A child dies on a playground – is the next day too soon for me to comment?

A few weeks ago, I got a call. Channel 4 News was planning to run a story on the death of a child in a school playground accident, and did I want to comment?

The programme wanted the piece to include a perspective about the danger of over-reacting to such tragedies. It was thought that I would be a good person to make that point.

I checked online and found some more details about the event. The child, a five-year-old boy subsequently named as Samuel Orola, had been seriously injured during lunchtime, when he fell off a climbing frame in the playground of Tolworth Junior School, Kingston, London. Paramedics had been called, but he was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. (I got the call the next morning.)

I called the journalist, and said I did not want to be interviewed. I explained that while I think we are prone to over-react to extremely rare tragedies  – that sometimes, terrible things happen and no-one is to blame – and while I do think that we cannot eliminate risk from children’s play, I felt it was too soon after the event to be saying this, with the family having only just heard the news that every parent dreads. I asked if Channel 4 would consider covering the story at a later date, when it would be more appropriate to make wider points. I was told that this would not happen – that the story would only be covered on that day. (I watched Channel 4 news that night. It ran a short factual report.)

I’ve long known that sooner or later, I would get a call like this one. I’ve not known quite how I would feel, or how I would respond. Now I think I do. I do not feel comfortable making wider points about these issues in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy. I think that to do this so soon after the event is insensitive, if not exploitative.

Another factor influenced my decision. I think that the public are becoming more aware of the dangers of rushing to judgement, and of always seeking someone to blame. Maybe as a society, we are taking a more balanced view. Some of the comments on the local news story suggest this. In which case, maybe I didn’t need to go on TV to make the point.

On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I missed a rare opportunity to get people’s attention and help them reflect on a tragic event, at the very point when that tragedy had just happened, and when we are most swayed by our emotions. What do you think?

Samuel Orola’s funeral was last Thursday. My condolences go out to his family, friends and schoolmates.

12 responses to “A child dies on a playground – is the next day too soon for me to comment?

  1. I think you are uncommonly wise. No matter how sensible your comments were, it would have been the wrong time. Someone somewhere would have seen it as opportunistic, and then there would have been a storm of controversy which would have made the parents even more upset. It’s never okay to barge in on someone’s grief with an agenda, no matter how well-meaning you might be. Well done.

  2. In my opinion you did the right thing. You kept a cool head in a tragic situation and reacted correctly by giving yourself time to reflect and respond
    later on. It is hard enough for the people close up to the family including the
    staff of the school to ensure they say and do the right thing at a time when
    every word, gesture and action seems to need to be extended with a delicacy almost beyond belief by those who know the family personally and
    just about impossible to do right from a distance during that early open wound period, in order not to add to the fresh pain and sorrow.
    In time it will become clearer and keep trusting your feelings and follow your
    instinct to do what will be benefitial to be learned from this tragedy.
    Kind regards , Margret

  3. The journalists were trying to make the story bigger. Definitely exploitation of a tragedy.

    Condolences to the boy’s family.

  4. Good call Tim. Tragic events of this nature are so heartbreaking and fraught with grief. The greater good I think is demonstrating sensitivity to the immediate family and friends in their time of loss and mourning.

  5. Any comment would have been general, however once hooked to a story could be percieved as personal and therefore thoroughly insensitive.

    It is a pity Channel 4 did not respond positively to looking at the issues and attitudes involved in children’s play at a later date. Their lack of inclination to do so once the headlines have moved on makes your decision the right one in retrospect.

    To clarify, I do not wish the above paragraph to sound insulting to those involved. For the bereaved and those close to the incident moving on swiftly is not an option.

  6. A sudden death like this is a desperately sad tragedy. It is never made better by the media reporting about it so soon after the event. I speak from direct personal experience on more than one occasion.

    The family need time and space and perhaps, if they want, an opportunity to meet professionals in due course that can assist in different and considered ways.

    Right decision by you Tim? Definitely – and helpful for the rest of us too.

  7. Tim, as others are saying, you definitely made the right decision not to comment at such a terrible time for the family and without all the facts being known.
    Once a suitable period has passed, no doubt the HSE and members of the Play Safety Forum will look at the facts surrounding this tragedy and try to determine whether there are any lessons to learn from it.
    Those of us who promote greater understanding (by play providers and the public alike) of the essential need for all children to encounter a variety of challenging and at the same time beneficial experiences whenever they are playing, do so in order that children may learn and grow physically, mentally and socially from them. Becoming more `streetwise’ and safety aware is a good thing for children, and Play has a role in teaching children about making the right judgements.
    Of course, we don’t yet know if safety, or a lack of it, has anything to do with this child’s death.
    We do know there is no such thing as a totally safe play area, regardless of whether it is located in a school, in a building or outside in an open space.
    We also know it is not the purpose of such places to be completely safe. That’s the message Channel 4 could try to promote if they have a genuine interest in child well-being beyond the sensationalist stories.

  8. I agree, it was the right, empathetic, decision.

  9. The often outspoken Michael Moore, declared the presidential election of George Bush as a sham at the Oscars, it was nearly suicide for him but eventually it spun full circle and he came out the better for it with the compelling 9/11. I sometimes wish that in moments tragedy someone would speak out to help counter a tabloid media circus from promoting knee jerk reactions, but on occasions such as this that is for the family to do and all the more powerful for it on those rare occasions that the family do speak out.
    Thoughts with the family
    Well done Tim

  10. Nope, not really. It all depends on the comment anyway. And I’m sure its your way of saying your sympathy.


  11. Very sad and very tragic. Channel 4 put you in a difficult position, hence your question. I feel that Channel 4 should be bold enough to allow a documentary to happen, as you suggested otherwise tragic happenings such as this get ‘blown up’ and then there’s another reason to limit children’s outdoor, risky, free play. I don’t mean to come across as insensitive, but that’s the reality!

  12. Belated thanks to all those who commented here. It was a genuinely difficult judgement call, but I am reassured that most of you – and many colleagues too – thought it was the right decision.

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