Locking the stable door after the horse has bolted
There are many metaphors which are applicable in this situation. Cats that are out of bags, genies that are out of their bottles etc, etc. What the metaphors share is recognition of the futility of trying to act after this event. It is going to be very difficult to coax that angry cat back into the bag once he has made his escape. A more productive use of energy must be to consider how we now deal with our new reality; an angry cat on the loose and an empty, redundant bag.
I think this colourful metaphor has enormous force in this debate about transparency. I wonder whether the game changer that are public electronic communications networks is getting less attention than it deserves simply because many – particularly anyone born before 1970 – just don’t understand the scope, reach and impact of sites such as Facebook, Twitter etc.
Would the King family have been able to provoke such instant debate about their decisions and the hospital’s reactions without Twitter and Facebook? Clearly not. Nor would a Judge have had the option to ‘live tweet’ a hearing even ten years ago. The speed of public reaction and the dissemination of information would have been much, much slower.
Of course, there are arguments both for and against this as a ‘good’ thing. It is clear that the internet often acts as a conduit for the ill informed or the mentally unstable. A flood of ‘information’ of dubious validity does not promote debate or understanding; rather it buries it.
But debating whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when it has happened may not be the best use of our energies. Discussing the personality of the cat that you wanted to keep in a bag does not usefully address the bigger picture of what you can do now the cat is on the prowl.
Getting to the point, the impact of Facebook et al on the debate around keeping children’s information private has been massive.
In July 2014 I was alerted via Twitter to the group UK Social Services on Facebook. At the time of writing it has 5,844 members and has thus been steadily growing – from just under 5,000 when I first saw it. From what I have seen of other groups, it is not an isolated example ‘of this kind of thing’ but it is interesting and may be more unusual because it is an ‘open’ group – i.e. anyone can read the posts of its members and some of those posts explicitly state that the author wishes to do harm to a named social worker or wants advice on how to leave the country once care proceedings are started.
Also, there are frequent posts of children, in both photographs and videos, naming those children, the LA which has taken out care proceedings and the social workers involved. Many of these pictures and videos appear to remain on the site for some considerable time; some are removed more quickly. Obviously I don’t know why; if a court has imposed some injunction or the parents just thought the better of it.
However, the clear fact remains that in just a few months I have seen many images of clearly identifiable and named children who are part of care proceedings. Extrapolating from this group to the many others that exist it would not be unreasonable to think that the numbers of children thus identified and named must be in the 100s. The potential audience for that information will run into millions, all over the world.
The parents who post these images are clearly in enormous amounts of pain. They feel they have nothing to lose. What is the court going to do to ‘punish’ them for their contempt of court? They have already lost their children.
By not engaging with this new digital reality, we run a very real risk of this kind of disclosure becoming the norm by default, simply because there is so much of it in so many places. I think we urgently need to grapple with what is going on out there and for people to fully understand the true power and reach of social media. The spread of Facebook – from zero in 2006 to world domination today – has been rightly likened to a virus. I don’t think court orders can stop this. So what are we going to do?