Today's extensive interview with Sharon Shoesmith in the Guardian
gives us a truly valuable insight into what it's like to be at the head of a media storm, a storm that the Sun was at the forefront of fomenting. It makes for truly appalling reading:
On November 13 the Sun demanded sackings, and vowed not to rest until it got them. If Shoesmith wouldn't go, it said, the government had to put in a new boss. "A price must be paid for his little life, and we will not rest until that price has been paid by those responsible."
It ran pictures of Shoesmith and four others, with phone numbers underneath, urging readers acquainted with them to call in. Ed Balls, the children's secretary, ordered an independent review, and Haringey council made a formal apology. Sixty-one headteachers wrote to the papers in support a couple of days later, but they were swept away by a campaign notable for the ugliness it permitted in some of its readers. The first time Shoesmith realised the size and nature of what was being unleashed against her was a call from her 89-year-old mother in Belfast, who had been told by a reporter that Shoesmith was responsible for the death of a child, and was immensely distressed. In order to avoid photographers outside her flat she had to leave for work at 6:30am and wait, at night, until neighbours told her the coast was clear. Both she and her youngest daughter received death threats, and her daughter had to be moved out of London. Her email inbox and voice messages filled with support but also with people calling her a child killer.
She began to suffer periods of uncontrollable shaking. One man called her at 5am every morning with a different suggestion for how to kill herself. Police advised her to stay away from tube platforms, because it would be so easy to push her off. She did, she admits, think of doing it herself anyway. "You do consider how to stop it all, you know. You can just walk off the end of the tube platform and stop it all and I certainly did think about that on occasion, and there was certainly another occasion in the middle of the night when I gathered up all the paracetamol that existed in the house and there was nothing like enough." Her daughters moved in to be with her day and night.
The one time she does cry is when she thinks of Maria Ward, the social worker, being the subject of a similar campaign, and becoming unable to operate; she was eventually moved away for her own safety. Even uninvolved Haringey social workers were reporting that they were finding it suddenly more difficult and frightening to do their jobs, because clients were refusing to co-operate, or being abusive. On 18 November the Sun quoted an anonymous Shoesmith family member saying they wanted her to go; she says this was completely untrue, but she knew it was a turning point. "Whatever that report said, there was only one route for me."
We already knew that Maria Ward, the social worker assigned to Baby P, had been so traumatised by his death and then the press campaign against her that she had become suicidal
; that Shoesmith also contemplated in detail and even went as far as gathering together paracetamol for an attempt on her own life is even more disturbing. Despite knowing full well what its hysterical coverage of the case was doing, with the comments below the story about Ward's suicidal mindset being full of readers encouraging her to do it, the Sun only later closed down the comments and did nothing whatsoever to tone down its coverage.
The Sun of course knew that this was almost certainly what would happen when it demanded the sacking of all those involved, that readers would inevitably escalate things further, and that the use of language such as "a price to be paid for his little life" was the equivalent of a red rag to a bull. This shocking disregard for the well-being of those involved who were already scarred by their failure to save the life of a child in their care is however typical of the tabloid attitude towards those they chose to target; the irony is that while protesting about the death of a baby which could have been prevented they were potentially putting the lives of the others involved in jeopardy. The impact on the victims is always an alien concept, something which is neither their fault or anything to do with them. All that matters to them is their sales and their pandering to the lowest common denominator.
When Dr David Kelly committed suicide after being exposed as the source for Andrew Gilligan's infamous "sexing up" story on the Today programme, newspapers quite rightly accused the government of potentially having blood on their hands. The press however has a far worse record when it comes to instigating hate, as campaigns on paedophiles and other controversial subjects down the year have shown. Most notoriously, Stephen Ward
killed himself after he became embroiled in the Profumo affair, prosecuted for living off immoral earnings when he had done no such thing, described by Roy Greenslade in his history of the British press post-1945
as the biggest non-story of all time. It is only by luck rather than judgement that the press did in this instance not take further lives after their demands for reparations for the one those targeted failed to protect.