anything about social work is wrong also. What needs to be tackled is the general public perception that if it is on television it must be right and accurate. People should learn that if they want to know something they should read a book!

    Having said that, of course, generally it is not the desire to learn that causes people to switch on the TV, and so they also view it uncritically.

  5. Ruth Cartwright June 2, 2016 at 5:10 pm #

    During my time working for BASW, the EastEnders episode involving the snatching of baby Lola was shown. Because there was so much outrage among the profession which led to SWs contacting the BBC and writing to papers, and BASW put in an official complaint, we got quite a lot of media coverage out of it. We were able to use this to explain what SWs actually can and can’t do, so it ended up being a useful exercise. The BBC’s stance was that people don’t believe what they see on the soaps, but I think it was important that we were able to speak out. However, the BBC did have a SW advisor for EastEnders (indeed I have served as advisor for the soap Doctors in the past and various BASW staff have given one-off advice to programmes with a Social Work related episode). This SW was distressed because in lambasting the BBC we seemed to be lambasting them. Their view (which I think was fair) was that it may have been even worse without their input. They had of course said SWs could not act in this way but the drama always comes first.

    Clare in the Community (the cartoon in the Guardian as well as the radio show) is fine – Clare and her colleagues are caricatures but quite affectionately drawn and very funny.

    I think the message as far as fictional drama is concerned is that we need to be vigilant and seek to correct through letters and protests when a SW is shown doing stuff a SW could not be doing and when lazy stereotypes are employed.

    More social work documentaries would be great as they give the true story and do seem to engender public understanding and sympathy.

  6. Ellie June 3, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

    I agree in part with what Rurh says above. However, where she writes that the BBC adopt a stance in which they do not accept that the general public may believe what they see in soap operas, I feel that this ought to be questioned and challenged further.

    It is all well and good for the BBC to take such a stance – of course they would say this, because in doing so, it absolves them of any responsibility. Were it to turn out that the public DO sometimes believe what they see in soap operas, then the implications of this would be manifold. They would include a need to consider making drastic changes to the nature of soap operas that can be screened. There would also be questions as to accountability, in that those television broadcasters (e.g. BBC) who continued to screen soap operas which they knew had an adverse effect upon public opinion, and which contained scenes that deliberately depicted specific people, groups or professions in a negative fashion, could be considered accountable for negatively influencing the public. I would argue that the stance the BBC has taken has been adopted in the FULL knowledge of this. It is a defensive stance, intended to deny accountability – it places blame for how the public views things firmly with the public alone. It fails to acknowledge the fact that the PUBLIC CAN BE INFLUENCED.

    If the general public DID NOT believe things they see on television, then what would be the point of television adverts? The whole reason adverts exist is because social psychologists, marketing companies, big businesses… HAVE picked up on the fact that people take on board what they see on television, and are influenced by it. When we look at adverts, we have to admit that they are anything but truthful – they are just as much fiction as any soap opera. However, people are SO influenced by adverts that they often want, and thus buy, what they see. This happens because, to a degree, they fall for and believe the marketing tricks (which add up yet again to Psychology). Marketers KNOW that people can be influenced psychologically, and use various techniques to do this, including:

    1. False claims that can’t be proven, use of “experts”, or use of jargon, or “technical” sounding terms – They do this to bamboozle people, using the public’s own ignorance against them. This tactic is simple to put into use, and relies on the fact that the general public have only limited knowledge of many subjects. They are not experts. An example of this type of psychological manipulation would be a car manufacturer claiming that fuel consumption, performance or top speed could be improved because the car had a special type of catalytic converted, along with a patented fuel injection system and engine management system. Now, most of the public are neither mechanics, nor car salesmen, so they know little about cars. As a result, it may be very easy for them to fall into the trap of believing what the car manufacturer claims in the advert, and thus buying the car. They cannot question, or pick apart, what the car manufacturer says because they are not experts on cars. Thus, they purchase the car in the belief that the engine management system, or whatever else, does what the manufacturer says. (In truth, it may not – or it may not even exist).

    2. Herd mentality – this is where salespeople psychologically manipulate the public into buying something by playing on people’s desire to “fit in” or be “part of the crowd”. Adverts using this tactic may include lines like “Buy these new white linen jeans, everyone this summer will be wearing them. White is the colour of summer 2016”. Or lines like “Our amazing shampoo was voted the most popular hair product in a U.K. poll. Our guarantee to you is that you will be using the shampoo that most people favour.” By using this tactic, marketing people ensure that potential purchasers of their product are made to feel like they did the right thing in buying it, because “everyone else” bought it too. People don’t want to feel left out.

