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A private matter?

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 14:58 UK time, Thursday, 30 November 2006

Our coverage of the sad news of Gordon Brown's young son being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis has caused some comment in the newsroom and from viewers.

There have been a few questions about the prominence of the story (the Ten O'Clock News led on it, for instance). And some viewers have asked why, given many families are affected by the condition, we are concentrating on one family.

BBC News always considers carefully how it handles stories that relate to family and personal matters. However we felt that our audiences would engage with this story and that it would become a part of their understanding of the man who is likely to be Britain's next prime minister. As Nick Robinson commented, David Cameron also has a disabled child and he has explained how that has affected his political perspective.

Newsnight carried an intriguing interview with a Labour political adviser, Ed Owen, who has a daughter with Cystic Fibrosis. He explained the need for parents to provide the intensive physiotherapy for the affected child. It is a legitimate matter of public interest for us to inform the audience how Mr Brown's family could be affected by this. And that is more significant than other families faced with the same circumstances.

But beyond the potential political significance it is legitimate to report on a story about a prominent figure from the human perspective. Mr Brown had issued a statement about the condition and was happy for his colleague Yvette Cooper MP to speak on behalf of the family. Our medical correspondent then added to the basic information by providing some valuable context explaining that the life expectancy of cystic fibrosis sufferers is much greater now than used to be the case.

Connecting with all our audiences by covering stories that they can readily relate to is an important part of keeping BBC News relevant. Coincidentally, I gave a lecture this week which - amongst other things - addressed this issue. I'll write more about it later today...


  • 1.
  • At 03:59 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Aaron McKenna wrote:

I think that this is positive if it helps to raise awareness for an illness. I would say, however, that the driving force behind most (not all) editors decisions to run with this is because it attracts the eyeballs, clear and simple. Good story, but it should be leading into a wider issue and raising awareness rather than being some fetish for editors to turn back to as the years, and Mr. Brown's political career, go by.

This is sad news for a man bent on making his mark after the Blair Years. To think that he lost his daughter a few years ago, and now this, is not just deeply sad, but a reminder about the humanity of these politicians that often make themselves so distant from the rest of us.

As a keen follower of British politics, may I take the opportunity to extend warm thoughts to them, by way of the reliable Beeb, ofcourse.

  • 3.
  • At 04:26 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • billy wrote:

"BBC News always considers carefully how it handles stories that relate to family and personal matters."

How I would love to believe this post Dr.Kelly.

"However we felt that our audiences would engage with this story and that it would become a part of their understanding of the man who is likely to be Britain's next prime minister."

And it might make him seem a little more 'cuddly'.

"As Nick Robinson commented, David Cameron also has a disabled child and he has explained how that has affected his political perspective."

DC doesn't push it in our faces and if he gets to be PM he will have earnt it.

  • 4.
  • At 04:42 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • phil wrote:

Absolute rubbish. if i wanted human interest stories instead of the news, i'd read the daily mail. How is it in the public interst to know 'how Mr Brown's family could be affected by this'? and how is it potentially politically significant? Are you somehow claiming that this is going to affect Mr Brown in his role/future roles?

  • 5.
  • At 04:48 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Rupert RG wrote:

This is a bit of a thin justification for putting the item at the top of the 10 O'clock News and giving it five minutes.

It's right that it was covered - public knowledge prevents erroneous rumours spreading - but the facts of the matter add nothing to our "understanding of the man who is likely to be Britain's next Prime Minister".

The only new thing we know about him now is that he has a son with cystic fibrosis. That is worthy of our sympathies and of about 30 seconds of air time. It does not affect the running of the country. It does not affect the issues of the day. It does not affect the government of the country. It is not of international importance.

The matter of public interest was purely that a prominent politician's child has a serious medical condition. This does not affect his ability to do his job. If it starts to do so, then that will also be a matter of public interest. Unless this happens, all else is simply what some parts of the public find interesting - and that's not what BBC news should be about.

  • 6.
  • At 05:27 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • David wrote:

Maybe some people don't like it but one way people learn about conditions like cystic fibrosis is through specific examples - be it celebrities, royals, politicians, or individuals who manage to make their voices heard. Through this story a lot of people have learned a bit more about cystic fibrosis, and I'm sure a lot of people who already have to cope with it appreciate the understanding it has generated, particularly since I think the coverage all round has been very sensitive and informative.

  • 7.
  • At 05:53 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Adam wrote:

Yes, it really is "a private matter". I am disappointed that you spent so much time covering this on the Ten last night. Worth a mention certainly, but absolutely not as the lead story.

Please can you concentrate on real news?

  • 8.
  • At 06:13 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Ally wrote:

I agree with post 6 and would like to add that only a person who has never had the experience of bringing up a child with a serious illness could possibly conclude that it does not affect one's outlook on life and subsequently their approach to all their future endeavours, including their job.

  • 9.
  • At 09:41 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • sheila wrote:

Was Gordon Brown asked if he wanted this broadcast ? I object to this
private matter forced on me at breakfast. I am sure this dear child will get the best available treatment. Why do we have to have the details of the celebrities' ill-health forced on us daily.
Yet another vulgar American habit we have adopted.

