Monday 15 December 2014

Protecting the future

Apparently one of the most popular gifts for children this Christmas will be a tablet computer.  Although the first such device was launched less than five years ago in 2010 the technology has proved so popular that, according to Ofcom, 70% of 5-15 year olds now have access to one.  Smartphones will be another most-requested this year and it is sobering to think that back in 2011 when Reg Bailey reported for the Government on the sexualisation of childhood the technology was so new that his report included just one reference to smartphones; four year on most mobile phone users have such a device.

Similarly the way that we use the internet has changed.  Initially the internet hosted sites limited to the passive viewing of content but we are now able to interact and collaborate with each other in a virtual community through social networking sites, blogs, wikis, video sharing sites etc.

These changes have given us new capabilities and ways to connect but they have also presented us with a whole new set of challenges.  A decade ago behaviours such as sexting and trolling barely existed but today we have to consider how best to protect people from such harmful practices.

The pace of innovation is incredibly fast and it is vital that regulation and legislation continues to keep up.  This month we have seen a number of developments aimed at closing this gap:

  • Sexual communication with a child online is to become a criminal offence.  Inviting a child to communicate sexually – regardless of whether or not the recipient of those messages replies or responds in any sexual way – will be illegal. The law will apply to anyone over the age of 18 trying to send a sexual message to anyone under the age of 16 – whether that’s on Facebook, SMS, WhatsApp, email or any other communications channel.
  • GCHQ and the National Crime Agency are to work together to hunt online paedophiles with the same effort used to track terrorists.  Data taken from tens of millions of child abuse photos and videos seized during previous operations will be compiled to form a new database to aid investigations into suspected paedophiles across the UK.
  • Google has announced it is developing child-friendly versions of its search site, Chrome browser and video-sharing service YouTube.  The modified versions will be designed for children aged up to 12 and will include tools that let parents monitor and manage how much time their offspring spend online and where they go.
  • Twitter, like many other sites, has become a repository for abusive language.  A new system for reporting abuse on the platform has now been developed offering additional user controls, further improvements to reporting and new enforcement procedures for abusive accounts.
These are all examples of government and industry working to keep pace with technological innovation and they are to be commended.  However it is important that our efforts are not solely confined to catching up.

An independent review into the future of government in the digital age has recently been published.  The review was commissioned by the Labour Party and it recommended that the UK Government establish an expert technology ethics body similar to those already in place in medicine and academia.  It would help address complex challenges such as ownership and control of data and the right to be forgotten.  As one commentator put it: “we need a technology philosopher in chief for our age, before the technology runs away with itself.”

Friday 5 December 2014

Violent game banned by Australian retailers

This week Target and Kmart, two of Australia's largest retailers, took the decision to remove the controversial video game Grand Theft Auto 5 from their stores because of its graphic scenes of violence against women.

Grant Theft Auto 5 is the latest title in the successful gaming series and was released a year ago.  It is set in the fictional American city of Los Santos and gamers control criminals as they rampage through the town committing a series of crimes to rise to the top of the gangster underworld by any grotesque means necessary.  It has been criticised for its levels of violence, particularly for its depictions of torture and the way it often portrays women as strippers and prostitutes.  The Guinness Book of Records has named the series as the most controversial video game in history

Explaining its decision, a spokesman for Target said it had “been speaking to many customers over recent days about the game, and there is a significant level of concern about the game's content.  We feel the decision to stop selling GTA5 is in line with the majority view of our customers.” 

Clearly the chain’s decision was business focused rather than part of a wider moral crusade but it was prompted by a petition calling for its removal from stores because of the levels of violence against women.  It is worth noting that Grand Theft Auto allows players to be violent not just towards women but men too.   However GTA’s depiction of female characters is broadly one dimensional with women portrayed in the main as prostitutes, nags or powerless damsels in distress; hardly a healthy role model for the 21st century.

GTA is no stranger to controversy and it has come to be seen as the nadir of violent gaming.  However, there are equally concerning games such as the updated version of 90s bĂȘte noire Mortal Kombat which allows players to kill their opponents in numerous stomach churning ways and Call of Duty is infamous for the episode in which players are invited to slaughter bystanders in an airport.

There are lots of games which are not violet and misogynistic but it’s the nature of promotion today that, in order to secure media coverage, developers need to provide a product that will be talked about and sometimes pushing the boundaries is an easy way to do this.  We’ve seen the same in other forms of media including music videos.

