On Panorama last night we saw disturbing evidence of the facts surrounding the case of the notorious paediatrician Professor David Southall who, judging from the evidence uncovered in last night’s programme, has been the target of hate campaigns and what amounted to a media stoning amid a frenzy of accusations from vengeful parents, and it’s cost him his job and his reputation.
And if the evidence produced by Panorama is to be believed – and let’s face it, they aren’t known for telling porkies – then Southall has been the victim of a witch hunt; even some of his colleagues and the General Medical Council have effectively ignored evidence that would’ve vindicated him while others have actively contrived to produce damning evidence of him… But why would they do such a thing?
Well, one might argue that given the tidal wave of public hatred for Southall at the time, and amidst the very emotive issues that were also rife at the time regarding doctors falsely accusing parents of child abuse, they didn’t want to be seen to be ‘closing ranks’ and Southall was therefore made a scapegoat when paediatricians in particular were hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
In a BBC article regarding the programme, it’s said of Southall, “David Southall is, depending on the point of view, either one of Britain’s most hated and dangerous doctors – or one of its most dedicated protectors of vulnerable children.”
You may best recall Southall from the time that he hit the headlines by allegedly accusing Stephen Clark – husband of the then imprisoned Sally Clark – of being the person responsible for the deaths of two of their children for which Sally had been imprisoned.
She was later released after the evidence on which she was convicted, from Professor Sir Roy Meadow, was found to be flawed and incorrect. She sadly died in 2007 as a result of alcohol abuse which her family claim came about due to her inability to get over the horror of losing her children and subsequently being wrongly jailed for their murder.
Stephen Clark had described in a TV interview how he’d been in a room with one of his babies and had seen blood running from the child’s nostrils and into his mouth, choking him. At the time, Stephen was telling this story to the media in an attempt to demonstrate his wife’s innocence, however, Dr Southall knew this symptom all too well. He is one of the world’s leading experts on child suffocation and he felt compelled to inform the police that what Mr Clark had described could be the after effects of a suffocation attempt.
He did this anonymously, but later, when a colleague, Professor Tim David, asked him for details of the events surrounding his reporting of the incident, he emailed David with his opinion of what may have happened. As he told Panorama’s reporter Vivian White, that email communication was never meant to be seen by anyone but the doctor with whom he was communicating. It wasn’t a court prepared document, it was an opinion, however, the doctor in question used that email ‘against’ Southall and he was subsequently struck off the medical register and publically disgraced.
However, David Southall told Vivian White that he has “no regrets” and that the hate campaign against him is the price he’s paying for observing his duty to protect children. Speaking specifically about the Clark case, Southall said, “Nowhere on my list of choices was ‘do nothing’
“I didn’t make it public, I went through a confidential route, namely the Child Protection Division of the police.”
But it’s not only the case regarding the Clark family that’s brought him before a GMC panel; there was also a case in which he was accused of basically hounding a mother regarding the death of her 10 year old son by hanging.
We heard how this child’s mother – Mandy Morris – told the press and the GMC that Southall had accused her of murdering her son and had bombarded her with allegations of exactly how she’d done so, but a social worker who was present during that interview could’ve exonerated Southall because she reported that no such conversation ever took place. The GMC chose not to even hear her evidence.
Many of his peers agree that the GMC’s handling of Professor Southall’s case has been seriously flawed. One doctor, Wendy Savage, suggested he was indeed the victim of a witch hunt and the medical journal The Lancet described his being struck off as “incomprehensible” in the context of the total lack of supporting evidence against him. In addition was the issue of the alleged “conflict of interest” pertaining to the medical expert – Professor Tim David – who was called in by the GMC to give supposedly independent and non-biased evidence.
It was Professor David who, as I mentioned earlier, had instigated the email communication with Southall over the Clark case, clearly with the intention of using that email against Southall, and he’d also previously and publically condemned Southall and his work, so he was by no means a disinterested party, yet his evidence was deemed as acceptable by the GMC.
