The ethics of using CCTV footage – A Very Dangerous Doctor

A Very Dangerous Doctor is a Channel 4 documentary about David Southall, the controversial doctor who was struck off after “abusing his position” in accusing a mother of killing her son.

The documentary includes CCTV footage of parents smothering their children, filmed covertly as part of Southall’s research into cot deaths. The footage is incredibly distressing – the Independent rightly describe it as “among the most shocking to be shown on TV”. Many tweeted that they were switching off the 100-minute broadcast – barely five minutes in – as a result.

The documentary is an excellent piece of work, and worth watching in full – but the CCTV footage raises an old ethical issue in a new context: is it justified?

There is a wealth of literature on the ethics of war reporting: whether distressing images should be shown, and the arguments for and against.

The spread of CCTV and mobile phone footage, its accessibility and its release by police authorities and availability on YouTube, raises similar questions – whether it is footage of a woman throwing her baby on the floor, race attacks, or the death of a protestor.

What are the questions to ask when you are given such footage? What are the ethical issues to balance? And what about this specific example (the footage begins around 04’25)? I’d love to know what you think.


4 thoughts on “The ethics of using CCTV footage – A Very Dangerous Doctor

  1. Barbara Bryan

    Unless until all conversations between medical and mental health and child welfare professionals and adjunct personnel are fully taped prior to apparently bizarre incidents it is possible, and in some incidents probable, that parents were induced to “prove” their children stopped breathing or turned blue if they had not done so during limited hours in hospital. Parents frantic for medical help for unpredictably I’ll children when told that “if something doesn’t happen in the next 12 hours your child will be removed from your care” may resort to inducing “proof.”. It has not been uncommon for parents to be taught in hospital to themselves tube feed or administer meds to extremely ill children only later to find themselves charged and prosecuted for allegedly purposely blaming them for notoriously rampant infections. This time, however, covert filming by the hospital and the imaginative and emotive claim of Munchausen by Proxy seems to support diversion from the much more likely culprit. Film and tape, yes! Everyone involved and at least audiotape all? Without fail if, that is, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is sought sincerely.

  2. Steve Smith

    The video has gone from this post? Do you know where I could find it? The ethics of CCTV is something that will always be debated and there will never be just 1 school of thought on the matter. At the end of the day CCTV is only bad for those doing things they shouldn’t.

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      It may have been taken down under copyright infringement. I’m not sure I’d agree that CCTV is “only bad for those doing things they shouldn’t”, but that’s a whole other debate (summed up in a couple of points: the public cost of CCTV versus benefits; privacy vs public interest).

      1. Steve Smith

        You make a good point about the cost to the public versus the benefits, however so long as we do not become a police state then I think the public would be more than happy to pay for it if they felt like it was beneficial to their safety, even if it actually wasn’t. People like peace of mind and are willing to pay for it. What do you reckon?

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