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.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Violence is not entertainment

Last week over 6 million people tuned in to watch the final episode of the BBC's drama Happy Valley.  The series has come in for some criticism over the past few weeks because of its depictions of brutality.

These graphic depictions of violence – often against women – are becoming increasingly mainstream on British television.  What has caused this is a subject of some debate; the popularity of the ‘Nordic Noir’ genre has been cited as a possible trigger.  However, the Radio Times TV critic, Alison Graham summed it up with her comment that such violence ‘seems to have become the norm without anyone noticing’.

Mediawatch has noticed and we have spoken out about this disturbing trend; it now seems that for a television programme to make an impact it has to be extreme.  

In programmes such as the BBC’s Ripper Street and The Falls and Sky’s Game of Thrones we see acts of violence rather too lasciviously portrayed; depictions which are so enthusiastic the violence itself becomes also fetishised.  These programmes are well made with quality writing, production values and acting, which makes them all the more powerful.

These images are powerful but their increasing ubiquity means we are at risk of desensitization to the horror they represent.

In 1976 parents jammed the switchboards of the BBC to complain about the traumatic effect on their children of seeing their hero, Doctor Who, apparently drowned.  The producer of the programme was removed from the programme but it’s almost impossible to imagine what kind of violence could get a BBC producer sacked these days.

The writer of Happy Valley defended the context of the violence in her programme but added ‘If violence on screen was so regular and people barely noticed it, that would be gratuitous’.  Sadly, it would seem we may be moving ever closer to this scenario.

Back in 1964 Mary Whitehouse launched our campaign with the words: “if violence is shown as normal on the television screen it will help to create a violent society”.  Her words are as true today as they were half a century ago and we continue to raise the issue in the media, with broadcasters and the regulator.

And our voice is being heard.  Over the past week the subject has been much discussed in print, online and on the radio.  We were delighted to be asked to contribute points for a discussion on the issue on Newsnight earlier this week.

Producers must take our warning seriously.  Violence is not entertainment and treating it as such debases us all.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Small contributions make big changes

Interesting news from Venezuela this week: The Supreme Court has instituted a ban on pornographic and other sexual content in the nation's media.

The court ordered "the elimination of all images of explicit or implicit sexual content in advertisements in print media of open access to girls, boys and teens."  This also applies to ads which promote services "linked to the exploitation of sex," such as phone sex lines placed in general access media, newspapers, and hoardings.

This ruling came in a case filed by a citizen "representing his underage children" who wanted to end "pornographic ads in newspapers and magazines for the general public" because exposure to such material encouraged the sexualisation of children.

The Court also called on Venezuela's Telecommunications Commission to monitor the content of songs of all music genres to make sure they are "acceptable for all users," and that if necessary songs with questionable lyrics are reserved for hours when children will not be likely to be exposed to them. 

The ruling reiterated the Venezuelan Constitution's provision for freedom of expression, but affirmed that respecting the rights of children is one of the "intrinsic limits of freedom of expression" and that the media must use its right to free expression in a way that contributes to the culture and the developmental rights of the general population as established by the Venezuelan Constitution.

Regardless of the wider political issues in Venezuela, this ruling will have a positive impact on children growing up there and it has come about because one father decided to act.  It’s an illustration of how the actions of individuals can be the catalyst for big changes.   We recently learned that in the UK the Co-op will now be displaying the Sun newspaper on the top shelf of its stores for as long as the paper continues to print soft-porn on page 3.  This is as a result of lots of individual Co-op members in the regions voting for responsible displays.

Small contributions can make big changes or, in the words of one supermarket, ‘every little helps’.  Thank you for making a difference!

Friday, 9 May 2014

Why the Watershed still matters

Last weekend the National Association of Head Teachers warned that children are still being exposed to harmful material on television before 9pm.  Ofcom says that protecting children is of ‘fundamental concern’ and, since 2003, it has taken action against broadcasters more than 300 times for breaching watershed rules.  However a failure to regulate robustly in the past has created the situation in which a routine featuring dancers in ‘nude’ outfits is considered suitable fare for 7.15pm transmission, as happened in last Saturday’s edition of Britain’s Got Talent.

Is it any wonder that when the National Association of Head Teachers polled parents on the watershed 96% of them said they thought the rules are being broken.

I am often called upon to talk about the watershed I’m usually asked whether, in this age of television on demand, it is any longer relevant.

It is certainly true that regulation has failed to keep pace with innovation but this does not mean that the watershed has no value; indeed a recent Sunday Times poll found an overwhelming 85% of people supported the concept.  The latest figures show that 10% of television viewing is now ‘time-shifted’ rather than live.  This is expected to continue to grow as the range of devices and high speed broadband proliferates.

However this does not mean that we have to give up on the watershed.  It is a very useful tool and we need to look at ways to make it relevant to twenty first century living.  Some providers such as the BBC iplayer and Channel 4’s 4OD offer parental locks and pincodes but as the former are rarely promoted and the later require little more that a tick in a box confirming age so they offer little protection and wider action is required.

We first took this issue up with Ofcom and the on-demand regulator, ATVOD, four years ago with little success.  We have continued to raise it with the regulators and the government and, as time-shifted viewing has become increasingly popular, we are beginning to see progress.

Tony Close of Ofcom said: “We recognise the growth of on-demand viewing poses new challenges.  We are working with the government to ensure that children remain protected.” 

The DCMS said: “More needs to be done to ensure safety measures and tools that prevent children watching post-watershed programmes, such as as locks and PIN protection are more widely used.  We will keep progress under close review and if necessary consider the case for legislation to ensure that audiences are protected to the level they choose.”

I was delighted to be asked to put our case on BBC Breakfast news recently and you can watch a clip here.

Following the success of our parliamentary conference in which under-30s outlined their concerns about the effects of pornography on their generation our speakers have been much in demand.  One of them put her case across forcefully on BBC 3’s live current affairs debate show Free Speech and another was interviewed on this week’s Grazia magazine about how his use of pornography effected his attitude towards women.  Another of our speakers bravely agreed to talk to the Daily Mail about her addiction to pornography and you can read her story here.

Vivienne Pattison