We heard too how several women – supported by internet groups and forums – have effectively and intentionally made Southall’s life a living hell. One of those women is Sharon Payne who at one time was suspected of having the mental illness Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, also known as Fabricated or Induced Illness. Adults with the condition may induce or exaggerate illness in children to attract attention to themselves.
Speaking to White about Professor Southall, Mrs Payne said, “That’s one doctor that shouldn’t be practising medicine as far as I’m concerned.” However, Southall had nothing to do with her case personally but the doctor who originally diagnosed Payne with this syndrome did so as a result of a paper written by Southall on the syndrome, so she firmly blames Southall for her own wrong diagnosis.
Mrs Payne was separated from her child for 12 weeks because of these suspicions and although it was subsequently decided she didn’t have this condition, she, along with other parents, became part of a powerful and determined campaign group who focused primarily on Southall.
Accusations made by this group included accusing Southall of killing babies during a clinical experiment and they bombarded his NHS employers with complaints in a bid to drive him out of his job. These campaigners helped to ensure that theirs were a considerable number of the more than 40 complaints that were filed with the GMC about Southall.
For more than 20 years, Dr Southall specialised in treating infants with breathing difficulties and during that time, he began to suspect that some of the children he was seeing with unexplained symptoms had been intentionally suffocated. He obtained permission to begin secretly filming, in hospital, parents who were already suspected of abuse with their children.
This took place first at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London and later at the North Staffordshire Hospital in Stoke and covert surveillance of the hospital rooms some of these children uncovered a series of shocking incidences of child abuse ranging from breaking a baby’s arm to suffocation attempts. Because of the filming, staff were able to intervene and the lives of those babies were saved. This covert filming has since been banned due to civil rights and liberties issues, so we’ll never know if many parents who are accused of harming their children in a hospital setting actually do so and children may die as a result.
However, despite all the evidence that Panorama presented last night which would exonerate Southall of any wrong doing, the GMC told Panorama that all of its dealings with David Southall “have been fair and properly conducted” and that its most recent finding had been upheld by a higher court. It also disputed claims that its handling of the Southall case has in any way deterred doctors from entering the field of child protection or reporting evidence of abuse.
Despite the massive amount of criticism levelled at David Southall, he does have many supporters and a number of his peers who work in child protection emphasised that he had a professional duty to intervene in each and every case that he’d been called to answer to the GMC over.
Footage of the GMC’s Deputy Chief Executive, Paul Philip, was shown in last night’s programme and he said, “The vast majority of doctors in this country do an excellent job often under difficult circumstances, this includes paediatricians engaged in essential child protection work.
“But where our standards have not been met we must and we will act to protect patients and to protect the public interest.”
He didn’t add “and our media image” but based on the evidence of this programme, he may as well have.
It seems clear that Southall has been made to suffer at the hands of parents who’ve been wrongly accused of abusing their children but many of them, as in the case of Sharon Payne, had never had direct contact with Southall but blame him nonetheless because of his extensive research into – and knowledge of – child abuse.
And as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, if Panorama’s evidence is to be believed, this is a man who’s dedicated his life to the protection of children and has ultimately been made a scapegoat and whipping boy because of the wrong diagnoses made by others and himself – he freely admitted he doesn’t always get it right but he does err on the side of caution rather than put a child at risk. His pioneering work has saved probably thousands of children’s lives but the animosity of a handful of parents has brought this man down and seriously damaged the process of child protection.
One woman, Penny Mellor, even accused him of being akin to Joseph Mengele and she’s made it her business to take her vendetta about Southall as far as she can. She was even imprisoned for her part in helping a parent suspected of abusing their child to go into hiding, therefore placing that child at considerable risk. It seems that if Southall says it’s day, this group of vengeful parents, Mellor, Payne and Morris included, will say it’s night, and do whatever it takes to make the world believe them.
Many doctors are now afraid of accusing a parent of abuse because of what’s happened to Southall so of course, one has to wonder how many children are being hurt or dying because of physicians’ fears about coming forward with their concerns?
Dr Southall, who admits that he can be “awkward and obstinate,” remains unapologetic and plans to fight on in his battle to regain his professional status and based on what we heard last night, I hope for the sake of child protection as a whole, that he achieves his goal.