Thursday 9 June 2011

The libelling of Sylvia Henry.

For those of you who want to cast your minds back to the deeply depressing days of late 2008 and the furore following the conviction of the three individuals found guilty of causing the death of Peter Connelly, you might remember that shortly afterwards the then Sun editor Rebekah Brooks gave the Hugh Cudlipp lecture, in which she defended her paper's "campaign for justice". She certainly had no regrets:

Campaigns provide a unique connection to the public especially when the subject matter is of a serious nature. For me, nothing can illustrate this connection better than our recent Baby P campaign.

The public outcry was deafening. And we began our fight for justice with a determination to expose the lack of accountability and responsibility for Baby P’s brutal death.


We received many many thousands of letters at The Sun about our Baby P coverage.

I’d like to read you one: ‘I have never been a huge fan of The Sun, however I thank you for the coverage of Baby P. I am so grateful for the campaign. This is not a modern day witch-hunt but a petition for justice. Please, please do not relent.'

In contrast, I’d like to quote from an article in... The Guardian.

“Full of fury and repellent hysteria, but isn’t that part of the game? This is less about the creation of public emotion and more about its manipulation."

This knee-jerk tabloid kicking reaction is just dull.

But total disregard and respect for public opinion never ceases to amaze me.

They demanded accountability.

And as a result of the campaign, some, just some, of those responsible were removed from office without compensation.

Or as this Sun reader wrote: ‘The tabloid press, which the arty-farty press like to look down on so much, has shown that it prides morality over political correctness.’

Brooks is now spending most of her time as chief executive of News International trying desperately to contain the ever growing phone-hacking scandal, having first claimed with a straight face that it was all lies and that the Guardian had likely deliberately misled the British public. Even then though her approving quoting of a reader who described her campaign as "morality over political correctness" was questionable: she knew full well that her determination to target not those genuinely responsible for Peter Connelly's death, who couldn't at the time be named, but instead the social workers at the centre of the case had led to two of them becoming suicidal. Her paper's website had allowed readers to leave comments encouraging Maria Ward to take their own life, such was the hatred the paper was well aware it was helping to whip up.

Today in the High Court the Sun had to admit that its targeting of Sylvia Henry, one of the Haringey social workers who had worked on Connelly's case, was based on completely inaccurate information. Henry was one of the five individuals the paper demanded be immediately sacked for having failed to prevent Connelly's death. The paper's campaign continued even after the BBC's Panorama had disclosed that Henry had wanted Connelly taken into care in 2006, following his admission to hospital with what she suspected was non-accidental injuries. She was overruled, and had no further role in Connelly's case after that point.

The paper however was absolutely certain of her culpability. In around 80 separate pieces over four months she was described as "grossly negligent", "shameless", to "blame for his appalling abuse and death", "lazy" and that she had "generally shown an uncaring disregard for the safety of children, even in cases where they obviously required urgent protection". It really doesn't get any more potentially libellous but the paper couldn't have cared in the slightest, not only of the damage to Henry's reputation, but also of the potential danger their vituperative articles posed to her personally: both Sharon Shoesmith and Maria Ward received death threats, with Shoesmith advised to avoid tube stations in case someone recognised her and pushed her under a train.

For once, the paper's apology is about right, both in length, its clarity and hopefully also in prominence, although it will be interesting to see where it appears in tomorrow's paper. She should never have had to pursue such a lengthy libel action though: if the Sun had bothered to investigate the case anything approaching properly in the first place they would have found, like Panorama, that she had worked conscientiously and with Connelly's best interests at heart throughout. Instead it was far too concerned with painting a picture of Haringey as a whole as out of touch and unaccountable. As the paper's leader had it at the time, "a price must be paid for his little life". That price could well have been paid in blood. Morality never even began to enter into it.