There has been a backlash from gamers against Target’s decision but so often the level of debate has descended to ‘I play GTA and I don’t run down prostitutes’ - but this is missing the point.  Research from Canada published earlier this year looked at far more subtle, but equally concerning, links between the types of games played and gamers’ moral reasoning and ability to take the perspective of others into account.

Hours spent playing violent video games was found to be effectively stunting emotional growth. Interestingly, there was no correlation between the amount of time reported playing non-violent video games and moral reasoning levels.

Following the ban in Australia there has the predictable outpouring of threats and abuse against those who initiated and signed the petition.  Perhaps this toxic behaviour is itself an illustration of the possible effect of these violent games.

If you are thinking of buying a console such as Xbox One or PlayStation 4 this Christmas it’s worth bearing in mind that there is nothing wrong with gaming per se – as long as players don’t spend too long doing it.  The key is keeping abreast of the content of the games being played on the device.  Grand Theft Auto 5 is rated 18 and this rating is not an indication of skill but of content.  In the same way most responsible parents would not be happy with their children watching an 18 rated DVD they need to keep a similar eye on the games which are being played and make sure that they use the parental controls available on these platforms to protect their children – not just from age inappropriate games but, as these consoles can be used to access the internet, from potentially harmful online content too.   You can find out how to do this here for Xbox products and here for PS4.

Defeat in the Lords but we keep fighting

Thank you for taking the time to use our campaign website, to contact a peer and encourage them to support Baroness Howe’s amendment to the government’s Consumer Rights Bill.  Lady Howe’s amendment required all ISPs and mobile phone operators to provide their customers a service free of adult content unless they opted in to receive it and made provision for robust age verification to guard against abuse of the system.

So many people responded that we estimate that every peer received at least one email of encouragement.  Lady Howe was delighted with the level of support that she had received and asked me to pass on her thanks.

Sadly the amendment was not carried with 65 peers voting for it with 124 voting against.

As the Government did not support the amendment, we always knew that an early vote would be crucial to success and, unfortunately, the debate went on into the evening by which time many non-government peers had gone home.

It is deeply frustrating that, at the end of the day this should come down to something as capricious as timing rather than the quality of the arguments.  There were great contributions from Lord Cormack and Lord Framlingham who both defied their Party whips and voted for the amendment.

Although disappointing we should also take encouragement from the result.  The majority of Peers spoke in favour of the amendment and in her summing up Lady Howe noted: “each time one puts pressure on the Government, it improves the situation”

The peers who voted for the amendment included Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and cross-benchers.  Clearly this is an issue which transcends party boundaries and shows the strength of feeling on this issue.  You can read the debate here, beginning on page 35.

Thank you once again for your support which, had timings been different, would have carried the day.  All is not yet over and we look forward to being able to write to you with the good news of statutory protection in the not too distant future.

Friday 21 November 2014

Have Your Say: a real chance to see real change.

Campaign update:

Over the past year we have seen some real progress in our fight to protect children from harmful online material. 

The Government has worked with some Internet Service Providers to come up with a voluntary industry agreement to protect children which being called ‘default-on’.  This represents an important step forward but, crucially, it leaves over10% of the home broadband market and hundreds of thousands of children beyond the agreement.  It is a good start but will only be really effective if accompanied by robust age-verification for users which is sadly lacking from the industry’s own proposals.

That the current arrangements are insufficient was eloquently illustrated by an ATVOD report in March which showed that in one month 44,000 primary school children had accessed porn sites and 200,000 children under 16. In August a judge sentenced a boy for raping a 10 year old girl noting that he was acting out hard core porn he had freely accessed from the computer in his bedroom.

We believe that self-regulation is not a credible long term solution and that statutory backing is needed.

If we keep things solely on a self-regulatory basis we will have no long term security.  It may be that under intense political and media pressure today the industry will get its house in order, but where will we be in five, ten or twenty years’ time?  If it is true, as the Prime Minister has said, that ‘few things are more important than this,’ why is it that we have laws on myriad eventualities but nothing in relation to one of the most important areas currently affecting us and our children?

Last January Baroness Howe moved an amendment to the Children and Families Bill to address these issues.  Although the amendment was lost, a very considerable vote was secured and many have said that had the vote not been delayed until 8.30 in the evening it would have been won.

