NSPCC reflect on Eastenders’ coverage of child abuse

(Tony and Bianca in a scene from EastEnders)

The long running EastEnders’ storyline involving Bianca’s boyfriend Tony abusing her step daughter came to a head this month when he was arrested. Amy Taylor speaks to Tom Narducci, a senior consultant at NSPCC who advised the soap on how to portray the issue.

You have been advising EastEnders on its storyline involving Tony King abusing his girlfriend Bianca’s step daughter Whitney who was 12 when the abuse started and is now 16. Do you feel your advice was/has been listened to and what do you think about the way the soap opera has covered the issue?

Before agreeing to work with the EastEnders production team on this story we agreed a number of principles as to how we would work together.  Part of that agreement was that we would see and provide advice on both the storyline development and the actual scripts for all scenes relating to this story. We also were able to comment on how we felt certain scenes needed to be played in order to reflect the way abusers and their victims would actually behave. 

We are perfectly happy with the way that has worked in practice and know that view is shared by the production team. The way this issue has been presented in the story so far has, we believe, been a true reflection of many aspects of the way single mums and their children can be targeted and groomed, and of the ways abusers try to control and manipulate their victims.

Do you think it is important for mainstream television programmes to cover issues such as child abuse and what do you say to the argument that it may be distressing for viewers?

Mainstream television, and ‘soap operas’ in particular often reflect the less attractive or appealing aspects of society such as domestic violence, crimes against people, animals and property and few people seem to question whether that is appropriate or not. It is interesting that when we explicitly address what is a serious social issue, i.e. the sexual abuse of children, this question is consistently asked.

As for distressing viewers, we accept that there will be some, for various reasons, who will find this subject distressing.  That is why before specific episodes relating to this abuse viewers were made aware it was being shown and why the BBC Action Line and NSPCC Helpline and Childline were always available afterwards. 

Do you think having such issues covered in this way encourages children/young people to come forward? And have you seen calls to any of your helplines increase possibly due to the storyline?

We hope that any child who recognises they are in a similar situation will see that far from being the adult’s ‘special child’ or being in a ‘loving relationship’ they will recognise they are being abused and seek help.  Similarly, we trust that an adult recognising the situation being portrayed will contact the appropriate authorities either directly or via our helpline. We are monitoring calls to see whether there has been any noticeable increase but are unable at the moment to say how significant that might be.

(EastEnders: Tony is arrested)

What would you say to somebody who argued that it was inappropriate to cover such issues before the 9pm watershed?

As I stated above, many early evening programmes address issues of violence against the person without many questions as to whether that is appropriate or not and EastEnders in particular has a strong history of tackling difficult social issues such as child abuse and domestic violence. We did set clear guidelines that meant Whitney and Tony were never seen in bed together and never showed scenes any more intimate than their kissing, however we always respect the right of parents to determine what they wish their children to see and knew that a small number would choose not to watch while the story was unfolding.

On the opposite side of that argument is the fact that children and young people, being the victims of this sort of abuser, are the very audience who should become more aware if this behaviour is going to be recognised for what it is and help sought if they are approached. Viewing figures just announced show that 9.9 million households watched the episode in which Whitney told Bianca what had been happening and saw Tony arrested suggesting that the storyline has caught people’s attention and they are now more aware.

Tony has become disinterested in Whitney now she has turned 16, instead turning to Lauren Branning who is 14. Does this replicate some sex offenders’ behaviour?

We know that some sex offenders will abuse any child of any age or gender but that some are drawn to specific ages and gender.  In this case, as you’ve seen, Tony is attracted to young girls in the 12 – 14 age range hence his reactions to Whitney when she tries to look more mature and his growing disenchantment with her and attraction to Lauren.

Have you worked with EastEnders on any other story lines involving child abuse or with other soaps on the issue?

I have worked with different parts of the BBC for seven years or so, as well as with other TV companies. Some of that work has been with regard to their approach to safeguarding when working with children but much of it with the BBC has related to stories which touched on child abuse. With regard to EastEnders I have provided advice on a number of occasions relating to different storylines. I also worked closely with them on the development and scripting of the recent story about the physical and emotional abuse of Ben Mitchell by his father’s fiancé Stella. This made working together to tackle this controversial subject easier, since we already had a starting point of trust.

What do you think about the way child abuse is portrayed in television dramas in general?

Television dramas do serve a purpose in highlighting this subject and obviously have a role to play in raising public awareness regarding a whole range of issues.  A soap opera however allows the time and space to explore the subject in ways a ‘one off’ drama or documentary would never be able to.  This story began in September and will continue well into next year, allowing us to portray not only the grooming and abuse but the consequences for all the individuals involved.

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