Magazine article The Spectator

In Defence of David Southall

Magazine article The Spectator

In Defence of David Southall

Article excerpt

One of life's difficulties, I have found, is that it keeps throwing up questions to which there is no indubitably correct answer.

This means that the exercise of judgment is perennially necessary: and there is hardly a moment's respite from this burdensome imperative. Alas, where there is judgment there is error, or the possibility of error. No one can be right all the time.

Of nothing is this truer than the vexed question of child abuse. Not to see it where it exists has terrible consequences for the child; to see it where it does not exist has terrible consequences for the parents or the others accused of it.

I have seen incontrovertible evidence of things done to children so terrible that, though no babe-in-the-wood when it comes to the human capacity for evil (having travelled through several countries in the throes of murderous civil wars), I should not previously have thought it possible for people to do them in conditions of peace and prosperity.

On the other hand, I am aware of how easy it is to make false allegations. Rare metabolic conditions may mimic factitious disease; there is even a very rare skin condition that gives lesions that are extremely difficult to distinguish from cigarette burns, which are a common form of abuse. Moreover, it has to be remembered that evidence of abuse does not by itself make any particular person guilty of it.

The subject of child abuse arouses deep passions, as two prominent British paediatricians, Professor David Southall and Professor Sir Roy Meadow, know to their cost. Both are the object of hatred of an exceptionally virulent and almost uncontrolled kind, far worse than if they had actually decimated the countryside or poisoned the wells.

Professor Southall first became the object of hatred when he videoed mothers suffocating babies who had had repeated apnoeic attacks (episodes when breathing stops momentarily) without any inherent physiological or pathological cause. He did this before the average Briton was videoed 300 times a day as he went about his business, that is to say in the days when filming people without their knowledge or approval seemed to be an intrusion of their privacy. However, most people believe that, in this case, the end did justify the means.

There is strong evidence that Professor Southall, a man with a worldwide reputation, has been the victim of a concerted campaign of vilification and even persecution, to which the General Medical Council may have been the unwitting accomplice. As a recent article in the British Medical Journal pointed out, the GMC has received a torrent of vexatious complaints against him, many from persons whose children he had never treated. It has preferred the evidence of a complainant about what was said on a distant occasion to the evidence of Professor Southall himself and that of a social worker also present at the time, and struck him off notwithstanding that the standard of proof necessary to do so was that of being beyond reasonable doubt.

According to the BMJ, the GMC, in two previous proceedings against him, has disregarded conflict of interest among both the prosecution witnesses and the prosecution lawyers; and finally it has taken 11 years to find that he (and two other paediatricians) had no case to answer in a complaint brought against them regarding a clinical trial that they had conducted.

Eleven years to find that there was no case to answer! Admittedly, the GMC's task was not made easier by the almost kaleidoscopic nature of the allegations made against Professor Southall; but, again according to the BMJ, there is evidence that the GMC was far too friendly to, and almost in collusion with, the complainants. This is very damaging when a body acts both as judge and jury, the very opposite of natural justice and more like the proceedings of a Star Chamber.

The case of Sir Roy Meadow is even better known than that of Professor Southall. It was the infamous statistic of one in 73,000,000 that got him into trouble. …

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