The Government has failed to do anything substantive in the intervening period to deal with the problems that the amendment addressed.  Mindful of this Baroness Howe has introduced an amendment (50D) to the Consumer Rights Bill which will be debated in the House of Lords on 26th November.  If accepted this clause would require:

  • All Internet Service Providers and mobile phone operators to provide, as a default, an internet service without access to pornography – with adult subscribers able to opt-in to receive such material.
  • The provision of really robust age-verification procedures.

Please act now:

If you agree that it's time the law was used to protect children in the online environment as it is offline please email a cross bench peer and encourage them to attend The House on 26th November and support the Bill.

We have updated our campaign website,, to enable you to do this quickly and easily.  Time is of the essence but this is such a wonderful opportunity to have a real influence we hope you won’t want to miss it.

If you are pushed for time Safeonline includes a quick and easy template letter that you can use.  The whole process should take no more than a couple of minutes and it could make all the difference.

Monday 10 November 2014

The cause of ratings creep: desensitisation

The November issue of Pediatrics magazine includes the findings of some very interesting new research which suggests that viewers may be partly responsible for ‘ratings creep’ which has seen younger children exposed to increasing levels of on screen sex and violence.

The study found that parents become desensitised over time when viewing material featuring ‘adult’ content; viewers watching a series of bloodthirsty or erotic scenes were less able to gauge their suitability for children as time went by.

Researchers showed a series of clips with similar levels of sex and violence to parents of children aged six to 18 and asked them to give each selection an age rating. The study found that viewers of the first scene felt an appropriate age would be, on average, 16.9 for violent content and 17.2 for sexualised content. But by the time they had watched the sixth scene, respondents’ perception of the appropriate age had dropped to 13.9 for violent content and 14 for sexualised content.

The authors of the study also suggest that the desensitisation phenomenon could affect other frequent film viewers, such as those who decide the age appropriate level of films.  This would help explain the long-term “ratings creep” phenomenon which has seen censors on both sides of the Atlantic relax ratings.  Indeed an American study conducted last year found that films rated PG-13 now contain more gun violence than those rated R (not suitable for under 17s) and that gun violence in PG-13 films has tripled since 1985.

The phenomenon was illustrated in the UK this week:

Appearing before a meeting of the Commons culture, media and sport committee, outgoing Ofcom Chairman, Ed Richards, told MPs that Ofcom have found only 35% of viewers think there is too much violence on TV, down from 55% in 2008, while 26% believe there is too much sex.  Just 35% think there is too much swearing; down from 53% six years ago.

“There has been a big change in this over the years,” said Mr Richards.  “People are more tolerant of a degree of violence than they were. They are much more tolerant of certain forms of swearing than they were.”

This is a perfect illustration of what happens after decades of constant exposure to questionable content; we become desensitised and the boundaries of what is considered acceptable are constantly pushed back.  What the long-term consequences of this desensitisation might be for the next generation remain unknown.

Friday 24 October 2014

Watershed protections online

Earlier this year the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, announced plans to make BBC 3 – the corporation’s ‘youth’ channel – a completely online channel.  Despite opposition from presenters and some executives the new head of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, has hinted that the trust will approve the move saying that the BBC should do even more to cater for young viewers who prefer to watch television on their tablets and mobile phones.

Speaking to the culture, media and sport committee she said: “The statistics show that this group are watching less. They are certainly watching very differently…. typically they watch on-the-go through the devices they have.  Catch up television appears to be a way the younger audience will use the BBC and view programmes.”

BBC Three is the most successful youth television station with more viewers aged 16 - 34 than any other youth television station including E4, Sky 1 and ITV2.  Shows such as Bad Education and Being Human attract almost 30% of this age group on a weekly basis; they also attract many much younger viewers.

Over the years the channel has produced some excellent programmes including My Brother the Islamist, Autistic Me, and Blood, Sweat and TShirts.  Earlier this year it broadcast a documentary, Porn, What’s the Harm, which raised some important questions for young adults but was unsuitable for younger children.  However the channel has also broadcast some potentially harmful content including in 2012 Like a Virgin, which followed girls preparing to lose their virginity, in which a bikini wax was given more attention than a safe sex message – which is contrary to government guidelines.

