Picture credit: Vatican Media via Vatican Pool/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Where is the media scrutiny of surrogacy?

The Pope is concerned but journalists seem indifferent

What do The Times’ Head of Investigations, ITV’s UK Editor and the BBC’s Rome Correspondent have in common? 

They have all had children with surrogate mothers. 

Now, as journalists of — I’m sure — unimpeachable levels of integrity, they wouldn’t possibly shy away from covering newsworthy items and political developments of the day just because they may have personal commitments on a given issue. Obviously no journalist ever allows his or her home life to trump something as sacred as the news.

And as journalists of several years vintage between them, I’m sure they believe devoutly in impartiality, unbiased reporting, and not developing blind spots, let alone privileging their personal preferences over what’s actually newsworthy. 

Consider then, the speech by Pope Francis yesterday, in which he called for a global ban on the “despicable” practice of surrogacy. The Pope’s remarks received coverage in the Daily Mail, Washington Post, Time Magazine, New York Times and Sky News, amongst many other outlets around the world. 

One might have expected the BBC’s Rome Correspondent to have filed a story on our dominant news website about this, well, news; but no. One might have expected him to have at least commented, and indeed, he did, saying: “Pope Francis calls for global ban on surrogacy, denouncing it as ‘despicable’, turning a child into ‘object of trafficking’. (Currently playing with my happy 1-year-old, whose two adoring dads will bring our amazing altruistic surrogate over from Canada at Easter to visit.)” It’s unclear how this statement sits within the BBC’s own editorial guidelines on reporters’ use of social media. Meanwhile, in the regulated private sector, I couldn’t find any evidence that ITV had reported the story either. 

BBC guidance states:

Our audiences must be able to trust the BBC and be confident that our editorial decisions are not influenced by outside interests, including political or commercial pressures…An individual’s activities might affect the public’s perception of the BBC. A potential conflict of interest arises when there is the possibility that an individual’s external activities may affect, or be reasonably perceived as affecting, the BBC’s impartiality and its integrity, or risk damaging the BBC’s reputation generally or the value of the brand.

Now, you may think that perhaps the BBC doesn’t cover many statements by, or stories about the Pope, so this omission might not be the deliberate oversight it appears. Yet the BBC website hosts an entire page dedicated to coverage of Pope Francis and includes stories such as “Pets must not replace children in Italy, warns Pope”, “Pope backs scheme to get more children coding” and “Pope spends calm night in hospital”. You might reasonably conclude that the Pope calling for a global ban on the sale of human children might merit a line or two.

It was a small crumb of comfort to see the BBC finally touch the subject when Newsnight mentioned it on Tuesday evening, though coverage of the detail of how surrogacy actually works in practice, including the large expenses payments offered to most surrogate mothers, failed to receive a mention, and our offer to appear on the programme to provide balance was declined.

But there’s more to be concerned about here than just a lack of rigorous journalism or coverage of statements by the Pontiff. It points to a wider risk: that people who have had children through surrogate motherhood are unlikely to ever critically analyse the practice, or examine what surrogacy means for mothers and children. Now, given commissioning parents are generally concentrated higher up the income scale, there is a societal risk here. A wealthy class of people who buy eggs, take embryos across borders and hire women’s bodies to carry their children are the ones more likely to be working in newsrooms, advocating in our courtrooms and even making our laws in Parliament. 

How then are potential scandals, or even just plain old thorny ethical and moral issues, to be thoroughly examined, when significant members of the class charged with this very task may be looking the other way? It can only mean that those of us who take an interest in such matters must surely redouble our efforts. The news is the news even if some choose not to report it.

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