Pass me the remote

Date: 24th November 2020

Many of you will have seen the continued coverage of the Emmerdale Laurel and Jai storyline. Here our Chief Executive, Eddie McConnell’s shares his views.

The Emmerdale storyline is so wrong, on so many fronts.

One of the worst justifications that I have heard for this thinly disguised ratings grab, is that the soap has included a young actor with Down’s syndrome for many years in its cast.  As if the positive inclusion of this talented young child actor (Leo) in any way justifies the decision by the producers to run a storyline about the termination of a pregnancy where the expectant couple receive a pre-natal test result indicating that their baby may have the very same condition.  Let’s all be clear with Emmerdale and its producers; it is abusive and wrong to use the inclusion of a young child actor, who presumably just happened to have an extra chromosome when he was originally cast in the role, to justify this storyline.  This is not some balancing equation where young ‘Leo’ sits on one side and the unborn child sits on the other.  The offensiveness of that argument is as staggering as the brazen denial that this storyline is anything other than an attempt to push up the ratings.

The second issue which causes me real difficulty is directed at those who say; ‘you shouldn’t judge it until you’ve seen it.’  Ordinarily, there might be something in that.  However, nothing is at all ordinary about the way in which the producers have actively sought to promote this storyline ahead of it airing in the soap and running, as I understand, into the new year.  Can you imagine the response and the rightful condemnation if the storyline was about screening out an unborn child because of their gender, ethnicity or race?

I hope I am proved wrong, but nothing in the constant promotion of this storyline across multiple media channels, suggests to me that I have anything new to learn from an issue we have been addressing as a charity for nearly 40 years.  People with Down’s syndrome are full of potential; they are not an ‘abnormality’; they are human beings who seek acceptance, love and kindness and who give it a hundred-fold in return.  I don’t need to see this storyline to know the offence that it will cause to our community, our families and the many people who support us in our desire to challenge and change society’s view of people who just happen to have an extra chromosome.

The third argument that has reached my ears is that soaps appropriately reflect our daily lives and the issues of the day.  This argument has been used to justify the airing of sensitive and controversial topics that are ‘part of our everyday life’ and there is even a hint in this argument that we should be grateful to the soaps for this ‘public service’.  Let’s examine this argument a little bit more closely.

I accept that, undoubtedly, there have been soap storylines that have addressed some of the big societal issues of the day and that, in some way, we could credit some soaps with greatly advancing particular causes.  The first same-sex kiss on a rival soap was a milestone moment for a community that, for far too long was repressed and discriminated against.  Violence against women has been a recurring topic for many soaps as have bullying, depression and issues of mental health.  However, the decision of the producers on Emmerdale to go public with their own spoiler – the decision of the expectant couple to terminate their pregnancy – leaves me at a loss to understand what milestone moment or great cause the producers of Emmerdale are seeking to advance with this storyline?

I don’t want to contemplate the answer to that question but what I do know is that advancing society’s understanding of the potential of everyone born with an extra chromosome will not be the planned outcome of this storyline.  The inconvenient truth is that it will reinforce prejudice and discrimination.

And so, to the fourth rejoinder: “you don’t have to watch it.”  I have absolutely no intention of watching the programme.  I am all too aware that that opens me up to accusations, from some, of not being open-minded and impartial.  As the father of a 17-year-old young man who has an extra chromosome, not watching this programme is the right thing for me to do, for his sake and for my sake.  I don’t need to tune in to this storyline to be reminded of the inequality my son and many of his friends face every single day.  An inequality that is born from prejudice and discrimination that we have been fighting all our lives; discrimination and prejudice that this storyline will only cement.

We need to call this out for what it is.

This is an attack on a community of people with protected characteristics.  It is an assault on both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).  People with Down’s syndrome have human rights and they are being trampled on by this storyline and the gratuitous way in which the programme makers have sought to promote the storyline and its outcome.

I haven’t heard any response from the producers of Emmerdale of how they intend to support, counsel and help address the trauma (and that’s the right word) that will be experienced by the very many people with Down’s syndrome who avidly watch the soaps.  The reckless irresponsibility of the producers who, as I have said, chose to actively promote this storyline in advance of the screening, as well as see it run through to the new year, will not in any way be assuaged by referring to a helpline in the closing credits of this programme.

I wonder if they will be brave (and honest) enough to update their ‘public service’ message to say; “If you have been traumatised by anything you have seen in tonight’s episode . . . we are truly sorry, we did not mean to cause offence.”

But you did, and you have.

Please, pass me the remote.

Eddie McConnell is Chief Executive of Down’s Syndrome Scotland, a role he took up in September 2019.  Over a long career in both the public sector and the third sector, he has championed causes of equality, social justice and inclusion. He is Chair of the Scottish Commission for People with a Learning Disability (SCLD).