Presently the channel broadcasts from 7pm to 4am, largely post-watershed.  Much of the channel’s content is available online with a parental guidance prompt and can only accessed by ticking a box confirming that the viewer is over 16 – hardly beyond the wit of a much younger child.  Moving this channel online without updating the protections will compound the problem.  Any existing computer filters are unlikely to block access to iPlayer and, as the parental control feature is not widely advertised, it is reasonable to assume that the majority of parents will not have set up controls to protect their children. 

When the BBC Trust looked at the iPlayer back in 2010 we asked them to consider the inadequate protection available.  We called for a more robust system to protect children.  The Trust did not address this in their findings but they did recommend more was done to advertise the available parental controls.  However this has not happened.

We have written to Rona Fairhead outlining our concerns about the lack of protection for children afforded by the BBC’s iPlayer.  We have pointed out that, should BBC 3 move online, these problems will be magnified and we have asked her to consider ways in which the protections offered by the television watershed could be replicated online.

Monday 20 October 2014

Mary Whitehouse on the BBC

This is a picture of the projection on the BBC’s Broadcasting House.  Mary Whitehouse was famously blocked from appearing on the BBC during the 1960s because of her criticism of the corporation’s output which she believed was potentially harmful. 

Last Tuesday evening, we projected images of Mary Whitehouse in locations all over London asking people to consider whether or not she was right all along.  At the same time we released the results of new research which we commissioned to mark our anniversary.  We wanted to know what the British public felt about the state of media, its impact on today’s society and whether the public feels confident that complaints about disturbing or unsuitable content are being dealt with effectively.

Our investigation found that, overwhelmingly, the public think programme makers and schedulers crossed the line in allowing increasingly inappropriate content to invade our screens.  Everyone surveyed reported viewing inappropriate content before the watershed, including: violence, sexual activity, racism and offensive language.  However, only 26% had actually done anything to express their dissatisfaction because they do not feel their voices are being heeded when they complain.

The highest percentage of complaints was made about sexual activity (47%), followed by offensive language (38%), violence (36%) and inappropriate adult issues such as drug taking, gambling etc (34%), all shown before the watershed. More people had complained about content involving sexual violence (33%) than about racism or other discriminatory content (21%).   This would not have come as a surprise to Mary Whitehouse who said of television: “if it is sometimes a debasing influence, it could equally be a great ennobling force if we cared enough.”

When respondents were asked whether inappropriate content might have an effect on people’s behaviour, 94% believed that it could, citing violent horror, explicit sexual content, music videos and soap operas as particularly problematic.  With such a high percentage of the public feeling that this kind of subject matter can be potentially harmful, Mediawatch-UK believes that broadcasters have a duty to take this more seriously.

Writing in 1977, Mary Whitehouse said: “What we are is inseparable from the cumulative effect of all that we have seen, read and experienced.”  How prescient this seems now.   

39% of those surveyed said they hadn’t bothered to make a complaint because they either feared that nothing would be done about it, they didn’t know whom to contact or sometimes they didn’t want to be seen as a ‘complainer’.  They gave a number of reasons for this:  

Of those that did complain, either to their media provider, TV station, the programme makers, OFCOM or via social media, 40% either received no response at all or were dissatisfied with the outcome.  Many received a computer-generated form which was never followed up.  Others felt strongly that if the body to which they had expressed their complaint had simply apologised they may have been satisfied, but they were denied even that small gesture.

OFCOM’s failure to regulate adequately in the past has led to what the regulator itself described as being ‘at the very margin of acceptability’ to become mainstream. Is it then any wonder that people are not making their views known about inappropriate broadcasts because they don’t think anything will come of complaining.   

Many today would concur with Mary Whitehouse’s comment on the TV regulator: “Instead of the government providing a vehicle for the voice of the viewer, it has provided little more than a convenient means for the broadcasters to deflect criticism of their programmes.”  It would appear that Mary Whitehouse was right after all.

Friday 3 October 2014

Age ratings for music videos

Today sees the launch of a pilot scheme to introduce film-style age ratings for music videos to help protect children from unsuitable content.  This has come in response to huge public concern that what has become mainstream in music videos in recent years is now barely inches away from pornography. 

Recent videos from Britney Spears, Rhianna and Miley Cyrus have included nudity, highly sexualised dancing and imagery and visual references to prostitution.  What is particularly disturbing about this is that the fan base of all these performers is so young.  Watching them, one could be forgiven for thinking that these videos have been produced to appeal to an adult male audience but, in reality, they are far more likely to be viewed by school children.