    3. Aspiration – the psychological manipulation of playing upon what a person would LIKE TO BE. Adverts using this tactic often show an idealized image, which the public aspire to. So, a fashionable new dress will be shown as worn by a celebrity or a supermodel. The general public see the advert, and dream of looking like the model. Some will then go out and buy the dress in the hope that it may make them look more like the model. This tactic works, because in order to stop it working, the general public would have to face the fact that they are NOT like the idealized image in the advert. Put bluntly, a size 22 woman in a short skirt will NEVER look like Naomi Campbell in a short skirt. However, when the size 22 woman buys the short skirt, she does so in the hope that it will make her look good, the way Naomi Campbell looks good. Otherwise, she would have to face the fact that she is a size 22 woman crammed into a short skirt! This tactic works simply because some people do not wish to accept the reality of their situation. They would rather aspire to the fantasy, replacing the unpleasant reality with the fantasy.

    If advertisers know that the general public can be psychologically fooled and manipulated in this way, then it makes sense to suggest that the general public are SUSCEPTIBLE. In a nutshell, they can come to believe things that are not real, and not true!

    If the general public are as susceptible as it appears, then it also makes sense to consider that they MAY actually BELIEVE fictional depictions that they see on television – including in soaps. Certainly, it is obvious that television programmes have a HUGE influence. The evidence is ALL AROUND US. Examples…

    1. Fake tan, hair extensions, breast implants and false nails have become increasingly more common as a result of the media exposure given to people like Katy Price (Jordan) and other “Glamour models”. Also because of the rise in popularity of television programmes like “TOWIE” and “Geordie Shore” in which ALL cast members (male and female) sport huge amounts of fake tan, hair extensions, and show evidence of having had cosmetic surgery. Such media exposure of people like this essentially “normalizes” fake tan usage, and so forth.

    2. Words and phrases such as “Talk to the hand” or “Wotevver”, “Selfie”, and suchlike have increasingly been used in everyday speech by people who have copied use of these words and phrases from the media (online or on television). Some words have even made it into the Dictionary. Also, some people (especially young people) copy accents and dialogue off the television. This is why we hear young people using “mockney” (fake Cockney) accents even though they DO NOT come from London (or indeed anywhere near) – they are copying what they hear on “Eastenders” or “TOWIE”. We hear some youth using fake afro-carribbean accents to try to copy rappers or “gansta” styled celebrities. Often, the people who are doing this are actually white, and middle class!

    Even cartoons and charicatures can have HUGE influence. This was the reason behind the success and popularity of television series like “Spitting Image”. It is also the reason why satirical magazines such as “Punch” and “Private Eye” sometimes use cartoons and charicatures to lambaste celebrities or, particularly, political figures.

    To suggest that the media – especially television – do NOT have influence over the general public is ignorant at best, at the worst it is thoroughly blind. Now, I do not know if this ignorance and blindness is accidental, or by design; what I do know is it is dangerous! Ruth is on the mark in suggesting that we should be vigilant when Social Workers are shown on television doing things that the do not, or could not, do; or when lazy stereotypes are used. Still, this is NOT simply an issue for the Social Work profession, and their bodies.

    The comment made by the BBC shows that television companies, broadcasters and producers are clearly turning a “blind eye” to the problem that Social Work faces in terms of its media image. Rather than accept that the sort of programming they choose to air may have influence over public opinion, it is clear that organizations such as the BBC do not seem to think the public may believe and be influenced by television programmes. This is a worrying stance for them to adopt, because such ignorance of the truth could be accidental or deliberate – irrespective, it has the same effect – that of permitting such organizations to distance themselves from any responsibility or accountability. Were we all to accept that the general public DO believe what they see on television – sometimes even soaps, and sometimes without questioning – then we would all have to take a VERY different stance. We would have to think much more about the sort of programming that it aired, and the implications of airing it. This then becomes an issue that involves questions regarding CENSORSHIP ( sometimes a dirty word when it comes to the media).

    Think on it… IF people DID NOT believe what they see, and WERE NOT affected or influenced by it, then there would be no need whatsoever for censorship of films or television programmes. The reason why censorship exists is because the viewing public CAN believe what they see, and CAN be affected or influenced by it. Violent, gory films may be subject to censorship because people are genuinely afraid when watching them. There is much research being done into whether violent video games and movies, or movies and games that contain action that relates to criminality, have a negative effect.

    Does this not suggest that people may believe what they see – even when it is FICTION? The human mind is a strange thing; far odder than many of us might conceive. We are not yet fully appraised of its workings. Maybe somebody needs to apply the Psychology here?

    You might like to see for yourselves the HUGE amount of literature that researches, and shows people DO believe what they see in television soaps, as well as believing what they read in the media. Just type the words “research papers on the impact of soap operas” into any online search engine.

    You might also like to read some of the following suggested literature, which are all articles and papers demonstrating just how seriously researchers take the issue of people believing what they see in television soaps. Some of these papers even demonstrate and evidence the fact that soap operas can be used as vehicles by which messages about social behaviours, moral codes and so forth can be transmitted subliminally to the public. Ironically, one of the articles I suggest you read was even penned with input FROM THE BBC – which kind of proves that what they claimed regarding not accepting that the public believes what they see in soaps was a lie!‘t-help-believing-everything-you-read.php

    Television and the media have HUGE influence – including dramas and soaps. It is high time the Social Work profession recognized and embraced this fact. Those members of the profession who are ignorant to such issues need to brush up their Psychology!!