Dispatches: When Cousins Marry

Rachel Cooke applauds a rare example of risk-taking journalism.

Why is the press treating the inauguration of Jason Manford and Alex Jones, the new presenters of The One Show (weekdays, 7pm, BBC1), like the shuffling of the cabinet or goings-on at a Church of England synod? It's unfathomable. On the sole occasion I tuned in - research, I call it - I was able to endure only seven minutes of Nationwide's cheeseball successor. (Even if it were pure televisual Viagra, I couldn't catch it regularly; The One Show starts at 7pm, when many of us are either still at work or slowly making our way home by car, train or bus.) Alarming, then, to return after a few days abroad to discover that the nation is on tenterhooks as to what this pair will do or say next. Not only must we know what their ratings are and how they cope when - shock - Pamela Anderson arrives late on set, we also demand to be told where they're going to live and whether they will rent or buy.

The gruesome success of The One Show is part of a general retreat by television from dealing with difficult stuff. When it comes to real life, programme-makers and viewers alike seem not to want to think too hard; and while the former fear causing offence, the latter are pathetically quick to take it (reality television, by the way, has nothing to do with real life, and is therefore free to be very offensive indeed).

A cowardly sogginess has set in, one to which I'm so inured that I'm going to have to overpraise Dispatches: When Cousins Marry (23 August, 8pm). This wasn't the best documentary ever; I doubt it will win a Bafta. But it was, at least, prepared to risk ruffling feathers, albeit in the interests of a righteous cause (its occasional attempts to placate the thin-skinned viewer were tossed off so nonchalantly, you knew instinctively that they were just a sop). To be honest, its mere existence is cause for celebration. Will we see more of this kind of thing at the new-look Channel 4? I hope so.

Tazeen Ahmad's documentary began with a young man slumped in a doorway. He was flailing and moaning, whether in frustration or in pain, you could not tell. This boy was one of three severely disabled children born to the same British Pakistani family in Bradford; the children suffer from a rare genetic disease they would not have inherited had their parents not been first cousins. Outside, in a narrow street, Ahmad told us more. In Britain, more than half the Pakistani community marry a first cousin, often with tragic results. A third of children who suffer from rare recessive disorders in the UK come from this community, which represents just 1.5 per cent of the total population. In Bradford, where 75 per cent of the Pakistani community marry a cousin, as many as 10 per cent of children suffer from genetic abnormalities. Such conditions cause kidney and liver failure, blindness and deafness. Many die before they are five.

These appalling statistics should, by rights, have led by now to a health education campaign. Yet this is not the case. Why? Fear, political correctness, sophistry, cant: that's why. Imams and community leaders rubbish the science, arguing that they know lots of first cousins with perfectly healthy children. Parents insist that it is fate or the will of God, or, in the case of one woman, blame it on the drugs prescribed by doctors - drugs that, in fact, have prolonged her children's lives.

As for our politicians, could they be any more craven? Ahmad contacted 16 MPs with sizeable Pakistani populations among their constituents to discuss what can be done. All declined to talk. She invited 30 MPs to take part in a survey. Only one did so, pleading anonymity on the grounds that he would be attacked by political enemies (he feared being accused of racism). Only Ann Cryer, the former MP for Keighley, would appear on camera. Actually, that's not true. Also present was Salma Yaqoob, the Respect councillor. She acknowledged the seriousness of the issue but she also went on, as per usual, about the 9/11 attacks. What genetic disorders have to do with 9/11, I've no idea. However, I do know this: in spite of its does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title, Ahmad's film was exemplary journalism, clear-sighted, non-judgemental, quietly bewildered. In an age of celebrity and hype, she delivered - can you believe it? - a proper story.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off