Parents who responded to the government’s Bailey Review in 2011 cited music videos as a major concern.  The report subsequently recommended that age restrictions should be applied to music videos to prevent children buying sexually explicit videos and guide broadcasters over when to show them.  Ministers called on the industry to develop solutions so that more online videos, particularly those that are likely to be sought out by children and young people, carry advice about their age suitability in future.  This new scheme is a response to that call.

The new measures will see websites YouTube and Vevo and three of the UK's top music labels - Warner, Universal and Sony – working with the BBFC to apply age ratings to videos before they are made available online.

Presently this classification will be limited to the UK, so it will not apply to some of the most explicit videos by the likes of US stars Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lopez but the Chief Executive of the music industry body, the BPI, is hopeful that "other countries might see we're taking a lead, and if it works they might follow suit."

This is a welcome move and we will be watching with interest to see how it works in action.  However, the scheme is a voluntary one but for maximum impact it needs to be mandatory across the industry.  It will not be the ‘silver bullet’ which guarantees protection to children watching music online but it does offer parents another useful tool to help them safeguard their children and it is an important first step in establishing very clear boundaries on acceptable standards in videos.

Monday 29 September 2014

Healthy programming

Last week the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) published new health guidelines recommending we reduce the time we spend watching television with strategies such as TV-free days or setting a limit of no more than two hours a day in front of the screen.

On the day the story was released we received several calls from journalists for our take on the story.  Many of them thought that we were ‘anti-television’ and would welcome any advice which suggested watching less TV.

Clearly there are health benefits in pursing physical activity over sedentary television watching.  However, watching television impacts not only physical health but mental and social wellbeing too. 

Many of the journalists who contacted us this week were expecting us to say that television was bad and best avoided.  We pointed out that, over the years, television has brought us some outstanding programmes but these have been shown alongside potentially harmful content such as The Joy of Teen Sex. To compare the two extremes is almost impossible. 

Our campaign stems not from the fact that we are anti-television; indeed it’s because we recognise the importance of the medium that we continue to press for more responsible broadcasting.  To quote Mary Whitehouse, television programmes should “lead people on and up not down and out.”

With this in mind, please do take time to let broadcasters know what you think of their output.  They would love to hear from you if you think a programmes is especially worthy of praise but if you see anything on television which you consider unacceptable or potentially harmful it’s really important to flag it up. 

You can also find contact details for the media on our website.  If you use the new Parentport website (you don’t have to be a parent!) your complaint will be directed to the right body and it won’t cost you a thing but it could make all the difference.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

The real cost of Page 3

Many of us have signed the No More Page 3 petition asking the editor of The Sun to stop running topless pictures on page 3.  The petition has caught the national imagination, and garnered some high-profile supporters along the way, yet still the topless images appear. 

However, things may be changing.  There was no picture of a topless model last Friday or on Monday although she was back later in the week for the usual "check 'em Tuesday" but perhaps the paper is weaning itself off topless girls. 

On Wednesday Rupert Murdoch, the Sun’s publisher, took to Twitter to say that he considered page 3 to be “old fashioned” and added "Aren't beautiful young women more attractive in at least some fashionable clothes?”.  He asked his followers for their opinion and the majority agreed that it was time to axe the nude models. 

Murdoch also tweeted  "Brit feminists bang on forever about page 3. I bet never buy paper."  However, whether or not we buy his paper we are all affected by the fact that it routinely features a topless woman. It’s helping to create our highly sexualised culture which is damaging.  The Home Office Report on Child Sexualisation of 2010 found that 'there is a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm'.

The Sun is exacerbating many issues faced by young people in portraying young girls with big breasts as both normal and the ideal.  This is illustrated in a report published this summer which found that concerns over body image is making girls in England among the unhappiest in the world.  The study, published by the Children’s Society, found that despite having some of the highest living standards, children in England ranked ninth in happiness, behind Romania, Brazil and Algeria and only ahead of South Korea and Uganda.

One in five adolescent English girls and one in nine adolescent English boys said they had body image concerns.  One 12-year-old told researchers "People are judged on looks. Sometimes you feel like you can’t enjoy yourself unless you are pretty." 

And neither is this a problem confined to children; when our Director spoke about this on a BBC local radio station recently the presenter, a man in his 40s, spoke of his struggles with the issue. 

