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.