Channel 4 cleared of harming children in 'home alone' show

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Channel 4 has been cleared of putting child welfare at risk with a series in which under-12s lived without adults for a fortnight, prompting a flood of complaints.

Regulator Ofcom was satisfied that Boys And Girls Alone - which caused an outcry when it was screened in February with many claiming it amounted to "child abuse" - did not cause the children "unnecessary distress or anxiety".

But the programme was found to have breached Ofcom's programme code for the potential upset to viewers. The channel had failed to adequately explain to the audience the lengths taken to ensure the protection of the children aged between eight and 12.

The regulator concluded in a report today the information given "was insufficient to reassure viewers about their welfare".

Boys And Girls Alone attracted a flurry of complaints as viewers believed the youngsters, who had been left to their own devices, were apparently in distress and had been bullied.

More than 180 complaints were made to Ofcom, including concerns raised by the NSPCC and the Family and Parenting Institute over issues such as exploitation and the purposes of the production.

Children's charities, child psychologists and even a local authority children's services division were vocal in their criticisms of the programme, screened in February.

The series showed 10 boys and 10 girls who were allowed to live without adult interference in two cottage complexes in Cornwall, cooking, cleaning and managing budgets.

Channel 4 said the programme was simply an observational documentary rather than any kind of "social experiment", and was designed to provide the children with "positive experiences". It said it had fully considered the impact on the children.

In its submission to Ofcom, it said: "The programme-makers and Channel 4, in consultation with a number of experts and professionals, including educational and clinical psychologists, considered all the possible side-effects of participation for the children."

It said it had received no negative feedback about the series from the parents or children who had taken part.

Ofcom accepted the safeguards put in place, including rigorous selection procedures, chaperones and parental monitoring were "numerous and comprehensive".

It also decided that the broadcaster and programme-maker "gave detailed and careful consideration towards the protection of the children involved in the series and to all manner of eventualities that might arise during the course of the production".

And although the programme involved some sequences which showed children distressed or upset, "in reality, the likely risks for the children were in most cases negligible".

However Ofcom decided one of the programmes, the first in the series, breached its code for failing to provide enough "appropriate information" to minimise viewers' offence.

It said the information in that edition did not give enough detail of the safeguards in place, and did not ensure viewers "were adequately protected from potentially offensive material".

But it decided that Channel 4 had not intended to deceive viewers.

And it cleared the further three episodes of any breaches. The programmes had less potential for offence and had "greater contextualisation".

Channel 4 welcomed Ofcom's conclusion that there had been no breaches in terms of child welfare.

Julian Bellamy, head of programming for Channel 4, said: "As a broadcaster, Channel 4 takes its responsibilities towards the welfare of children in its programming extremely seriously.

"Careful consideration and preparation was undertaken to ensure that the welfare of the children who participated in Boys And Girls Alone was paramount at all times and we are extremely pleased that this has been confirmed by Ofcom's investigation.

"Channel 4 notes Ofcom's recommendation to be particularly mindful of the sensitivities of viewers with regard to factual programming of this nature involving children."

Richard McKerrow, creative director of programme-maker Love Productions, said: "We are very pleased that Ofcom has confirmed that there was no breach of child welfare issues in the making of Boys And Girls Alone.

"Ofcom has highlighted in its report the enormous care taken by Love Productions of the children and their families before, during and after production of the programmes.

"The feedback from the participating children and parents has been overwhelmingly positive, and the children involved enjoyed and benefited from the experience."