Monday 14 December 2015

House of Lords commits to online safety

There is good news this week!  On Friday Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill passed its Committee Stage in the House of Lords.  Although this is the fifth Online Safety Bill which Baroness Howe has brought before the House it is the first time it has passed through its Committee Stage, which involves a detailed line by line examination.  The next milestone will be the Report Stage which is a further opportunity for peers to examine and propose amendments to the Bill.

Referencing Lady Howe’s dogged efforts over the last five years to bring an Online Safety Bill onto the statute books Lord Framlingham asked “how many young children have had their lives really altered for the worse in those five years simply because we in both Houses of Parliament have not managed to give them the protection they deserve?”  His sentiments were echoed by Lord Stevenson who wished the Bill well and hoped this would finally be the occasion on which progress would be made.

Sadly the Government continued to oppose the Bill although the Minister acknowledged that many of its elements were “well thought-out and well intentioned”.  She promised that they would “be taken on board in the resulting legislative approach that we take in the New Year.”  Such legislation is necessary because new measures governing net neutrality passed in Brussels earlier this year mean that the current voluntary approach of ISPs to filtering will no longer be permissible.

The Minister said that the Government’s remained “absolutely committed to the protection of children online” and she confirmed that a consultation, in line with the Conservative’s manifesto commitment, on how best to implement age verification checks for those wishing to access pornographic websites will take “shortly after the new year”.

The Minister finished by reiterating her promise that “there can be no higher priority than keeping children safe online”.

These positive developments come just a month after the House of Lords debated the impact of pornography on society.  Baroness Howe has been determined and bold in her efforts to protect children online and we wish her well as her Bill moves into its Report Stage.

Friday 23 October 2015

Technology needs a health warning

This week saw the publication of a new report from The Office of National Statistics looking at children’s use of social media.  Researchers gathered data on screen use and mental wellbeing from over 20,000 children, parents and teachers.  They found a clear association between longer time on social websites and distress, anxiety and depression.  Their conclusion: heavy use of social media is as bad for children as bullying or a troubled home.

These findings echo those of the Institute for Social and Economic Research which published its research earlier this summer.  It also follows the publication of a report from the Strategic Society Centre (SSC) thinktank which called for manufacturers and online social networking sites to consider how young people are affected by their businesses – and potentially redesign their products and services accordingly.

The SSC report provocatively compared today’s technology firms with tobacco companies of the past which would not acknowledge the public health consequences of their business.  It also offered recommendations to help to improve the wellbeing of adolescents and compel technology companies to acknowledge their responsibilities.

Possible solutions include issuing national guidelines on the recommended daily amount of screen time for young people, compulsory school programmes on how social networking and mobile technologies can affect well-being and installing ‘virtual’ usage meters as default settings on social networking sites for all users under 18, so that they are made aware of how long they are spending online.

Children are so trustworthy of modern technologies that they often neglect the fact that it can cause them harm – both directly and indirectly.

According to researcher Dr Cara Booker, “Many of the most effective solutions to our major public health issues have come about when researchers, government and private industry work together. Examples include car safety, including more effective seatbelts, removal of lead from paint, discontinuation of asbestos use and milk pasteurisation. In many of these cases, however, solutions were only sought when the consequences were great and well-established.”

“The evidence regarding use of social media and wellbeing is growing and it is imperative that researchers, government and private industries work together to address the real public health consequences of poor wellbeing in adolescence becoming worse wellbeing in adulthood. This issue is not one that parents alone can tackle; it is one that requires government and private industry to raise awareness of the potential issues with prolonged use of social media for children and adolescents.”

Friday 16 October 2015

What is television teaching our children?

For some time the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has been calling for a ban on advertisements for junk food before the watershed or order to tackle rising levels of childhood obesity.

The Chairman of the British Medical Association’s science board, Professor Sheila Hollins, has also criticised the relentless depictions of unhealthy food during children’s programming pointing out “the unconscious way in which promotion can influence children and young people’s choices.”

