GMC finds paediatrician guilty of abusing his position

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 17 June 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:1455
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    The General Medical Council ruled this week that the evidence against paediatrician David Southall was “not insufficient” to support a finding of serious professional misconduct, which in lay parlance amounts to a finding of guilt.

    The council's professional conduct committee adjourned until August, when it will hear pleas in mitigation and decide whether or not to strike him off the medical register.

    The case against Professor Southall of North Staffordshire Hospital centred on allegations that he accused a father of murdering his child solely on the basis of having seen the father interviewed in a television documentary.

    Professor Dennis McDevitt, chairman of the GMC's professional conduct committee, said that Professor Southall had abused his position. The committee ruled that Professor Southall's actions were “inappropriate,” “irresponsible,” and “misleading.”

    Professor Southall became convinced of the guilt of Stephen Clark—the husband of Sally Clark, who was in prison for the murder of two of her children—after seeing an interview with Mr Clark on the Channel 4 documentary Dispatches in April 2000. In the programme, Mr Clark described a nosebleed his son Christopher had in a London hotel room in 1996.

    The police believed that Sally Clark had partially smothered Christopher earlier that day, before leaving the hotel room. But Professor Southall told the GMC that in his experience nosebleeds invariably occur at the time of smothering, not later. He therefore concluded that Mr Clark must have smothered Christopher that day and was presumably responsible for the child's death 10 days later.

    Sally Clark was still in prison when Professor Southall told police of his concerns about her husband. After interviewing the paediatrician, detectives decided not to pursue the allegations.

    In an exchange during the hearing, GMC counsel Richard Tyson asked Professor Southall if he still believed Mr Clark murdered the two boys. After a pause, the paediatrician answered “Yes.”

    He said that the police had never adequately proved that Mr Clark was really at a Christmas party when Christopher died at home in 1996. “I felt that notwithstanding the considerable time that had elapsed, the police should in my opinion have looked much harder into the issue of when Sally was supposed to have been alone in the first baby's death, by talking to the people who had been with Mr Clark at the party.”

    When Mr Tyson suggested that it was astonishing to intervene in the case on the basis of watching a television programme, Professor Southall said: “It's not astonishing to me. It's based on my years of research and investigation.”

    He said he had a duty to use his “fairly unique, if not unique” knowledge of such cases to protect the Clarks' surviving child. “My role was concern for the safety of the baby. I don't want you to go away thinking my main objective was to accuse Mr Clark of something.

    “If I hadn't done what I did, I think that would have been a hidden abuse of my professional responsibility,” he told the tribunal. He said he was not relying on hearsay from television journalists, but on Mr Clark's own words in the programme.

    Professor McDevitt questioned research carried out by Professor Southall in 1997 into the relation between children having nosebleeds and suffocation attempts, which he suggested was based on a very small study “without an adequate control.”

    Nobody disputed that Professor Southall should have told the authorities of his concerns that Mr Clark could be the killer, he said, but “everything beyond that seems to be a quantum leap. You have had to concoct stories in your own mind to make Mr Clark pivotal to everything after without, as far as I can understand, any evidence to support these theories at all.”

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