Justice for a hero of hidden horrors

February 24, 2006

The vilification of Sir Roy Meadow shames the medical establishment. But his legal victory gives experts hope, argues David Southall

The strident media propaganda against child protection specialists, which has been driven by a group of campaigners consisting of those who have been charged with abusing children and their mischievous advocates, ran into a problem last week. The actions of their main hate figure, Professor Sir Roy Meadow, were examined with fairness and common sense by a High Court Judge, Mr Justice Collins.

As a result, the General Medical Council's finding of serious professional misconduct against Professor Meadow was rescinded and he was reinstated to the medical register. Mr Justice Collins first made it clear that this complaint should not have been brought by the GMC. He proceeded to extend witness immunity from civil claims to disciplinary proceedings. It was not in the public interest that witnesses be prevented from giving evidence by the possibility that those adversely affected might later take proceedings against them, he concluded.

However, lest it be thought that Professor Meadow escaped on a technicality, Mr Justice Collins also deliberated on the substance of the GMC's adverse findings. He found its approach hard to accept and suggested that the view of the Fitness to Practise panel - that Professor Meadow's conduct had been fundamentally incompatible with what is expected by the public from a registered medical practitioner - "approaches the irrational".

Professor Meadow's "mistake" was to have quoted innocently and in good faith, as a small part of his expert medical opinion in a criminal trial over the sudden death of two infants from one family, a statistic published in a government-funded report by a research team that included a medical statistician and a professor of paediatric and perinatal epidemiology.

Why did the GMC, which claims that guiding doctors and protecting patients is its raison d'être , attack a man whose work over the years has saved many thousands of children around the world from extreme suffering, permanent brain damage or slow death? One possibility is that its draconian action was an overreaction to public pressure and a perceived need to redress previous failures of regulation. Perhaps, most importantly, the GMC did not understand that children, not their parents, are a paediatrician's patients.

Professor Meadow's role as a doctor with special knowledge developed over 30 years was to protect children by helping to complete the jigsaw puzzle of evidence needed to unravel many cases of child abuse. Of course, he understood that an incorrect diagnosis could damage children by depriving them of their innocent parents, and in this respect his published work and vast experience would minimise the chances of such errors.

Contrary to the ignorant comments of so many newspaper columnists - overnight experts in a field to which their quarry had dedicated a lifetime's study - Professor Meadow had spoken publicly and privately about the inappropriateness of criminal proceedings in cases where parents who ill-treated their children were stressed and unsupported, sometimes as a result of their own abusive childhoods. But in the case of adults committing clear-cut crimes of abuse against children for their own gain he, like most paediatricians, would reluctantly provide expert opinion in criminal proceedings.

Through its misunderstandings of the child protection process, egged on by the massive media campaign, the GMC not only mistreated Professor Meadow, but was at risk of making effective child protection incalculably more difficult to implement. Many professionals on the front line of recognising child abuse and initiating the protection process have become too frightened to act. It was bad enough to have a group of dangerously angry family members waging a dirty war, but to jeopardise the ability to support your own family made it too risky. Mr Justice Collins, by helping to protect such professionals from complaints channelled through official regulators, has done much to support the vital supply of expert opinion and advocacy in cases of suspected child abuse.

Professor Meadow has been one of the bravest advocates for children. In fighting this appeal at a time when he has suffered so much at the hands of the medical establishment, he has again shown himself to be a hero to all those concerned with the often hidden horrors of child abuse. The GMC should hang its head in shame at what it has done to such children and to one of the few people willing to stand up for them.

David Southall is a consultant paediatrician at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire NHS Trust who in 2004 was found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council and prohibited from practising child protection work for three years. He would want all readers of this article to know this. He writes in a personal capacity.

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