Despite initial scepticism from the government there seems to be increasing support for the idea.  The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, recently told the Conservative Party Conference that he would welcome CBeebies telling his “sugar crazy three-year-old daughter” that “chips are bad”.

Earlier this week the Scottish Health Secretary, Shona Robison, added her support agreeing that there is a “very strong argument” for banning pre-9pm junk food averts.

That these concerns are being taken seriously is good news; it is also an admission that television and advertising have an effect on behaviour and attitudes – particularly those of children. 

When he was Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt declined to heed our concerns about the worrying change in the material being broadcast pre-watershed and Ofcom’s failure to regulate adequately.  Indeed it was during his tenure as Culture Secretary that Ofcom’s decision not to find in breach material it described as “being at the very margin of acceptability” effectively re-defined family viewing.

Earlier this month Mr Hunt told his party’s conference that “we don’t like a nanny state except when it comes to children… children are allowed nannies and I think we’re able to be a little bit more draconian”.

It is time that the interests of our children were put before those of commercial providers – whether they be selling food or entertainment.  Our children deserve better.

Monday 14 September 2015

Pop Stars as Sex Workers

Earlier this week singer Chrissie Hynde hit the headlines when she criticised
scantily-clad stars and branded them ‘sex workers’ for selling music by ‘bumping and grinding’ in their underwear.  She said their performances were doing ‘a great deal of damage’.

It is now completely mainstream for the videos of chart topping artists to include nudity, highly sexualised dancing, violence and references to prostitution.  This summer the video for Rihanna’s latest release, Better Have My Money, was much criticised for its fetishisation and glamorisation of weapons, torture and murder.  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.

This pornification of our culture, created just to sell us a product, is having damaging and far-reaching consequences.  Young boys watching these videos will come believe that women are merely sex objects for their entertainment and young girls will learn that their value lies in their sex appeal and how they look.

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.  In its manifesto the Conservative party promised to “stop children's exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material and age-rating for all music videos.”

This summer a new scheme to classify music videos came into operation.  Music videos on YouTube and Vevo will now be rated by the BBFC to protect children from seeing inappropriate content.  Some of the biggest recording labels - Sony, Universal and Warner - have agreed to submit the videos they produce to the BBFC before uploading them to the sites but the American offices of these labels have not agreed to the system, meaning any artist who is signed with them won't have their videos subjected to ratings.

In practice this means that some of the most troubling music videos - even the ones that first sparked this move towards a classification system - won’t actually be affected by it.  This may be a step in the right direction but much more still needs to be done to make this truly effective.

Earlier in the year, we wrote to all the new MPs in the 2015 intake outlining our concerns and asking for their support.  We have received several supportive responses and will be meeting with some of the new MPs over the coming weeks to discuss ways in which we can work together in the future.

Monday 7 September 2015

Social media steps up

On 24th August over a billion people used Facebook; this means that on that single day 1 in 7 people on Earth used that social network.

This week the Internet Advertising Bureau published new research showing that social media use has now overtaken entertainment as the UK’s favourite online activity, accounting for almost a fifth of the two hours and 51 minutes a day people in the UK on average spend on the web.

Social media use now accounts for almost 17% of all time spent online whilst the amount of time spent watching TV shows or YouTube videos and listening to music, has almost halved.

The shift appears to be in part driven by people spending more time on mobile devices, rather than desktops.  As a result we are increasingly seeing marketing, education and customer service functions using the medium.

How should we respond to this?  On the one hand social media use has been linked to depression and addiction but it also a positive function as a valuable source of support, community and entertainment. The impact of social media on users depends not on the technology itself but in how it is employed and experienced.

This week it emerged that a 14 year old boy who used a social media app to send a naked photograph of himself to a girl of the same age at school has had the crime of making and distributing indecent images recorded against him by police.  Although the boy was not arrested or charged his name will be stored on a police database for 10 years.

