BBC report on single mothers 'simplistic': Broadcasting watchdog rules complaint by one-parent council inappropriate. Maggie Brown reports

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The Independent Online
THE Broadcasting Complaints Commission said yesterday that a controversial Panorama programme 'Babies on Benefit', about the explosive issue of young unmarried mothers, was flawed and simplistic in its presentation.

The adjudication is being bitterly contested by the BBC, which is seeking a judicial feview in the courts. It rules that Panorama was misleading and unfair in giving a strong impression that lone parents 'consisted predominantly of young single mothers'. It was broadcast on 27 September last year, on the eve of the Tory party conference that launched the Back to Basics policy.

The commission also pointed to a 'serious deficiency' on the part of the programme, which examined policy options for reducing the dependency of young mothers on welfare benefits. Panorama reported that a newly introduced system of benefit-capping in New Jersey had halved the number of babies born to single mothers. This data was unverified, and the figure of 50 per cent far too high - a figure of 16 per cent was suggested yesterday. The BBC accepts the criticism on this point.

The complaint was brought by the National Council of One Parent Families, which lobbies on behalf of Britain's 1.3 million single parents. It was supported by the Chartered Institute of Housing, whose members were concerned that the programme was being used by government ministers and civil servants as providing evidence of abuse - that single parents jump housing queues.

A crucial point to emerge yesterday was that the commission, despite fierce internal debate, accepted that the council was a suitable body to bring the complaint because its members were directly affected by the programme's unfairness: it took two sets of legal advice before the adjudication went ahead. However, there was growing pressure for a much clearer definition of who could use the complaints system to gain redress.

The BBC said yesterday that it 'completely refutes the BCC's findings'. It said that the 'powerful programme (was) made to the highest standards and the BCC's findings of unfairness are unsustainable and wrong'. This is the first time the BBC has totally rejected a commission finding, and may throw into turmoil the system of adjudicating on complaints, already under fire.

The BBC said: 'No individual featured in the programme has complained to the BCC. The BBC disputes the commission's decision to take a complaint of unfairness from a pressure group which has a vested interest in the editorial line of the programme. This is a precedent which could allow other pressure groups to promote their own policies - a view underlined by the editorialising of the commission's adjudication.'

Sue Slipman, director of the one-parent council, said yesterday that at no stage did it seek to prevent discussion of the rising numbers of single 18- to 24- year-old mothers: it was a matter of grave concern. One of the biggest choices facing the Government was which path to go: should it pursue a punitive strategy and deny benefit, or pursue more expensive policies of child care and training. 'That programme has had quite an enormous potential impact on social policy. It was important to put the record straight,' she said. Ms Slipman attacked the BBC for not accepting the results and setting the record straight.

The BBC will publish the BCC report in the Radio Times, and after Panorama on 26 September. It will also broadcast a statement repudiating the findings.

Debate over lone parents, page 23