All my working life I’ve watched my profession defend itself in the court of media opinion. When you’re starting out there is some strength gained from an excess of idealism and enthusiasm. There were more times when you felt able to dream that your work alone would demonstrate the truth. In helping the vulnerable in our communities we would illustrate inequality and public opinion would slowly change.
Within social work we all know people who are inspirational, who command respect and who can speak with clarity and understanding about what we do and why we are needed. However, over the years I’ve seen only a few who have been recognised outside of the profession on the national stage and given a balanced hearing.
Previously, during the years I was closely involved with the professional association, I saw the different levels of respect and engagement in the media with social work in other industrialised countries. I could never fully understand the reasons why this wasn’t the case in the UK. Was it that we were still in the death throes of having an empire and ruling half the world and so acknowledging mass poverty and deprivation at home was unthinkable? Could it be some residual Victorian construct, sweeping the troubled and vulnerable under the carpet and including those who support them, with vague murmuring about charities being better placed to do the work?
Was it that the evolution of media catered so much to the lowest common denominator, conditioning the public to accept simplistic explanations in comic style outlets? Or was it the seductive atmosphere of blame that sold newspapers? A public stoning was considered far more exciting than a little bit of well earned praise. In forty years I’ve still never seen a headline saying “social worker does good job”.
Communities tend to believe much of what they read in the media. With few outlets that offer true balance it’s understandable that the population, that gets most of its information from some type of media ( written, broadcast or social ), will form their opinions accordingly.
Why do we hear so few voices talking about the success stories emanating from the professionalism of the 100.000 social workers in the UK? All the good work in protecting the vulnerable seems to be hidden from the wider audience. Why so much anonymity about all the social work that’s not child protection? We have let the general media condense our profession to such a degree that the narrowest of material is what seems on display. I also believe that, for a variety of reasons, many employers confuse confidentiality with secrecy.
The voices are there. It’s just that they’re caged.
There is no reason why so much of our work cannot be talked about and explained. On a local level , perhaps the free newspapers, local commercial radio stations and a few journalists could be given interviews about success stories where people’s lives have been changed for the better.
On a national level we need to introduce the media to some of our many credible and well informed spokespeople, taking the stories to the outlets, managing the agenda more and not just playing constant defence. We need to be far more assertive.
How people communicate is changing at a rapid pace and social media has put so much more power in the hands of the people. We need to be strong participants in that changing landscape.
We’re always going to have detractors, whether driven by ideology, ignorance or superficial understanding of the world we work in. However, we also have to support the maintenance of a free press so the target we aim for is balance. This is where the work is needed.
Balance will not be awarded. It has to be earned. We need to offer more by way of education, information, planning for the year ahead and showcasing the wide variety of service that comprises social work.
Of course we have to be smart about this, offering content that will interest media outlets and their audience and challenging contemporary stories who haven’t got social work involvement correctly presented. We have to show social workers up and down the country that a more positive image in the media has a direct effect on how new families, referred to us tomorrow , can be just that bit more trusting because they’ve seen a fuller picture of social work.
It’s no good just complaining about unfairness and waiting to be given permission to be considered capable professional workers. It needs to show social workers making a difference and being proud to do so. The shop window that is represented by all forms of media needs to be full of education, examples of good practice, strong arguments and fewer apologies. There needs to be constant demonstration that the starvation of resources through austerity measures is counter productive to the health of the nation. We know the pressure points such as the rise in child poverty, the social complexities of an aging population and the gross under resourcing of mental health services to name a few. We have a workforce trained to support but with their hands tied, grossly inflated caseloads through lack of national investment and a blame culture that beggars belief there exists a paralysis of hope.
There are ways forward. We can demonstrate that skilled work brings change and improves the quality of life, which is no secret in my profession but still seems largely under some people’s carpets.
Some time ago I gave a lecture to post graduate journalists, at the end of their training, about what social workers can do and, perhaps more to the point, about what they can’t do. Some information and a starter for ten just to offer a little demystification of stories to come. Social work courses could offer reciprocal opportunities to journalists to talk of their world and chip away at some of the mythology.
The British Association of Social Workers ( BASW )is showing a commitment to look at ways of tackling the imbalance and recognises that the media is the arena where much policy and practice will be debated. I hope that they succeed in driving this forward and convincing more and more employers of the cost benefits of these initiatives.
I’ve been determined to pass on the twenty or so years of experience I’ve gained in working with the media which started with no training and almost overwhelming speed when I was elected Chair of BASW. The need for senior staff in the public sector to be prepared to manage the media in a crises is as constant as it is sad. Over the last year or so I’ve been training groups of social workers in working with the media I now plan to build on this as well. There seems no reason why some front line social workers couldn’t talk to local journalists about the thousands of good news stories that emerge from our work every week. Let the senior managers deal with the cases where practice is challenged.
There are many more good, honest journalists than not and the media has a voracious appetite for stories. With that in mind we should look at the vast amount of work we do that has no need to be confidential and let it see the light. If that happens then the court of media opinion will be better illuminated and I’ll cautiously move from hope to optimism.
This is the full version of my article in the Online Guardian 03.10.2017by