With social media use on the rise, and changing constantly, it is our responsibility to stay informed about the potential benefits and costs of this new digital age and then make deliberate decisions about the type and quantity of technology we use – and, importantly, to which we allow our children to be exposed.  Rest assured that Mediawatch-UK is committed to protecting and campaigning for family values in all media, old, new and social and we value your continued support in this important work.

Monday 20 July 2015

Online Safety Bill moves to the next stage

Thank you for taking the time over the past week to contact a Peer about Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill.

In its manifesto for the recent general election, The Conservative Party promised:
“We will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.

The opportunity for the Government to honour its commitment came before the House of Lords on 17th July with the second reading of Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill.

Many people used our campaign website to contact Peers ahead of the debate, urging them to speak in favour of the Bill.

Many Peers did attend the debate which was, by and large, very supportive of her proposals.  The Lords agreed to move the Bill forward to Committee stage, at which point the Bill will be further scrutinised and amendments will be considered.

Sadly the Government did not choose to adopt the provisions of the Bill to accomplish the aims set out in their manifesto.  However the Minister, Baroness Shields, acknowledged the “horrific problem” of the easy availability of online pornography and said that the Government would consider Lady Howe’s approach alongside other options currently under examination.

Lord Framlingham, speaking in support of the Bill, pointed out the lack of speed in action taken on the issues raised in the Bill so it is to be hoped that further time will be found in the parliamentary timetable over the coming months for a Committee Stage debate in order to keep the pressure on the Government to act quickly.

There is strong public support for measures ensure that websites with pornographic content carry out proper age-verification of users in order to protect children.  In a recent poll three-quarters of those asked agreed this should be done.

Although it is disappointing that the Government did not take the opportunity offered in the debate to adopt the Bill, it is encouraging that the debate continues to move in the right direction.  As Lady Howe said: “Each time one puts pressure on the Government, it improves the situation.”  We now look forward to a further opportunities to hold the Government to account to their manifesto promises at Committee Stage.

Monday 13 July 2015

Have your say on online child protection

Over the past few years we have seen some real progress in our fight to protect children from harmful online material: The Government has worked with Internet Service Providers to come up with a voluntary industry agreement to protect children which being called ‘default-on’.  Broadband users now have to make an unavoidable choice as to whether they want to activate family-friendly filters.  TalkTalk and Sky have gone one step further and their filters are switched on as a default unless users ask for them to be removed. 

However the internet remains a potentially very dangerous place for children.

In its manifesto for the recent general election, The Conservative Party promised:

“We will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online,
by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.

This was encouraging and yet there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech about implementing the commitment and when asked about how it would be taken forward during the Queen’s Speech debate, the Minister ignored the question.

The opportunity for the Government to honour its commitment will come before the House of Lords on 17th July 2015 with the second reading of Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill.

This Bill (revised and updated for the 2015/6 Parliament) would, should it become law, require a statutory approach to filtering as well as, robust age verification if a user chooses to remove adult content filters. It would also require web sites showing 18 and R18 material (that’s hardcore pornography) to people in the UK (regardless of whether the sites themselves are based in the UK) must put in place robust age-verification procedures.

If you agree that it’s time we offered children the best possible protection from harmful online content please take action.

With the debate on this bill less than a week away we would really encourage you to contact Members of the House of Lords asking them to support the Bill.   We have updated our campaign website  to make this very quick and easy to do.   Just go online and you will be given a Peer to write to, together with model letters you can just copy and paste. 

The Government must now deliver on its promise.

Despite all predictions to the contrary, the Conservative Party has won the general election with enough seats to form a majority government.  This means that the Conservatives will have the wherewithal to deliver on their manifesto promises which included:
  • “We will stop children's exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material and age-rating for all music videos.” 
  •  “We will work to ensure that search engines do not link to the worst-offending sites.”  
That these commitments were included in the Conservative Party Manifesto is because you have made it clear, through your actions and your much valued support for Mediawatch-UK, that these are important issues.  Your voice has been heard and it has been heeded.
Moving forward we must now make sure that we hold the new Conservative government to their promises and ensure that these important measures to protect our children are enacted swiftly.

