Saturday, October 31, 2020
Home News Laura Keynes: BBC puts autistic boy at risk with dreadfully indulgent reporting

Laura Keynes: BBC puts autistic boy at risk with dreadfully indulgent reporting

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I always know when I’m about to hear the most egregious piece right-on piece of twaddle issue forth from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme because it’s always pre-empted by the line “Our reporter Sima Kotecha went to find out…”

As soon as I hear that name, I know what’s coming. Last Thursday offering didn’t disappoint.

Off went Sima to talk to a nine-year-old boy with high-functioning autism, who feels so depressed he wants to kill himself.

It was a typical news item designed to knock the government over the lack of mental health services. It was all about the plight of a child and his family not getting enough support.

In her most concerned tone of voice, Sima asked the boy, “There are some people who think that young people like you don’t have mental health problems. What would you say to them?” Aware that he was being believed and indulged, the child ramped up his special pleading.

It was the most irresponsible, indulgent piece of reporting I’ve heard in a while (with the exception of the recent chemsex case interview, also on Today, which deserves a listen only because it takes the biscuit for indulging a total narcissist’s belief that his own feelings are paramount). At no point was it made clear whether this child had been diagnosed with clinical depression. Given that he has an autism diagnosis as well, this would be a deeply complex diagnosis to make. Was this, then, a self diagnosis? Has the boy heard about depression and thought “That’s the word I’ll use to label my feelings”?

Listening to the boy give an account of his feelings, he didn’t sound that unlike many other young children: “You feel miserable when you’re not doing anything,” he said – er, yes, that would be called boredom, something rather common to nine-year-old boys. He expressed his sadness at the inequality he saw in the world. Again, something many children feel sad about.

Regardless of who has labelled this child clinically depressed, he has clearly locked in to the label and cannot shake this view of himself. In such a situation, it’s hardly wise to indulge the child in his view but in a deeply indulgent and – in my opinion – unethical piece of journalism, a reporter has reinforced this young boy’s view of himself. Adults have taken him seriously and given oxygen to his view of himself, effectively legitimising his suicidal feelings and intentions.

Framing certain headlines and news stories to set the agenda and put pressure on some issues is what we’ve come to expect from the BBC. In most cases such framing is clumsy and obvious but just about tolerable. With the case of this little boy, however, the BBC has overstepped the mark. It has put a child’s life in jeopardy with its haste to set the news agenda.

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Laura Keynes
Dr Keynes is a Cambridge-based academic, writer and critic with two very young children. She writes for Standpoint magazine, the Catholic Herald and The Tablet. Find her on twitter @LMKeynes.

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