Media: Are the kids really all right?

Programmes showing children in deprived conditions are always controversial. How do film-makers ensure they are not guilty of exploitation?
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IN JANUARY the BBC will screen a series of programmes showing children in care who are seeking adoptive parents. Unsurprisingly the series, called A Family Of My Own, has attracted the interest of the tabloid press - much of it critical of the BBC for exposing children to a situation rather like "appeals for homes for dogs or cats where hundreds of people write in because one looks particularly cute".

Phil Harding, the Corporation's controller of editorial policy, is not pleased by the reaction. "I'm shocked by some of the publicity and press coverage," he says. "I suspect much of it has been done by people who don't appreciate the care that has gone into the making of the series."

He has a point. Broadcasters are not, in the main, careless about their treatment of children in programmes. In fact, they generally put a good deal of effort into weighing up the ethical issues and moral responsibilities that arise when serious factual programmes deal with children - and there have been plenty of these lately, including the BBC's Eyes Of A Child about child poverty in Britain, and Channel 4's controversial Staying Lost, about children living on the streets.

Both the Independent Television Commission and the BBC's own guidelines lay down strict rules about dealing with children. But, in practice, producers and editors often find themselves exercising a duty of care in difficult situations which simple rules cannot anticipate.

When making A Family Of My Own, says Harding, the BBC dealt with 51 adoption agencies and numerous social services departments. "Fifty thousand children are in care at any one time, and 10,000 of those are available for adoption. Far fewer people are coming forward than before, and we felt a need to diffuse the myths that convince people that they are too old, not fit enough or not rich enough to adopt a child... The most important thing was the tone of the programmes - which should not be in any shape or form exploitative."

The children were consulted in detail about whether they wanted to be part of the programme, and will be shown the finished product pre-transmission. The basic rule about putting children on television is that parental, guardian or social services consent is needed, as well as the consent of the child. But children may, in effect, be in nobody's care or, says Harding, "sometimes you can get all the consents in the world. You can talk to the children, to the parents - and still society might ask whether it is really in the best interests of the child to be in the programme."

Channel 4's head of news and current affairs, David Lloyd, says of Staying Lost: "There were lots of rapids to negotiate. People don't realise that we didn't simply start filming with every child that we came across. We refined out those who were clearly exhibitionists and unlikely to deliver anything honest, as well as those not robust enough to participate over time."

During filming, the programme-makers ran into the classic dilemma with children. They wanted to tell the children's story, but that story included the fact that they were, in effect, out of the control of the social services who were supposed to have responsibility for them. In the case of Nottingham social services, the authorities tried unsuccessfully to injunct the programme.

"The way we approached it," says Lloyd, "was to ensure that we had the continuing consents of the children, that they were involved at every stage. The children did have concerns along the way. They were dealt with, and there was never any pressure to consolidate their consent." Most important, it was put to the children that they would be seen by an audience of millions at a time when their life was at a low point, that they had to think not only about whether they wanted to be seen now, but whether in a few years time they would still be happy with their decision.

Broadcasters also tend to put their most trusted producers in charge of such programmes. Because in the end, the programme-maker rather than the parent or the child, has to take responsibility for putting children on screen.