  • 10.
  • At 09:29 AM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Lucy Jones wrote:

I was furious when I heard this news - because of how it was discovered. Some "journalists" (who are scarcely worthy of the term) essentially stalked a baby going to hospital, and bullied his family into revealing what was wrong with him.

I do not think this has been sensitively handled, nor do I think it is in the public interest.

Back off. We don't need to know everything.

  • 11.
  • At 10:08 AM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • PeeVeeAh wrote:

Peter Horrocks said of the planned coverage: "...we felt our audiences would engage with this story".

"Engage"? This implies something more interactive than good-old (tabbloid-evoking) 'hiss-boo'/empathy/sympathy, perhaps.

Could the heightened degree of coverage in fact have been due to the 'half-life' of the ex-KGB tale on-the-wane? I'm legally blind - but even I've got that epitaph of that ailing mugshot burned on my retinas! But I digress.....or do I?

The notion that such coverage of the Brown's news is at the least 'educational' is not really borne out by the information that was disbursed amidst the stills and footage. This has been 'simplified' to 'no cure yet, but better outcome expected'.

Perhaps the man-who-would-be-king is undergoing another phase of induction to the top job? Fair game? All news is good news?

  • 12.
  • At 12:50 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • colin butler wrote:

I don't think there was any need for this to be made public at all. It is a private matter which has no relevance to Gordon Brown's position.

The real news story which did emerge and which has been down-played is that in Scotland all babies are screened for cystic fibrosis, in England they are not. Once again Scotland gets a better deal than England.

  • 13.
  • At 01:27 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Fran wrote:

I disagree with post #3 who says Cameron doesn't "push in our faces" that he has a disabled son.

I'm glad those with disabilities are no longer shut away as they once were, but DC certainly makes regular political capital out of his son's condition.

  • 14.
  • At 02:49 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Richard Morris wrote:

A very unconvincing defence of a bad decision.

  • 15.
  • At 04:02 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Joe wrote:

I personally feel great sympathy towards Mr Brown and his wife in their struggle to have a family.
However, I do agree with the majority of posts here who think that this is yet another free piece of publicity for the labour party, I find this viewpoint even more relevant when the only person the BBC could think of to interview was a 'Labour Political Adviser', perhaps a more relevant person would be someone from the Cystic Fibrosis Association?.
The BBC is time and again brought to issue in these comments for it's perceived left-wing bias, reporting like this only serves to reinforce peoples opinions.

  • 16.
  • At 04:23 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Elizabeth O'Hare wrote:

I think I'll give up and start taking the Sun. BBC news is increasingly like a lifestyle magazine programme.

"The need for parents to provide the intensive physiotherapy for the affected child. It is a legitimate matter of public interest for us to inform the audience how Mr Brown's family could be affected by this."

I am raising two teenagers with cystic fibrosis which also need intensive physiotherapy, over 60 pills a day 5 inhaled medication, a couple of nose sprays and my daughter tests her blood sugar for CF related diabetes, 4-6 times daily, wears an insulin pump 24/7.

BUT don't tell my kids that their lives are any different than their peers! My daughter has been skiing since she was 2, competitively since 8, my son plays soccer and basketball and we have travelled the United States, Canada and England (to see family) and France.

The goal of raising children with CF is to provide them with a routine. We start our day at 5:30am with therapy and my chidren attend school,sports, after school activities, shopping and hang with their friends just like everyone else. We close our day with another round of physiotherapy and oral medications. To born today with CF, there is so much hope and promise to live a long and healthy life. There are rollercoaster rides and it is a daily routine that requires time. But for us this has brought our family closer.

Politically, Mr. Brown has my vote, not to feel sorry for his troubles but to celebrate that he will bring compassion and awareness to his country like Princess Diana did for AIDS.

  • 18.
  • At 03:02 AM on 02 Dec 2006,
  • Norma Lawson wrote:

my grandson is nine years old. he was diagnosed with cyctic fibrosis when he was almost six. he goes at life full speed ahead. he never slows down and to look at him you would never know anything is wrong. he is not limited to what he wants to do. the doctors said he could do anything he wanted except smoke. i think it helps if children are not limited to their activities. let them be like other children as much as possible.

  • 19.
  • At 03:26 AM on 02 Dec 2006,
  • ngum ngafor wrote:

strictly speaking, i don't think it's a news story. of course it will grab attention and sympathy but news value? i'm not so sure, unless something really special is attached to it. to me, this story belongs in magazine pages.

