A cautionary tale of a child’s death, free speech and the public’s right to know

I have always regarded myself as a libertarian. “Somewhat strange” I hear you say given my chosen career path. Firstly, in my defence, I didn’t choose the police service, neither did it choose me. It just happened.

Nevertheless, my long service engrained in me the notion of a fundamental right of the public to know what’s right and what’s not right. It’s usually referred to as the public interest test or “in the public interest”. Covering up – or failing to tell the whole truth to the public – is unacceptable and needs to be highlighted for all to see when it occurs.

In my time I often saw senior leaders having creative chats with lawyers and media leads on how to deal with bad news or how to project a story in a more acceptable shade of a given colour.

The death of Poppi Worthington

Recently a report in the Times newspaper about the death in 2012 of Poppi Worthington, aged just 13 months, made me utter a series of expletives, not fit to be printed, in amazement and brought it all back – those creative chats – in an instant.

While reading the piece, my professional eye hoped to find some interesting learning or identified failing that had contributed to the tragedy.

No such luck.  No learning, no good practice and no obvious outcome for the child as far as I could see. Why?

Very simple: the local authority had kept the whole case and the outcome of any investigation or serious case review to themselves.

However, it wasn’t the decision not to publish which is neither unusual or on many occasions wholly appropriate and legal. Many in the public who follow these issues believe there is still far too much reticence to publish serious case reviews on occasions, whatever the evidence suggests, but this wasn’t such an occasion.

This time the excuse used for failing to publish the report was that the “disclosure of alleged shortcomings by agencies might be unfair to the agencies!”

Challenged by the Times

I’m sorry but that just doesn’t wash and clearly the Times’ reporter who challenged it, and the reviewing judge, agreed. It will now be published and the excuse to justify not publishing has been dismissed as nonsense.

The article made me realise we still have a long way to go in recognising what public service, with the emphasis on the “public”, really means.

Using the sensitivities of those paid good salaries as a reason not to tell those who fund the salaries in an expectation of a decent service is at best flawed and at worst beyond cynical.

In a month when freedom of speech to insult the religion of others has been world news, I want to use my freedom of speech in a less provocative way by suggesting there is an absolute need for the public interest to be respected by our public service leaders when things do not go as they wish.

I argued throughout Leverson that the press needs to be unshackled and free to report. Thank goodness that’s still true.


I would add a link to the story of Poppi Worthington from the Times, but it’s a subscription newspaper only. So I’ve attached a link from the UK Press Gazette, which published a review of the case.