Unanswered questions about The Sun’s ‘baby-father’ story

with 6 comments

On 13th February, The Sun broke the original story about 13-year-old ‘baby-father’ Alfie. This week, it revealed that the story was almost entirely wrong (though you wouldn’t have known that from the coverage).

The most astonishing aspect of the story was not only that Alfie was young, but that Alfie also looked incredibly young. Rather than a 13-year-old, Alfie looked – from the published photographs and video – no more than 10.

The Sun held the exclusive rights to the original story – which included video access to Alfie, his 15-year-old girlfriend and their new baby in hospital (video still available to view, 21-5-09, here)

The commercial impact of the story was immediate. So popular was the story and video (‘video that stunned world’ the site said) that, combined with the Sun’s coverage of Jade Goody, it helped make www.thesun.co.uk the most popular UK newspaper website in February (rising from 5th to 1st position according to Media Guardian).

Nor was the impact simply commercial. For politicians, particularly opposition politicians, the story showed that Britain really was ‘broken’. David Cameron, writing in The Sun, said ‘I could barely believe my eyes yesterday morning when I saw the pictures of baby-faced Alfie Patten and his own baby girl’, and he applauded The Sun ‘for bringing this to public attention’. Turns out he should have suspended his disbelief.

This week The Sun returned to the story – and not apologetically. It splashed the news that the 13-year-old was not the real father across its front page on Tuesday and continued it on pages 4-5. It named the actual father (based on DNA this time) – then 14, now 15, and talked about the sex life of the 15-year-old mother. It referred to the liberalism of the girl’s mother (reporting that she let her daughter take boys upstairs to her bedroom) and acknowledged that the girl at the centre of the story was being bullied.

So the story has come full circle. We find the actual story is arguably much less newsworthy (’14-year-old boy – who looks 14 – makes 15-year-old girl pregnant’) and would probably not have boosted audiences to The Sun website or elicited the same political laments about our moral malaise.

But a number of questions remain unanswered about The Sun’s baby-father story:

How did The Sun find the story in the first place? Was it sold to them? If so, did the paper make a deal, and if so, has it paid for the story? (according to Max Clifford, on the Today Programme, and according to Stephen Brook on guardian.co.uk, it hasn’t).

How did The Sun try to check the boy’s story? Did it base a story of such commercial significance – and such personal significance to those involved – on the claims of a 13-year-old boy (or what he told his parents)? Did it speak to other children who knew the girl and boy (that the papers have since spoken to) or did it do its own DNA test, before running with the story across its paper and website?

Should The Sun have reported the story in the first place? Given issues surrounding reporting of children (as spelt out, for example, in Clause 6 of the Editorial Code of Conduct), privacy concerns, and the fact it was not sure the boy was the real father.

Is The Sun setting up a trust for the new baby (as reported in the Media Guardian this week but not commented on by the paper)? Is this meant as an apology for the original story?

Written by Martin Moore

May 21st, 2009 at 3:40 pm

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6 Responses to 'Unanswered questions about The Sun’s ‘baby-father’ story'

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  1. And your last question is the most significant I think: “Is this meant as an apology for the original story?”It seems very odd and would be a good one to get to the bottom of, especially in context of the press regulation select committee review; the recent public speeches by Dacre and Wade; and Kelvin MacKenzie’s comments on Wednesday about privacy etc.


    21 May 09 at 6:58 pm

  2. Absolutely. Particularly since Kelvin MacKenzie focused his comments so much on celebrity privacy, as opposed to the general public’s privacy

    Martin Moore

    21 May 09 at 9:42 pm

  3. Wow. Some very good questions. And I would really like to know who made the Sun aware of the story.


    22 May 09 at 4:17 am

  4. Martin,It seems to me that this reflects extremely badly on the PCC. The investigation begun in February has not yet appeared. Why is taking the PCC so long to find out what happened here?


    22 May 09 at 8:31 am

  5. @ Nicola – thank you, me too.@magpiejem – according to Media Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/feb/16/pcc-alfie-patten-father-sun-people) the PCC launched an investigation on 16 February that was due to ‘take about three weeks’. I haven’t seen any reports about the investigation since then (now over 13 weeks ago). Given that East Sussex County Council has failed to stop further reporting of the case I would have thought we’ll hear something shortly – but I guess we’ll have to wait and see

    Martin Moore

    22 May 09 at 9:50 am

  6. Martin – Yes, I have been pestering a contact I have in the PCC about this. It seems that the Sun is arguing that they haven’t paid for the story; but it seems clear some kind of arrangement must have been in place. Seems to me a real test of the PCC’s investigatory powers!


    22 May 09 at 10:51 am

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