  • 20.
  • At 04:16 PM on 02 Dec 2006,
  • Mr. J.L. Todd wrote:

Scotland does not get a "better deal" in its hospitals because of screening for cystic fybrosis, and other diseases! Full screening has taken place in the the N.H.S. in Scotland, Wales AND Northern Ireland for many years! A few PCT's in England have also followed this policy. Why it is not widespread in the NHS in England is a question for the Health Minister and PCT's there? Long before Scotland (and Wales) had devolved governments their NHS routinely collected blood samples from newly born babies, by a simple heel prick, neither costly nor complicated! Your contributor Colin Butler is attempting to make political capital where none exists? Ironically, Scotland is not called the Sick Man of Europe for nothing! For some reason the English seem to believe that everything in Scotland should be identical to their country when it should be remembered that decades before the foundation of the NHS, like many other national institutions, Scotland's Health Service has always been very different from the rest of the U.K.!
Lachie Todd

  • 21.
  • At 01:53 PM on 04 Dec 2006,
  • Lindsey Millen wrote:

It amazes me how in the discussion of the news-worthiness of what is essentially a humanity-driven story there is still the need (for some embittered souls) to engage in the old-hat England v Scotland diatribe (see Post 12). Brief (and wildly inaccurate - such screening is offered, not forced upon people, and this is I believe the case across Britain) though it may have been it perhaps lends another redeeming factor to the relevance and necessity of the inclusion of this piece in the national news, if only to provoke such debate. It would appear that there is still enough anti-Scot feeling towards Mr Brown as potential PM material that it would provoke the more narrow-minded among us to lash out in such a childish manner against his political merits. For someone to hint at the idea of a conspiratorial bias towards Scotland in the NHS is an absurd and below the belt notion which attempts to land itself at Mr Brown's door as a beacon advertising his unsuitability as a British Prime Minister.
Perhaps that is the real news story lurking in the subtext.

I do not believe that the health of Gordon Brown's child is a news story. I don't watch the news to see "human interest" stories, and the state of health of the child of a politician, sad though the child's illness may be, has no actual news value. There are millions of people suffering from extreme ill health all over the world, and many with CF in this country also; singling out the politicians and their offspring for the news attention is ridiculous. Whether it affects how he does his job or not, it does not deserve top billing on a news programme!

I, personally, didn't engage with the story at all. It affects me more to actually know people who live with a certain illness than to watch people on TV with it. Several friends of mine have fibromyalgia and one is narcoleptic.

What about the 85 Chinese miners who were killed last week? Where were their moments of news time? And Gordon Brown's supposedly "human interest" story gets top billing?

Adjust your priorities, please, BBC...

  • 23.
  • At 12:45 PM on 14 Dec 2006,
  • Sophie Burke wrote:

I am an eighteen year old girl from Australia, and when I first heard of Mr. Brown's daughter's diagnosis, I was very sympathetic to him and his family. I have cystic fibrosis, the same disease which his child has been diagnosed with, and my prognosis at birth was not looking positive. First of all, I want to express my disgust with "Katie's" and similar comments: it it absurd to state that the chronic illness of a child (regardless of their parent's status in society) is less important than a news story of (for example)Chinese Miners. BBC: your priorities are most certainly in order, and your news story has in fact helped the fight against CF (affecting an extraordinary amount of people in the world) by raising awareness of this disease through the powerful medium that is the media. What a ridiculous ideology, that a chronic illness should not be a news priority. Did you know that over 10 million people in the USA are carriers of the CF gene? Everyone deserves and needs to know about this illness.

I am now eighteen years old, and an ambassador for cystic fibrosis in my State in Australia. I am actually the healthiest I have been in all my life. The problem with the poor knowledge people have of cystic fibrosis could be due to the 'invisibility' of the illness - people associate chronic illness with an 'external' disability, and cystic fibrosis patients simply do not look unwell on the outside. I just wanted to say that it is very possible to defy the odds of this illness, armed with both positive thinking and a lot of hard work, and I wish Gordon Brown and his child the best in their fight against CF.

If you want to know more about cystic fibrosis my email is:

I agree with most of the comments already published. BBC News is fast becoming a "Villagey-Gossipy-Tabloid" arena. My sister has lived in Indonesia for the 30 years recently visiting the Uk - pronounced that the "UK is a small country run by small minded people for small minded people"

Whilst I have every sympathy for Gordon Brown's ill child predicament- beyond that I haven't the slightest interest - and don't want to be "force-fed" all the minutiae of the condition.

  • 25.
  • At 01:45 PM on 10 May 2007,
  • kate smith wrote:

I have Cystic Fibrosis. I have campaigned tirelessly for this illness to be recognised. There are several highly political aspects concerning the illness that are 'worthy' as you put it of air time. It is not only that you now know that Gordon Brown has a son with Cystic Fibrosis. You now know that he has a son who has an illness that 7500 other young people in the UK have AND that those people have to PAY for their prescription charges despite it being a long -term debilitating disease that fully fits the criteria for free prescriptions. Your posts stating that the news of his Son's illness are not worth 5 MINUTES OF AIR TIME are insulting to me! His son and myself and other like us will live with this disease for LIFE. Surely 5 mintues of yours to hear what it'ds all about is worth giving up. You don't even have to do anything about it. Just listen. 50% of CF sufferers are under the age of 17 yrs, 70% are under the age of 20years. The life-expectancy is 31years. The cure is only £8million per year away and desperately needs funding - surely that's newsworthy!?
This is worth 5 minutes of your time.
I was on sky news the week of Fraser Browns diagnosis. I wish them all the best. You cannot fully comprehend how this will affect the future PM's life and his family - it will be incredibly hard. Take 5 mins to find out.

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