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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:32 UK time, Thursday, 4 December 2008

"I was very surprised we didn't do the Baby P story."

The World TonightThat was the comment of one of our team when we were reviewing the previous night's programme during our editorial meeting the day after the publication of the report into how Haringey Council in London failed to protect Baby P who was on the child protection register. The boy's mother has pleaded guilty and her boyfriend and a lodger have been convicted of charges relating to his death.

The report was published on Monday and that night the news bulletin which opens our programme of course had a report on the story, but we did not cover it further in the programme, which we led with the story of the announcement by President-elect Obama of his national security team that afternoon.

Our colleague's surprise triggered a discussion amongst us - which is an ongoing one on the programme - about how we cover big British stories.

A little background is needed here to explain why this is an issue for The World Tonight.

Baby PThe programme focuses mainly on global news - we think it is the main place on daily national BBC news where international stories are reported and analysed. However, we also have a remit to cover major British news and breaking news, which we do. You can read about what we try to do on the programme here.

The challenge - or if you prefer the difficulty - for us is that we aim not to repeat stories or angles on stories which have already been covered on our sister programmes on Radio 4 - Today, The World At One, PM and the half-hour 6 O'clock news bulletin.

The problem we often face with big stories - like the Baby P story - is that there has been a lot of coverage on these programmes and new angles are not always obvious. Hence the debate on how we do them.

The ideal solution is that we think of an interesting angle or an interesting interviewee with a view on the story that has not occurred to our colleagues. When we are at our best, this is what we do. But it's not always that easy.

So another solution - which we adopted on the day of the Baby P story - is not to do any more than have a short report in our news bulletin. The criticism of this approach is that it sends the message that we don't think the story is important.

When we do this, we argue that by the end of the day, our listeners may have heard enough in-depth coverage of the story in question, and they will be happy to have the brief summary of the story in our bulletin and then hear about the other things going on in the world in the rest of the programme.

I'd be interested to know what you think.

Update [Friday 5 December 1100]: Due to legal risks, this thread is now closed to comments.


  • Comment number 1.

    One angle that seems to have been avoided, lost in oversight or deliberately avoided is why there has been so much secrecy about the Baby P case.

    The names of the mother and her boyfriend and "lodger" were kept anonymous by Court order but yet the names are out there on the Web. Why?

    The Ed Ball's sponsored urgent report into Harringay Council Childrens Services and Procedures surrounding the death of Baby P has been kept private and confidential (although seen by the Tory and Liberal opposite numbers for Ed Balls). Why?

    Nobody can challenge the need for secrecy but the reason for the secrecy should be understood otherwise the secrecy becomes a need unto itself.

    The current UK Government has become used to governing through secrecy, has recently hypocritically initiated police action to investigate the leaking of embarrassing documents declared "secret" because the documents are simply embarrassing and goes to extreme lengths to conceal the background to the reasons why they make political decisions.

    To my mind the BBC should always be challenging the need for government sponsored secrecy and doing the same job as the Government Opposition parties - challenging government as to whether their policies and decisions and the secrecy around those decisions should not be open to scrutiny.

    Let it be said that secrecy because the Government think it should be kept secret is not neccessarily a good enough reason for information to be kept secret. The BBC should challenge that ethos and let the public know when the government obstructs the right of the public to know this information and why so!

  • Comment number 2.

    You do cover a lot of British stories, especially the ones involving the Queen, which are of no interest to many world viewers.

    This story deserved coverage. It was a failure of the system. There were lessens to be learned by all.

  • Comment number 3.

    The Baby P story, while tragic is inh no way a worldwide story.

    It is a localised story to the UK and should not be covered ahead of news that has a wider impact.

    There was no reason for anyone outside the UK to need to know about Baby P, it effected none of them.

    At least stories about the Queen do have international significance (despite pdileepa's view to the contrary) just as much as news of the US president, Chinese leadership or German chancellor would have significance.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    #2. The Queen is at least legally head of state in several other countries including Canada, New Zealand, Australia etc. She's also head of the Commonwealth so what she does should at least have passing interest for much of Africa and South Asia too.

    You could argue that the Josef Fritzle story had no relevance outside Austria, but after hearing that a very similar thing happened in South Yorkshire maybe highlighting this kind of story to raise awareness is a very good idea. Child cruelty is not unique to one nation.

  • Comment number 6.


    I am also bothered by the secrecy that surrounded this case whilst being aware of the sensitivity in keeping identities out of the picture unless they have relevance to the public interest.

    Although this particular item has been subject to extensive coverage most of it has focused on the death of a baby despite the many "interventions" that were made. Nothing was revealed of the chains of command above those at field level. Nothing was revealed of who was responsible for cross agency communication and how high up the chain the information about Baby P went.

    It is very easy for the BBC and others to appear to join in with the "let's hang someone out to dry" mob rather than to get to grips with the reasons why history keeps repeating itself. At least some high fliers have resigned this time around but what of the mental well being of those who were closer to the action and may have valuable experience (and/or trauma) that coldly demonstrates the inadequacy of our protection systems.

    Could "The World Tonight" have deepened this story by focusing not on the death of Baby P but on the blanket of secrecy that hides much of the detail of child protection cases from us?

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks for not talking about this story about Baby P, and allowing the other programmes on BBC Radio cover it.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.


    Amongst the many phoned in anecdotes on the subject of Baby P, I was struck by that of a District Nurse on Five Live' s Victoria Derbyshire' s program who stated that she had concerns about a two month old baby but had her fears "ignored" because the case conference carried a majority decision. This DN' s concern was that ALL decisions where a very young baby is "at risk" should be unanimous and I believe this to be sensible opinion.

    Many have defended local authority action in child protection matters by pointing out the large numbers of successful interventions but surely this must be tempered by the equally large numbers of near misses.

    Many years ago, when I worked in social work support, I remember that there was serious concern amongst senior managers of the large numbers of graduate social workers who were still "wet behind the ears" when sent out on field work. It still seems appropriate to suggest that life experience should be high on the list of requirements for those who wish to pursue a career in social work. I would suggest that grandparents and older extended family members are often the providers of support, respite and space in many difficult cases. It would be interesting to know just how much "in the family" support is available in cases where a child is at risk.

    Perhaps the World Tonight was not the most appropriate place for reporting on Baby P but surely there is scope for a large studio audience participation program on this subject. That it should include people who have children on the "at risk" register is of course a no-brainer.


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