Friday 8 May 2015

Now the Conservatives must deliver their promises

Despite all predictions to the contrary, the Conservative Party has won the general election with enough seats to form a majority government.  This means that the Conservatives will have the wherewithal to deliver on their manifesto promises which included:

  • “We will stop children's exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material and age-rating for all music videos.”
  • “We will work to ensure that search engines do not link to the worst-offending sites.” 
That these commitments were included in the Conservative Party Manifesto is because you have made it clear, through your actions and your much valued support for Mediawatch-UK, that these are important issues.  Your voice has been heard and it has been heeded.

Moving forward we must now make sure that we hold the new Conservative government to their promises and ensure that these important measures to protect our children are enacted swiftly.

Friday 17 April 2015

What the manifestos promise

This week saw the launch of several party manifestos as the general election campaign gathers pace.

These manifestos act as a guide to the policies each party plans to introduce in the five years it is in power.  They are useful in making a decision on where to cast your vote and, theoretically, make a party accountable although in practice if the party you voted for takes power and doesn’t follow through with its manifesto promises your only redress is not voting for them next time.

With many commentators predicting that no single party will gain an overall majority and that we can expect another term of coalition government, manifestos become effectively calling cards for the other parties. They set out the red lines and areas for negotiation.

The parties will go through the manifestos and produce an agreement setting out a programme for government, as the Lib Dems and Conservatives did in 2010.

This is what the main party manifestos have to say about their policies on the media, digital Britain and the BBC:

We will support our media

A free media is the bedrock of an open society.  We will deliver a comprehensive review of the BBC Royal Charter, ensuring it delivers value for money for the licence fee payer, while maintaining a world class service and supporting our creative industries.

That is why we froze the BBC licence fee and will keep it frozen, pending Charter renewal.

And we will continue to ‘top-slice’ the licence fee for digital infrastructure to support superfast broadband across the country.

We will defend press freedom

We will continue to defend hard-won liberties and the operation of a free press.  But alongside the media’s rights comes a clear responsibility, which is why we set up the public, judge-led Leveson Inquiry in response to the phone-hacking scandal, created a new watchdog by Royal Charter and legislated to toughen media libel laws.

Because the work of the free press is so important we will offer explicit protection for the role of journalists via the British Bill of Rights and we will ban the police from accessing journalists’ phone records to identify whistle-blowers and other sources without prior judicial approval. 

Local newspapers are an important source of information for local communities and a vital part of a healthy democracy.  To support them as they adapt to new technology and changing circumstances, we will consult on the introduction of a business rates relief for local newspapers in England.

We will support our creative industries

The creative industries have become our fastest-growing economic sector, contributing nearly £77 billion to the UK economy – driven in part by the tax incentives for films, theatre, video games, animation and orchestras we introduced. Our support for the film industry has resulted in great British films and encouraged Hollywood’s finest to flock to the UK.   We will continue these reliefs, with a tax credit for children’s television next year, and expand them when possible.

We will protect intellectual property by continuing to require internet service providers to block sites that carry large amounts of illegal content, including their proxies.  And we will build on progress made under our voluntary anti-piracy projects to warn internet users when they are breaching copyright

We will stop children's exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material and age-rating for all music videos.

We will work to ensure that search engines do not link to the worst-offending sites.  

We live in the information age and we know that information is power.  But how should information be controlled?  What information should be available and to whom?

The Green Party supports a world of open, freely flowing information.  We don’t want disproportionate or unaccountable surveillance or censorship.  We want a transparent state but we want control over the data that our digital lives create.  We need copyright laws that reward creators but that are consistent with digital technologies.  Above all we want democratic political control of this technology.  We would….

