My relationship to television changed four years ago when I saw an instance of institutionalised savagery in mainland China in a documentary on "dying rooms", where Chinese care workers put to die the children they no longer want to look after. They are cast into darkness where lonely, sick and starving, their lives end, alone, unremembered and unmourned.
The Dying Rooms was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1995 and has been seen by over 100 million people in over 40 countries. Wherever it was shown it created a whirlwind of outrage. Four years later China's orphanages are beginning to deliver proper humanitarian care.
Television has been called the most powerful medium ever, but not until the public's response to these documentaries did I realise the extent to which it could harness compassion. For this reason, my colleague Brian Woods and I turned our attention to our own backyard with Eyes Of A Child.
It has been a grim journey. We met children surviving in an unseen world of poverty, neglect, abuse and hopelessness. We were sucked into a silent, chaotic world of children cut off from the Britain most of us take for granted. Some are excluded from school, some can't be bothered to go, some are playing with drugs, some are battered, some end up dead.
To get access to this world was not easy. People in Britain are suspicious of film-makers. It was assumed we had some hidden agenda. Hopefully, the film will stand as evidence of our intentions - to make a plea to change a society betraying those children most in need of its support.
I look at the kids we've filmed and, young as they are, their minds are wise beyond their years. Their sensitivities have been blunted by neglect and, for some, abuse. Many have never known love, only rejection. We are all guilty of rejecting these troubled, troublesome children. The truth is they're just kids, hiding behind an aggressive front to protect them from the rejection and violence they've learned to live with.
A defining moment was on an estate in Sheffield. A man told me he'd rescued his niece, Kelly, from a violent home and although he had almost no money, he could offer her a place to live where no one would hit her. He asked me to help her by showing their miserable life, to show how difficult it is to come good through an upbringing on an estate like this. He told me his life had been a cycle of drugs and stealing. He knew he could only provide her with a non-violent home, he couldn't help her up, because he was on the same level. He hoped that by showing the imprisonment of the cycle of poverty, someone would rescue Kelly. Soon after, they disappeared. One of his acquaintances came out of prison with a grudge to settle. They moved: we don't know where to.
To point a camera at an unhappy child is only the first part of our work. Our ultimate aim is to bring pressure on the Government. Blair's administration has made greater steps than the Conservatives'. Schemes like Sure Start and Working Family Tax Credits will improve the lives of the kids we met. But unless they get more help, they will fall ever deeper into misery. Their petty thieving could lead to serious larceny and murder. The violence inflicted upon them will breed greater violence. Eventually they'll reproduce the same betrayed children. And so the cycle is reborn.
A few pounds spent today giving these kids a childhood will save millions that will have to be spent on policing, prisons, benefit and the health service in the future.
Films like Eyes Of A Child probably don't get made often because getting access to the children is so difficult. In a year, when New Labour brings in laws to protect children from the media, making a film like this will probably be impossible. So I hope this film will draw attention to the 5 million or so kids in the country desperate for the voice they need to emerge from the shadowlands of Britain.
'This is pure voyeurism,' says DEBORAH ORR
It would be wrong to suggest that Eyes Of A Child is not a good or interesting film. But this documentary made me feel angry and not for quite the reasons that the film-makers may have been hoping. At its beginning we are urged by Prime Minister Tony Blair to "Look at our country through the eyes of the child growing up today - more violence, drugs, families breaking down, the old moral order under strain. I want for my children the Britain you want for yours."
These words, spoken a year ago, are the words which prompted the BBC to commission this feature- length film, travelling the country to find families who are "socially excluded" and to talk primarily to the children of these families.
From Blair's speech, of course, comes the title of the film. But the title is fraudulent, as any such title must be. We do not see through the eyes of these children but through the eyes of the makers of the film, Kate Blewett and Brian Woods. And while their eyes see the sort of deprivation that's always existed in Britain - now in these days of economic affluence more repugnant than ever - the film they have made is lacking in any exploration of how the plight of such children - and their parents - might be alleviated.This is what makes the film smack of propaganda. It is not a plea to make the Government change its policies, so we must assume that if this film has a wider remit than mere documentation - it is to educate people about the fact that such children, such people exist.
But surely we know this already, because over the past 20 years we have evolved a social system that is designed not to help the underclass - far from it - but to contain them in situations in which they will not encroach on more privileged children.
We are told that under New Labour, this will change, and indeed there have been policy decisions which were designed to help a little. Eyes Of A Child contains no analysis of whether or not these moves have been understood by those in need - and how could it really, because the 90- minute film confines itself to interviewing children as young as five?
Which brings us to the crux of the problem. When do these people stop being children, the objects of our invited sympathy - from these film- makers and from Government - and start being adults, responsible for their own filth, lawlessness, inability, addictions? Will they, when they have children of their own, be the ones to blame for? For while the film does recognise, in its final voiceover, that these people are part of a cycle of deprivation, it does not appear to acknowledge that the parents of these children are no more to blame than their "troubled and troubling" offspring.
And it is this that is the most upsetting thing about this film. If it is a campaigning film, its campaign is very much an emotive one. These children cannot be helped unless their parents are helped. Either the film-makers do not realise that, or they choose to gloss over it.
This film does not succeed in challenging either the Government or the electorate. Instead it cites Blair as its inspiration. This makes me remember the day, in the run-up to the last election, when all my hopes for the New Labour project curdled. This was when Blair revealed three large primary- coloured billboards. The first pledge was "We will not raise taxes". Under such fiscal limitations not much can be done to ease a problem of this scale and intensity. The second poster said "Young offenders will be punished". While the film, which is peppered with gobbets of hard-hitting but well-known facts, states that Britain locks up more children than any other country in Europe, it does not point out that this is a central plank of Government policy.
The third was "Education, education, education". The film again points out that 600 children each day become excluded from school. And while it is obvious that exam-based education is the last thing these stressed- out children need, there is no critique of a system which is almost designed to root out those who, for whatever reason, cannot in their present circumstances, achieve.
Whether or not it was necessary to expose the already difficult lives of these children to such minute media scrutiny is perhaps now not a moral question but instead a question of television trends. For there can be no doubt that Eyes Of A Child is a "post docusoap" documentary, and that in both style and content it is open to accusations of voyeurism. The only hope is that those who view the film will not remain as passive as either its subjects or its makers, for whom child poverty in Britain seems like a revelation. Where have they been in all the years that this social blight has spread and festered? Certainly not observing it at close quarters. For if they had, they would know already what these children have to tell them, and much, much more besides.
'Eyes Of A Child' is on BBC2 on Monday 6 September, 9.30pm.Reuse content