Friday 30 November 2012

Learning the lessons of porn

Last month the National Association of Head Teachers controversially recommended that children should be taught about the impact of pornography as part of the sex education curriculum.

They pointed out that children have easy access to hardcore material on the internet and they need to be aware of its dangers and potential impact.

This week the position was clarified by Education Minister, Liz Truss, in answer to a parliamentary question.  She said that schools are free to tackle the subject of pornography in an age appropriate fashion as part of PSHE lessons.

Although many children are not looking for pornography, pornography is looking for them.  The sad fact is that the vast majority will encounter it as they grow up.  Now we need to equip them with the skills they need to deal with the effects of our overtly sexualised world.

As a society we have failed to face up to the effects of pornography and it is our children who have become the casualties. 

We are na├»ve if we think we can prevent children getting access to pornographic images.  We can control computer access, television and smart phones at home but, as things stand, these measures will barely stem the tide of images and themes which come at them from sources we can’t control, such as friends and peers.  
A recent study revealed that, whilst 50% of parents were confident they knew how to track what their child did online, 80% teenagers said they knew how to hide their online behaviour from their parents.   Almost one in three British parents makes no effort at all to monitor their teenager's activity online.

It’s a sad indictment of our society today but it is far better that we teach children that pornography is not like real life and portrays a distorted view of sexuality and relationships than leave them to make sense of it alone.

However, introducing lessons to help children deal with the impact of pornography is merely a sticking plaster solution; we need to tackle the cause as well as the effect.

The government must implement an opt-in system to limit the risk of children accessing online sexual content as a matter of urgency. 

The consultation into how best to protect children online which ran this summer was shorter than usual to allow a speedy response.  However, despite the high number of submissions received, minsters have yet to respond or even reveal the majority view.  The government is dragging its feet on this issue and a further generation of children will pay the price.

Friday 16 November 2012

What next for the BBC?

This week has been a very difficult one for the BBC.   False allegations of paedophilia against a Conservative Party grandee have led to the resignation of the Director General, the possible demise of the flagship Newsnight programme, and the paying out of substantial libel damages.

Broadcasting has a huge impact on society; in the words of Andrew Greystone of the Church & Media Network “the events at the BBC, which were kicked-off not by malice amongst programme-makers but by the wickedness of a former presenter, will simply compound the much wider loss of public trust in national institutions.”

Our call for responsible broadcasting – which goes far beyond just that which reaches the airwaves - has never been more vital.

But we must defend that which is good.  There are plenty who would dearly love to see the BBC seriously curtailed.  Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival a few years ago James Murdoch attacked the BBC for ‘dumping state sponsored news’ into the market; of course the news the BBC is accused of dumping is exactly that for which News Corps would like to charge.  Instead of ‘state sponsored’ news Mr Murdoch would like to see big business sponsored news

He said that the only ‘reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit’ – not quality, standards or diversity, just profit. 

We should bear in mind that broadcasting has a far greater impact and influence on society than just profits.

We may not always agree with all the decisions made by the BBC, or the totality of its output, but it does aspire to the highest standards in journalism and its other productions.  In many ways it sets the benchmark for other broadcasters.  The resignation of George Entwistle is a recognition that those high standards have not been met and that they are, ultimately, more important than members of staff and individual programmes.

We are delighted that a formal independent investigation into culture and practices at the BBC is taking place and that important questions are being asked about the way the BBC is managed.  

This evening the BBC will host its annual Children in Need telethon.  Children in Need is the BBC’s corporate charity which works to help disadvantaged children in the UK and, since it’s inception in 1980, it has raised over £650 million.  This BBC initiative is a laudable example of the impact and that influence that the institution and its output has on our society.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Balancing free speech and child protection

Today a law that aims to protect children from harmful internet content by allowing the government to take sites offline has taken effect in Russia.  Websites can now be blacklisted and forced offline without a trial and, if the sites themselves cannot be closed, ISPs will be forced to block access to them.

This law has been described by critics as yet another attempt by President Putin to exercise control over the population.  "Of course there are websites that should not be accessible to children, but I don't think it will be limited to that," warned a spokesman for the human rights organisation Citizens' Watch.

We have been campaigning for some time for better protection for children online in the UK; we would like to see a system whereby potentially harmful websites are blocked as a default unless adult users specifically opt in to access them.

This is not the same as the new Russian system.

The UK proposal involves an independent regulator which would be tasked with setting clear parameters of what would, and what would not be, acceptable on a ‘clean feed’.  Websites which felt they were being unfairly blocked would have a right to appeal any decision.

Earlier this year we found that our website and blog were being blocked by filters designed to offer a safe browsing experience for children on mobile devices.  These filters are applied as a default on all mobile devices which access the internet unless adult users choose to remove them.  Although neither our blog nor our website include pornography such material is alluded to in the context of our campaign and our sites were being filtered out.

We contacted the Mobile Broadband Group and pointed out the misclassification and it was a simple matter to get the restrictions lifted.  

Protecting children online is vital but so is protecting free speech.  Our experience shows that the system we already have in place in the UK for mobile browsing is working and errors are easily rectified.  Later this year the outcome of the recent consultation into protecting children online will be announced, it is to be hoped that mis-advised concerns about censorship are not be elevated above children’s online safety.