  • Support and protect internet freedeom
  • Limit the censoring or takedown of content or activity to exceptional circumstances, clearly set out within a comprehensive legal framework.
  • Introduce more satisfactory law on so-called malicious comments made on social media than the blanket and crude section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.
  • Tighten the rules on cross-media ownership and ensure that no individual or company owns more than 20% of a media market.
  • Support the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and for the cross-party Royal charter.  But if this is to supported by all the major newspapers we will support legislation to implement the Leveson system of independent press self-regulation.
  • Maintain the BBC as the primary public service broadcaster, free of government interference, with funding guaranteed in real terms in statute to prevent government interference.
  • Ensure that all have digital access and give BT and other public telecommunications operators an obligation to provide affordable high-speed broadband-capable infrastructure to every household and small business.  This in particular will encourage video-conferencing, helping to reduce both business and family travel.
  • Strengthen controls on advertising directed at children.

The free flow of information and of different points of view is crucial for open debate and countering concentrations of unaccountable power. That is why the concentration of media power in too few hands is damaging to our democracy.  No one media owner should be able to exert undue influence on public opinion and policy makers. No media company should have so much power that those who run it believe themselves above the rule of law.  Yet the current system for protecting against these threats is inadequate.

Labour will take steps to protect the principle of media plurality, so that no media outlet can get too big, including updating our rules for the 21st century media environment.  We remain strongly committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry. We expect the industry to establish a mechanism for independent self-regulation, which delivers proper redress for individuals, as set out in the Royal Charter, and agreed by all parties in Parliament. We made a promise to victims of the phone hacking scandal. We stand by that promise and will keep it.

Our system of public service broadcasting is one of Britain’s great strengths.  The BBC makes a vital contribution to the richness of our cultural life, and we will ensure that it continues to do so while delivering value for money. 

We will also commit to keeping Channel 4 in public ownership, so it continues to produce vital public content.

The culture of everyday sexism will be declining, with young people taught in school about respect in relationships and sexual consent. Online, people will no longer be worried that the government is monitoring their every keystroke: a Digital Bill of Rights will have enshrined enduring principles of privacy and helped keep the internet open.
  •     Protect the independence of the BBC while ensuring the Licence Fee does not rise faster than inflation, maintain Channel 4 in public ownership and protect the funding and editorial independence of Welsh language broadcasters.
  •      Support growth in the creative industries, including video gaming, by continuing to support the Creative Industries Council, promoting creative skills, supporting modern and flexible patent, copyright and licensing rules, and addressing the barriers to finance faced by small creative businesses
We share the hope of Lord Justice Leveson that the incentives for the press to sign up to genuinely independent self-regulation will succeed. But if, in the judgment of the Press Recognition Panel, after 12 months of operation, there is significant non-cooperation by newspaper publishers, then – as Leveson himself concluded – Parliament will need to act, drawing on a range of options including the legislative steps necessary to ensure that independent self-regulation is delivered. Where possible, we would seek to do this on the same cross-party basis that achieved the construction of the Leveson scheme by the Royal Charter.

Securing liberty online
  •     Safeguard the essential freedom of the internet and back net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all lawful content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites.
  •       Make it clear that online services have a duty to provide age-appropriate policies, guidance and support to the children and young people who use their services.

We will devolve broadcasting to Wales and implement recommendations on broadcasting made by Plaid Cymru to the Silk Commission.  These include establishing a BBC Trust for Wales as part of a more federal BBC  within the UK.  Trustees would be appointed by the Welsh Government and the appointment process including public hearings held by the National Assembly for Wales. 

Responsibility for S4C, the world’s only Welsh language channel, would transfer to the National Assembly for Wales, as would the funding for the channel that is currently with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.  We will ensure that S4C is adequately funded and that the channel maintains editorial independence.  Again, the Welsh Government should appoint the board members of the S4C Authority following public hearings. 

