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Thursday, January 06, 2011 

Scum-watch: The appalling irresponsibility of EastEnders.

You may well have to forgive me for thinking there's something ever so slightly redundant about complaining over the sensationalist and unrealistic nature of soap opera storylines (especially considering a good part of this blog is regularly given over to doing something similar when it comes to tabloid newspapers, and indeed as this post is also going to). It's rather like whining about quiz shows for containing questions, moaning that Noel Edmonds pretends there's something more than pure luck to Deal or No Deal or being surprised when Live at the Apollo isn't funny.

It therefore doesn't really strike me as especially beyond the pale, insensitive or going too far for EastEnders to have a character's baby die of cot death and in a moment of grief stricken madness for her to swap it with a friend's perfectly healthy child. If anything, it seems in remarkably good taste compared to Emmerdale's infamous plane crash storyline, coming as it did close to the fifth anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, and certainly no less plausible than Coronation Street marking its 50th anniversary with the the celebratory plot of a gas explosion causing a tram crash. This is to say nothing of Neighbours having characters apparently return from the grave, or Crossroads finish its short-lived revival with the revelation that the entire series had been the dream of a supermarket checkout assistant. It's true that EastEnders has unlike the other soaps somewhat tried in the past to deliver hard-hitting plotlines while giving over time to the social issues behind them, and tried to at least keep the notion of realism involved, even if not narrative realism as Claude argues, and this latest development goes somewhat against that, yet it still doesn't seem any more outlandish or offensive than the burying alive of Max Branning, which Ofcom decided was inappropriately shown before the watershed.

Where it starts to get even more ridiculous is when newspapers use editorial space* to attack broadcasters as a whole for even considering using such "warped sensationalism" as "entertainment". Already in the past year we've seen the Sun condemn the BBC for the perceived anti-Conservative bias of Basil Brush; now the paper has taken up the complaints of Anne Diamond and the apparently permanently indignant whingers at Mumsnet by calling the EastEnders storyline an "appalling misjudgement" when it could have tackled the subject "responsibly". Whether the paper was always going to strike out at the corporation over the subject regardless of being leaked the news that the actor portraying the character who lost her baby is leaving the show is impossible to know, but it hardly helps the paper's credibility that despite claiming she was leaving as a direct result of the storyline, her agent has since made clear that in fact the decision had been made months ago. Not such a "huge embarrassment" to the corporation then as the paper's editorial had so confidently stated.

The Sun taking almost any opportunity to criticise the BBC is hardly a new development. It does though really start to enter into the realms of abject hypocrisy when only last week the paper had to apologise for claiming that there was a specific al-Qaida threat against the filming of Coronation Street's live episode, despite Greater Manchester police making clear at the time that they were only involved in policing the perimeter of the set at the request of Granada, with the officers involved being paid by the production company for the time spent away from their normal duties. If anything smacks of warped sensationalism, such a ridiculous and potentially damaging story does; it hardly comes across as responsible either. While the paper had no problems finding the space to feature criticism of the BBC, it strangely didn't mention the controversy featured in other papers concerning Frankie Boyle's Tramadol Nights on Channel 4, something which doubtless has absolutely nothing to do with the man himself penning a column for none other than Sun rather than the paper deciding that it was a non-story.

Still, now that the storylines of fictional dramas are considered to be worthy of comment in the leader column of the paper's biggest selling newspaper, we can no doubt rely on the fact that the Sun will be giving the plots of the programmes on the new Sky Atlantic a similarly critical once over. It would certainly make a change to the company being plugged endlessly in every other section.

*As the Sun's editorials are not properly archived on the paper's website, the leader column in full can be read below:

COT death is a nightmare that haunts every parent of a new baby.

So who at the BBC imagined sensationalising such a heartbreaking theme would make good "entertainment"?

We are used to EastEnders being grim. It was no surprise that a particularly depressing episode was lined up for New Year's Eve.

But this time, the level of outrage proves the show went too far.

Actress Samantha Womack did her best to play tragic mum Ronnie Branning with sensitivity as she switched her dead baby for the infant son of Kat and Alfie Moon.

But, as The Sun reveals, Samantha was so distressed by the storyline she handed in her notice after seeing the script and will leave in May.

The actress made it clear she thought the plot was a mistake and would cause a backlash. But bosses ignored her.

Her resignation is a huge embarrassment to the BBC.

As broadcaster Anne Diamond, who lost her baby son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, said, not even cot death was dramatic enough for EastEnders. It had to go one better with the ludicrous baby swap.

Campaigners like Anne have helped reduce the cot death toll from 2,000 a year to 300.

EastEnders could have helped that campaign by tackling the subject responsibly.

Reducing it to warped sensationalism was an appalling misjudgment.

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