Thomas Sutcliffe: How can we justify doing this to children?

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The Independent Online

Experimenting on children and babies has, for very good reasons, traditionally been frowned upon. At its worst, the phrase summons the memory of Josef Mengele, and, at its best, raises tricky questions about informed consent.

And yet, right now, Channel 4 – if we are to accept its own description – is conducting an experiment on lots of babies. I'm talking about Bringing Up Baby, a series which has resulted in a flood of complaints to Ofcom and which is lighting up the discussion boards on various child-care websites.

The idea is simple. Take a group of uncertain new parents and ask them to choose between three contrasted approaches to baby-care – a Fifties regime of rigidly timetabled neglect, a Spock-based philosophy and a New Age method which involves virtually unbroken body contact for the first six months. Select your most promising couples and stand back to see what happens, aggravating the conflict between different ideologies by bringing their champions together now and again to insult each other.

The first thing to be said about this is that it is not an experiment. Television producers like to use the word because it gives a gloss of scientific respectability to ventures that would otherwise look reckless or even cruel. But there can be no possible defence of the programme on the grounds of an empirical advance in knowledge. The sample is too small, the time-scale too short, the method of assessing results too subjective. Which leaves only two other defences – that it's fun to watch (not one I suspect Channel 4 would lean on too heavily) or that it has "provoked an important debate" – a defensive figleaf the Channel is inordinately fond of.

To provoke a debate – or create "noise" as the industry argot has it – the methods have to be quite sharply contrasting, which is the only conceivable explanation for the presence of Claire Verity, a freelance nanny who has provoked most of the furore by her chilly adherence to the theories of Truby King, who developed his child-care regime in the New Zealand dairy industry. What Verity does to children and their parents is very ugly indeed – driven by the ambition to make life with a baby as much like life without a baby as is humanly possible. It is a recipe for defeating a child not raising it – and I find it hard to believe that anyone involved on the production side thinks her Romanian orphanage approach to nurturing either desirable or defensible.

What they must have thought was that she would generate "noise", never mind if a lot of it came from distressed infants. And the fact that the babies' parents are willing participants is irrelevant. Section 1.26 of the Ofcom code, which requires producers to take "due care ... over the physical and emotional welfare" of children says this is so "irrespective of parental consent", before noting that children "must not be caused unnecessary distress or anxiety" (my italics).

What's the necessity here, exactly? And how can we know that participants haven't been deterred from abandoning a routine they regret adopting by the inertia of a filming schedule? Should people look back in 20 years, they will surely be bemused that politicians, executives and regulators were so preoccupied with publicity blunders, noddies-that-weren't, and pet-name polls, while it was left to ordinary viewers to worry about the exploitation of children.

You just can't stop Mike

Despite absorbing blows to his amour propre that would cause lesser men to live down a coal mine, the DJ Mike Read still insists on sharing his art with the world. Having his musical about Oscar Wilde close on the night it opened hasn't put him off. Now he's having a crack at visual art, with an exhibition of pictures from the Montessori school of art. Images include a recreation of the Abbey Road cover using liquorice allsorts, and a portrait of the 1966 World Cup winners, worked in Starbursts, Skittles and chocolate buttons. In the face of this awesome gap between ability and self-confidence, the standard aesthetic put-down has to be reworked, I think: my five-year-old would know better.

* The French Culture Minister, Christine Albanel, was reportedly in tears about the vandalising of Monet's Le Pont d'Argenteuil early on Sunday morning. And not only her, I imagine. European art thieves must be distraught to discover how feeble the Musée d'Orsay's security arrangements were.

You can just imagine them labouring for months over some elaborate Thomas Crown Affair-style heist, practising their rappelling technique and rehearsing with stop-watches and gallery floor plans to slip through the 3.2-second blind spot they'd discovered in the CCTV surveillance schedule. And now they discover that they could simply have got pissed and gone round the back to boot the doors in.

Of course, it's all too late because, the horse having been punched, stable doors are being reinforced all across the capital and security arrangements reviewed. To add insult to injury, the amateurs didn't even try to steal anything.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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