We support establishing a new Welsh language  multimedia service to operate online, on radio and other platforms, in order  to reflect the needs of Welsh language audiences and improve current affairs coverage in Wales. 
Ofcom’s office in Wales should have greater powers, including the authority to take licensing decisions.  The members of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Wales should be appointed by the Welsh Government.  This would be best achieved by the federalization of the work of Ofcom in a UK context.

We will give local newspapers the status of ‘community assets’ so that owners could not close them without communities having the opportunity to keep their paper.  It is important for there to be a plurality of opinions and information sources.  We will oppose any reduction in Welsh produced news and non-news content in our media.

A flourishing media environment and creative sector.

We believe that responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland should transfer from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament and we will support moves to more devolved arrangements for the BBC with greater powers and funding for the different national and regional broadcasting areas, such as BBC Scotland.

We believe that the licence fee should be retained with any replacement system, which should be based primarily on the ability to pay, in place by the end of the next BBC Charter period.

BBC Scotland should receive a fairer share of BBC income, reflecting more accurately the licence fee revenue raised here in Scotland.  This would provide a boost of over £100 million, which we believe will provide important new opportunities for production companies and the creative sector in Scotland.

The Scottish Government and Parliament should have a substantial role at all stages in the review of the BBC Charter and we will work to ensure that any new governance arrangements for the BBC better reflect Scotland’s interests.

It should also be for the Scottish Government to decide which sporting events in Scotland should be included in the list of these that are free to view in Scotland.

Regulation of print media is already devolved.  The Scottish Parliament chose, on a cross party basis, to support the UK Government’s actions to implement Leveson.  We will consider carefully the results of the first year review and work with other parties, in Scotland and Westminster, to ensure effective regulation of the media on a non-political basis.

We also recognise the importance of improving access to the internet, especially for some of our more remote or disadvantaged communities.  In government we are working to maximise the availability of high-speed broadband across Scotland and are also providing funding of £1.5 million to increase free provision of Wi-Fi in public buildings.

Our aim is to deliver a future-proofed infrastructure that will establish world-class digital connectivity across Scotland by 2020 including tackling the digital divide.  That is why we are investing in Superfast Broadband, so that at least 95% of premises across Scotland will be able to access fibre broadband by the end of 2017.

The UKIP manifesto does not specifically address media policies.

However in its pre-election Policies for People document the party says it will “review the BBC Licence Fee with a view to its reduction. Prosecution of non-payments of the Licence Fee would be taken out of the criminal sphere and made a civil offence.”

Many of us will be attending hustings events over the next week to hear what our local candidates have to offer.

In our most recent newsletter we included some suggestions of things to ask candidates about our particular areas of concern.  Many people have been in contact about these so here are they are again – we hope you will find them useful.

  • What’s the future for television regulation – particularly the role of Ofcom?

  • If you were elected what would you do to ensure that broadcasting standards are improved?
  • Do you think that further legislation is needed to ensure that children are protected from accessing inappropriate content on their computers, games consoles and mobile phones?

  • As the situation currently stands children are able to access post watershed television content online without adequate protection.  Would you support legislation to protect them and make post-watershed content on catch-up TV something which is opted into rather than opted out of?

  • Do you think the proliferation of online pornography is a problem and, if so, how is this best dealt with?

  • Do you feel that children are being prematurely sexualised and, if so, how would you propose to tackle this?

  • Currently the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is a self regulating industry body.  Do you think it should be made accountable to Parliament in its decisions?

  • Do you think there is a need for reform of the current obscenity law which defines obscenity as ‘that which is likely to deprave and corrupt’ to a more specific definition?

  • ATVOD (the Authority for Television on Demand) wants all websites hosting pornographic content to have robust age verification tools in place.  They have called for urgent legislation so that banks and other payment processors are prohibited from handling fees for services from UK citizens to unregulated sites.  If you were elected would you support this proposal?