The written word is losing out to images
as the most powerful means of communication.

Last week members of GirlGuiding wrote an open letter to the party leaders calling for action to protect them from the sexualised images which surround them every day and which are difficult to ignore.  Three quarters of Guides think that there are too many pictures of naked women in the media and they would like to see a ban on harmful sexualised content in mainstream media and school lessons in body confidence. 

Rupert Murdoch may say that those of us who do not buy his paper have no right to an opinion on its contents but he is wrong.  Shockingly 7 out of 10 Girl Guides aged over 13 say that they have experienced sexual harassment.  This is the real impact of the daily diet of titillation.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

The watershed in the on-line space

Earlier this year the BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall, announced plans to introduce encryption technology to the iPlayer, so that the estimated 500,000 UK homes where viewers do not have a TV set but watch the corporation’s programmes on-demand would have to start paying the licence fee.

This week Mr Hall appeared before a Select Committee of MPs and told them this change was necessary “to reflect the way people are consuming BBC programmes.”  When and how this is enacted would require legislation and so is, in the words of Mr Hall, “a matter for the government”.

What is particularly interesting about this is that, in the all discussion of new technologies to potentially limit access to the iPlayer, no mention was made of limitations to protect children.  If technology exists to limit non-licence fee payers’ access to content the similar measures should be imposed to protect children.

At present all that stands between a child and access to post-watershed material is a tick in a box to confirm that the user is over 18; as the mother of a seven year old I can confirm that this is not beyond the wit of a determined child and offers very little real protection.  The iPlayer does offer a parental control option but this is not turned on as a default and, as I have yet to see an advertisement for it, I think we can assume that few parents are aware of its existence.

The importance of robust age verification has figured strongly in the debate about protecting children from online pornography and it is time to extend the discussion to other categories of on-demand content.

We took this issue up with Ofcom a few years ago and were told that they considered the restriction of certain types of content to be a purely voluntary measure for video-on-demand providers because they don’t consider that anything broadcast on UK television would ‘seriously impair the physical, mental or moral health of persons under the age of eighteen’.

However, times are changing.  The number of hours of television viewed via the iPlayer continues to grow and now this is an issue which really has to be addressed.  Claudio Pollack, Director of Ofcom's Consumer and Content Group, said: "Ofcom recognises that the growth of on-demand TV is posing new challenges for parents and regulators.  We're working on ways to help ensure that the protections viewers expect from the watershed apply beyond broadcast TV."   We have written to Mr Pollack to ask for details of the possible solutions under discussion and for some idea of the time frame for action.

Ofcom’s Director of Standards, Tony Close, recently described the watershed as “a vital means of protecting viewers”; we agree wholeheartedly and it is important that a similar level of protection is developed in the online space.

Post-watershed material should only be available to viewers who have been subject to a more rigorous age-verification check than the current tick box system.  Presently subscribers to cable and satellite services have to enter a PIN number to access post watershed content which they have download and we would like to see a similar system on broadcaster’s websites.  We would like to see a PIN number which could be provided by the viewer’s internet service provider, telephone company or the TV licensing body each of which need to paid for, in the vast majority of cases, by an adult.  We believe that there are feasible steps that can and should be taken by broadcasters to control access to post-watershed material by children.

Next year is an election year and we have prepared a policy paper on this issue for MPs and prospective MPs.  We will be asking them to consider the inconsistency of the present arrangements and pressing for a commitment to further action to protect children. 

Friday 18 July 2014

Happy Birthday TV Watershed

Like Mediawatch-UK, the television watershed in the UK is also 50 years old this year.

As television grew in popularity during the 1950s there was much discussion about what its influence on children might be.  In 1958 new research, Television and the Child, was published.  It drew on observations by parents and teachers, but principally on the examination of more than 4,000 children.  The report accepted that post-9pm very few children remained in the TV audience, but stated that before that time parents alone could not be wholly responsible for children’s viewing and suggested that television producers take action to share this responsibility.

Further reports followed and, finally, in July 1964 The Television Act came into force which required the exclusion of all material which might be injurious to children from transmission before 9pm.

According to a new poll by Ofcom, 50 years later, television viewers still support the existence of the 9pm watershed, with the majority of adults believing that it is relevant and necessary in today’s society.  Tony Close, Ofcom’s director of Standards described the watershed as “a vital means of protecting viewers.”

