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Posts Tagged ‘Baby P

Codenames

Posted on: March 22, 2009

The fashion of conferring upon children, who cannot be named by the media for legal reasons, codenames like Baby P or Baby OT, strikes me as bizarre.

Whatever happened to the standard line, “[insert the baby/infant/child/teenager/age of youngster here] who cannot be named for legal reasons”?

I imagine that these kids are given these codenames in court, so lawyers and judges can refer to them specifically, rather than describing them by their age or as a member of an age group.

But why has the media decided to use the same language as the courts? At least the standard line makes it clear that it is the legal system which has prevented them from naming names.

Perhaps journalists find it easier to construct sentences when they have more than one way of describing the subject.

Maybe it’s a good way of labelling the story, making it easier to search for online and easier to refer to (like the suffix -gate which is commonly attached to crises and gaffes).

The codenames, which tend to consist of one or two letters, depersonalise the children, aligning them with well-catalogued library books, making it seem that they are just one of many codenamed children who have been in a similar situation.

However, by juxtaposing emotive images and details of the story with a cold one-letter moniker, the impact the words have on readers can be heightened.

Indeed, with the high-profile Baby P case, and the Baby A case in Doncaster, a wave of people have said that they dislike the use of the codenames because they robbed the children in question of dignity and individuality.

I think the media has been tricked into thinking that giving these children codenames is the best way describe them, because this is how the law describes them. Codenames seem discrete and accurate, and appear to nail the subject down like names do.

In reality, codenames are jargon. They obscure the identity of the child and make his or her plight seem the product of a callous conveyor belt system – as if Baby P was preceded by Baby O, and will be followed by Baby Q…

The Guardian has bagged the first interview with Sharon Shoesmith: ex-head of childrens’ services at Haringey borough council, focal point of public and media attention over the death of Baby P .

Read the interview (click!)

Listen to the interview (click!)

The Times on the Baby P case (click!)

I was surprised by the strange blend of naivety and unswerving professionalism that is to be found in Shoesmith. Despite holding a position of responsibility and being reasonably experienced in her role, she repeatedly emphasises her shock at how fast and how viciously the the fallout of Baby P’s death ballooned into a grotesque circus of media outrage.  She also mentions that she didn’t anticipate that the case would be used as ammunition by political parties.

However, she insists that at Haringey all the right boxes were ticked and all the correct procedures were followed, before and after the death of Baby P. Nonetheless, Baby P slipped through the net, and a subsequent independent Ofsted report revealed some worrying things about the running of Haringey childrens’ services.

Hearing things from her perspective, you get a sense of the huge gulf that must have existed between the narrative being expertly woven by Baby P’s carers, perhaps in collaboration, unconsciously or not, with social workers, doctors and nurses; and the truth.

That is what makes people angry, I think – when helplessness oozes from the people who should have been taking charge. Ultimately, it was Baby P’s mother, her boyfriend and a lodger who were convicted of the crime of murdering Baby P, but the thought that Baby P could have survived, if only somebody working with him and his mother had done something differently, will taunt us for a long time.

Despite attempting to take practical action in the aftermath of Baby P’s death, Shoesmith couldn’t do enough to save her job. She was eventually dismissed, ‘squashed between the press and politics’, as she describes it.

I think it’s easy to forget that people in positions of power, like Sharon Shoesmith, are human. It is not hard to criticise the organisations and professionals culpable in Baby P’s death, but that criticism quickly became personal, as it is wont to do when emotionally charged cases are brought to light by the media. People’s desire to understand what had happened became the thirst for a scapegoat.

Sharon Shoesmith comes across, most of all, as a person trying (and failing) to deal with a nightmare professional scenario. In many ways she seems detached from the case. The buck stopped with her – ultimately Baby P was her services’ responsibility, and therefore her responsibility – but her description of events leading up to the child’s death is littered with references to other organisations and peppered with phrases like ‘they must have done this’, and ‘I suppose they thought that’.

Her council’s response after Baby P’s death was better, more focused and sure of itself, but nonetheless mistakes were made. Haringey failed to get its point across successfully in the media and to members of the public. Perhaps if she had allowed herself to step out of the council bubble and become more aware of how the man in the street perceived the Baby P case, she might have weathered the storm better, but as soon as that damning Ofsted report was published, it was inevitable that her head would roll.