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The Webster Case: My response

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John Sweeney | 14:44 UK time, Thursday, 19 February 2009

When Nicky and Mark Webster failed in the High Court last week to win back their first three children taken from them in a forced adoption, forever, by Norfolk County Council I found myself under attack.

The writer Beatrix Campbell wrote in The Guardian:

The parents were championed by award-winning BBC journalist John Sweeney. It was this case that encouraged the family courts to open up and let us see the judge's thinking. When the judgments were made public in the Webster case, Norfolk county council waited for the rush. No one had come knocking, they said, when I asked for them. I asked Sweeney what he thought - had he read them? No he hadn't, he said.

That is wrong.

I read the judgments.

My producers and editors read them.

I reported on the key elements of the judgments.

And I read them out, on air.

In 2006, with BBC colleagues, I had gone to court to get the facts of this case into the public eye. The BBC was the primary applicant in the case and I was the reporter driving the story. As a result the law forbidding the media from reporting Family Court cases was changed. True, I didn't bother to ask Norfolk's press office for a copy later because I was in court when Mr Justice Munby handed down his judgment in November 2006, which I read, immediately.

The judge said:

where the parents allege they are the victims of miscarriage of justice, it is more than usually important that the truth, the whole truth should out. If as the parents allege they have lost three children, and stand the risk of losing a fourth due to the deficiencies in the system, then there is a pressing need for the true facts to be exposed.

For BBC1's Real Story With Fiona Bruce broadcast in November, 2006, we reconstructed Judge Munby giving his ruling. In all, I made five BBC documentaries on the Websters, concluding with a Panorama, called 'Missing Children', in July 2007.

In that programme I reported Munby's judgement and the earlier judgment, in 2004, in which the judge said:

I conclude that these injuries are non-accidental injuries. I conclude that the only possible perpetrators of child B's injuries are the two parents and I exclude anyone else as being a possible perpetrator of these injuries.

Implicit in Campbell's comments is the suggestion that we ignored evidence that pointed to the parents' guilt. I also reported that Child A - their little girl in the bureaucratic jargon - had very poor teeth and Child B - their boy - was described an 'intensely anxious' and I reported that both children, according to Norfolk, had suffered from emotional neglect.

The Websters gave answers to all the allegations against them.

It is true that Beatrix Campbell did telephone me to ask for my version of events - but not in 2009. I recall the conversation because I was in Russia, about to ask a professor of physics about polonium poisoning, in late 2006. Campbell writes that I said: 'I take my line from the parents'. An alarming answer. It would be, if she was right about about how I do my job.


If Beatrix Campbell, a paid up member of the columnist party, had been in court, as I and other reporters were, she would have heard this statement from the family's health visitor:

the team leader told me that the medical opinion was overwhelming and that I should agree with her, that I should not let my emotions get in the way. I was very upset but felt I had to do what my superior said. I was very unhappy. I had given my professional opinion that neither parent would deliberately harm their children.

In each programme I challenged the Websters about the evidence against them: principally, that their son had unexplained fractures. It turns out that the scientific evidence in favour of their innocence is strong. Their little boy, Child B, was allergic to cow's milk and so he was on vitamin-boosted soya milk. A different GP advised them to take their little boy off the vitamin-boosted soya and use unfortified soya instead. The Websters questioned the advice but did what they were told by their GP. Child B developed scurvy and weak bones which led to fractures - but none of the doctors in the original case in 2004 realised this. As a result the 'unexplained fractures' were held to be abuse and all three children were taken from them, forever. Three experts at the Appeal Court in 2007 agreed that scurvy was the most likely diagnosis.

Norfolk said it would no longer seek to prove that Child B was deliberately hurt by either parent - the very evidence that had led to their children being taken away and adopted.
In our Panorama I asked Dr David Bender, a molecular biologist and nutrionist at University College, London, what he thought of the GP's advice. He replied: 'very sad, to put it mildly.'

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