The watershed can never be the complete answer to protecting children from potentially harmful material but it is a useful tool for parents and, as such, is worth protecting. 

However, the watershed can no longer be the only answer now that we can consume content at any time.  Over a third of children aged 5-15 now watch ‘on-demand’ material and, whilst this is estimated to account for less than 5% of TV viewing, it poses new challenges.

Ofcom says it is ‘working on ways to help ensure that the protections viewers expect from the watershed apply beyond broadcast TV’ and we shall continue with our work to ensure solutions to this problem remain a priority for the regulator and the industry.
But is the watershed on television working?
Nearly half the parents surveyed for the Bailey Review in 2011 were unhappy with pre-watershed television and, earlier this year, when The National Association of Head Teachers polled parents on the watershed 96% of them said they thought the rules are being broken.

Ofcom also canvassed viewers on their experience of watching television and it found that the number of viewers upset by too much sex, violence and swearing on television has fallen sharply; five years ago 55% of viewers thought there was excessive violence but this has now fallen to 35%.  Five years ago 35% though there was too much sex on television but this has now fallen to 26% and whilst 53% were concerned about the amount of swearing broadcast five years ago, now only 35% are worried. 

Has television changed substantially over the past five years? 

Could the fall in levels of dissatisfaction be because, with so much more choice of what to watch, we are simply avoiding things which might upset us; or could Ofcom’s regulatory decisions have left viewers feeling that they are out of step with the general mood of society with the result that they become desensitised to questionable broadcasts?

Among those adults who had been offended by something on TV in the last 12 months, nearly four times more people are likely to continue watching the programme than in 2008 (5% in 2008 versus 19% in 2013) and less likely to turn off the TV altogether (32% in 2008 compared to 19% in 2013).

We should not have to accept content which is potentially harmful and it is important that, when broadcasters get it wrong, we tell them.  Mediawatch continues to lobby broadcasters, regulators and politicians on your behalf.  I appreciate how frustrating the process can be but complaints can now be made quickly and with no cost by using Parentport.  Your work in alerting Ofcom and broadcasters when standards are breached is essential and much appreciated.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

New measures to protect children online

On Tuesday 10th June Baroness Howe introduced a new Online Safety Bill into the House of Lords for the new 2014/15 session.  Sadly Lady Howe’s previous Bill ran out of time in the last Parliament so this is a ‘new improved’ Bill with a wider scope than before.  This is Lady Howe’s fourth Bill tackling the issue of online safety and much has changed since the subject was first addressed as an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill in early 2010.

The Government has worked with Internet Service Providers to come up with a voluntary industry agreement to protect children which being called ‘default-on’.  New broadband users are now asked whether they want to activate family-friendly filters which are switched on as a default unless users ask for them to be removed.   This measure will be extended to all existing users by the end of the year.

This is a huge step in the right direction but there is much still to be done.  Baroness Howe’s Bill provides an opportunity to see further steps taken to protect children online.

Lady Howe’s Bill would provide statutory backing for default filtering and it would also require better educational provision to engage with online behavioural challenges such as cyber-bullying which filters alone cannot address.

In addition, the new Bill contains two innovative measures to complement existing provisions and strengthen the Bill.

  • Firstly, the Bill would amend the Communications Act 2003 to require that UK-based websites showing 18 and R18 (specific adult, explicit content) material have their own verification checks.  This is in line with the standard required by law in relation to online gambling providers since 2007.
  •  Secondly, the Bill also calls for Financial Transaction Blocking as a means of preventing payments between people based in the UK and providers of 18 and R18 video-on-demand material based outside the UK.  As there is a considerable influx of such hard-core material from websites based overseas this is an important provision.

You may remember that in March ATVOD, the on-demand television regulator, called upon the Government to tighten the law to make sure that R18 material is placed behind an age verification mechanism – you can read more about this here.  Although the Government has made positive noises, no action has yet been forthcoming so Baroness Howe’s Bill will provide a solution to the problem highlighted by ATVOD.

The Bill will have its second reading at the end of the year or the beginning of 2015.  Thank you for your support for Lady Howe’s previous Bills; your actions have provided the impetus to keep the issue of online child protection at the top of the political agenda.  It is likely that there will be opportunities to support this new Bill along the way and we will keep you up to date on its progress.