BBC receives 8,400 complaints over 'EastEnders' cot death story

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Some 8,400 complaints have been made to the BBC and 374 complaints have been received by Ofcom, a British media regulator, after soap opera EastEnders broadcasted what BBC News Online described as the "cot death storyline".

Part of the EastEnders set.
Image: Gill Rickson.

The storyline involves character Ronnie Branning – portrayed by Samantha Womack – taking her baby, who experienced sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and exchanging for another living baby, Alfie and Kat Moon's recently born son. The plot has caused the largest number of complaints to be made about the show since it was first broadcast in 1985.

Campaigners attempting to raise awareness of SIDS criticised the plot. Anne Diamond, a television presenter and one of those campaigners, remarked that the exchange of the babies was a "crass twist to an otherwise credible storyline" and said that not "one iota of good in educating a young audience about cot death" had been achieved by it.

Due to the complaints received, the BBC have made the decision to end this storyline earlier than originally scheduled, during the spring of 2011. Bryan Kirkwood, the current executive producer of EastEnders, has disclosed that, at the end of this storyline, the baby, named Tommy, will remeet Kat Moon, his mother.

Although we have had complaints we have also had positive responses from people who have been through the experiences we are currently dramatising who feel we've done this and have contacted us to offer their backing.

Bryan Kirkwood, EastEnders executive producer

Kirkwood said that this storyline, like many others in the BBC One programme, approaches "social issues in a powerful and dramatic way". He also explained: "Although we have had complaints we have also had positive responses from people who have been through the experiences we are currently dramatising who feel we've done this and have contacted us to offer their backing.

"Whenever we embark on a story at EastEnders we always leave it open-ended to monitor and listen to audience reaction," he continued. "With this in mind we are going to bring the story to a close on screen in the spring. As the story progresses and Kat is reunited with her child, we hope to explore the impact of the tragic events that have befallen the characters in a way that is powerful, but true to the best public service tradition of the show."

Justine Roberts, the chief executive officer and founder of British community website Mumsnet, created a letter of complaint for Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC. "The focus of the complaint is the swapping story line," the letter reads. "Our members are concerned that, as is all too common, a bereaved mother has been portrayed as deranged and unhinged."

Do you think that a storyline like this is unsuitable for broadcast?

In response to the Mumsnet letter, Jana Bennett, director of vision at the BBC, stated that this plot was managed in a manner that was "sensitively handled". She stressed that "[t]he show is absolutely not suggesting that this behaviour is typical of a mother who has suffered such a terrible and tragic loss.

"Taking Kat's baby is the action of a character in great distress due to a series of events that have befallen her in the last 18 months," Bennett explained. "It is the culmination of these that has driven her to this one moment of madness rather than as a direct result of the loss of her baby. The issues of grief caused by the loss of a child and sudden infant death syndrome more generally are sensitively handled. EastEnders has a long history of tackling difficult issues in a way that allows viewers to learn and debate the topic at hand."

On Thursday, Samantha Womack denied that this storyline was the reason for her leaving the programme. She has mentioned that her departure had already been arranged with producers of the programme for a few months.

Before this incident occurred, the record for the highest number of complaints for EastEnders was a storyline in April 2009 that involved Danielle Jones being killed as the result of a car collision. That storyline received in excess of 7,000 complaints.