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Keep Calm and Carry on. Or Why BASW Must Stop Escalating Fears and Anxieties

July 27, 2013

I have been a member of BASW (the British Association of Social Workers) for years. I haven’t always agreed with everything they have done: the much-publicised fall-out with the College of Social Work in England did BASW, and the social work profession, no favours. But I held in there, believing that social work needs a member organisation; one that can – and does – fight to promote the interests of social workers and social work service users across the UK.

So why am I prepared to risk alienating all my BASW friends and colleagues now? I am doing so because I am concerned that some of BASW’s activities (like the activities of other well-meaning campaigning organisations) may at times do more harm than good; they may actually make things more difficult for social workers and service users by escalating fears and anxieties and by contributing to a general climate of mistrust, suspicion and risk. We can see this demonstrated in a number of recent high profile causes celebre, including child trafficking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and internet pornography. I am not suggesting for a moment that these are not serious personal and societal issues that we must engage with. On the contrary, it is because of their seriousness that we need to find a way of talking about them that doesn’t rely on easy slogans (‘we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg’) and quick-fix solutions (‘more training is needed’).

An example of what I am talking came my way early this morning, thanks to a link from a fellow tweeter on Twitter. Here I read that a ‘news story’ on the BBC website, headlined ‘Social Workers Raise Online Grooming Fears’, reported on a survey, conducted by BASW, of social workers’ views about the internet and child protection, which asked about social workers’ confidence in dealing with issues around the internet and child protection (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23471982). Following up the link, I found that the news story, far from being a neutral presentation of credible research evidence, used the same stylistic devices and linquistic techniques that Gary Clapton and I have written about in a recent study of the press releases of child welfare and protection agencies (our paper has been submitted to a journal and is currently under review).

The BBC news story demonstrated four areas that we are concerned about:

  • The use of ‘hyped up’ language: the BBC news story states that social workers ‘desperately need training’. And the evidence for this call? 74% of social workers ‘wanted more support’ (‘support’ is not, of course, the same as ‘training’, though training may be a part of support) and ‘half felt concerned about dealing with online sexual abuse or behaviour’ (suggesting that half were not concerned in this way? This is clearly very different to the impression created in the headline, ‘social workers raise online grooming fears’).
  • The use of statistics: The article is full of percentages that are presented as evidence of the overall position that there is a problem and that something needs to be done about it. In each case, however, these figures can be turned around to suggest that things may not be as simple as this. For example, we are told that ‘17% did not know how to assess the risks’ (does this imply that 83% did?); ‘20% didn’t know the warning signs’ (again, 80% did?); ‘more than a third didn’t know the questions to ask’ (so two-thirds did?).  A ‘glass half empty’ approach always leads to pessimistic results. Not only this, attention my be drawn away from some of the more difficult issues (including the reality that there may be no easy answers).
  • The use of direct quotations: BASW’s Nushra Mansuri is quoted as saying that ‘the number of cases in which the internet plays a part in the grooming and abuse of children is rising’. There is no research evidence to back up this claim.  Moreover, a quotation that follows, from a social worker ‘who wishes to remain anonymous’, reads as if it were written by a Press Officer, not a social worker. It states:

‘I have worked with a young girl (why is it always a girl? How old was she? What else was going on in her life at the time?) who experienced horrendous sexual and violent threats (note the hyped up language here) via her mobile phone and … it was difficult to know how best to proceed’ (what has been edited out in the ‘….’ in this extract?).

  • A solution is presented at the end of the news item. We are told that BASW and NSPCC have developed an online training guide; there is a direct link to the NSPCC site making it easy for social workers to express interest in the programme, due to be rolled out in September. NSPCC’s Chief Executive, Peter Wanless, finishes by again reminding us why it is vital that social workers undergo this training.

Reflecting on the news story overall, what concerns me most is that it is dishonest: it is actually a ‘plug’ for a BASW/NSPCC training package, but it pretends to be something else.  This isn’t to suggest that training in use of the internet isn’t a good idea – it might be. But the research that the article discusses could have made for a much more interesting news item. Through this, we get some insight into the complex and mixed feelings that social workers have about the internet, which has, after all, changed all of our lives, for good and ill. The lack of discussion of this is disappointing, because it is a missed opportunity to open up spaces for discussion and analysis. Moreover, the presentation of ‘the internet as threat’ can only increase social workers’ anxiety about their work and their lives, thus adding to the general atmosphere of moral panic that we are currently experiencing around sex, young people and the internet. (I discuss this in my last blog, ‘Policing Sex’: Social Work, Sex and Young People.)

As the UK government is in the midst of an attempt to control our lives through censorship in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past, I believe that we must all – the BBC, BASW and social workers – try harder to bring a little sense and a lot more care to the issues that concern us most.

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