Wednesday, January 2, 2008

UPDATED: Why I think Nick Clegg is wrong on children's advertising

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I am a little bit nervous about the emphasis given to the restriction of advertising on Children's TV in Nick Clegg's New Year message. Here's what he said about the issue:

(We must change Britain for the better...that means...Putting British families back...) In control of what their children are exposed to on TV, not constantly struggling to protect toddlers from the pressure of advertising...

...We will campaign for sensible restrictions on advertising aimed at toddlers – my own children remember the adverts far more clearly than any of the programmes they watch. We have lost the virtue of cherishing innocence, as childhood becomes ever shorter.

Protecting very young children from unwanted commercial intrusion into their lives is part of the same instinct that seeks to protect adults from unwanted state intrusion into theirs.

This is in line, to a limited extent, with our 2005 manifesto, which said:

We...will restrict advertising of unhealthy food during children's television programmes;

But Nick's pronouncement appears to go further than this, if only due to its prominence in what was otherwise a fairly short message. I think it would be very helpful for Nick to clarify exactly what he means by his statements in this area.

For my part, I think he is getting unduly worked up about this matter. That may be a good thing. The fact that I don't agree with the emphasis put on this area may actually, and probably does, mean that it is right for him to emphasise it. I am a woolly old Liberal. Nick needs to reach beyond woolly old Liberals like me, so if this is one way to do it, then good luck to him.

But I speak from a position of some experience on this matter. My child is now ten years old and I have sat with her for many hours through her childhood so far, watching television with her. (She is also mad keen on about seven physical activities, so there's no danger of couch potato-ism here, by the way).

I have sat through it all. The first days of watching Scooby-Doo, Tom and Jerry, Cartoon Network, Powerpuff Girls etc.

(Indeed, as an aside, at our church the preacher once asked the children: "Who is the most powerful person in the world?"

A little girl put up her hand and said: "The Powerpuff Girls". The preacher was bemused - but I knew what she meant!)

Then later it was CBeebies and now CBBC with wall-to-wall Basil Brush, Chuckle Brothers and Tracey Beaker.

So, my child has sat through lots of advertising - mainly on the Cartoon Network. Not once has she pestered us for anything which was advertised. I have never felt worried by the advertising she was exposed to. It is all either fairly harmless stuff about toys or it is aimed at parents (most of it seems to be about getting easy loans or sorting out debt or claiming for accidents).

Yes, we should have restrictions on unhealthy food advertising but it is daft to go further.

Parents can use the "off" button, or, more relevantly these days, simply switch to another channel or, more effectively, change their cable provider or menu so that an offending channel isn't available in the house anymore.

Most effectively they could point their children to CBeebies or CBBC, which don't have advertising and have a fairly wholesome roster of programming.

Is this a Dutch thing? Nick often refers to continental experience and he has good knowledge of the Netherlands. There, they have banned advertising to children. I don't think we need to do that here, where we have a licence-funded TV operator which broadcasts two children's channels without advertising from 7am to 7pm.

A lot of the reason for Nick's emphasis on this area could be driven by the fact that he is wound up by his own children watching a channel called Tiny Pop TV. Apparently it carries 4 minutes of particularly virulent advertising every 15 minutes. I can sympathise with Nick feeling somewhat helpless about this. Yes, parents feel a bit helpless about it, because once a child is hooked on certain programmes you feel a bit of a spoilsport switching it off. But what does he intend to do in the political sphere about it?

Does he intend to propose the Dutch model - a total ban on advertising to children? Does he intend to increase the scope of the party's existing and quite limited policy in this area? If so, in what way does he propose to do this? What "filter" would he apply? Would he set up a censorship panel?

For my money, my advice to Nick and parents like him is to subtly arrange a change in menu with your cable or satellite operator or change suppliers or somehow ween one's youngsters onto CBeebies or CBBC. The BBC do a great job.

It is illiberal to further ban anything. But, more importantly, as a parent who has recently lived through this subject-matter, I think it is totally unnecessary and bonkers, to boot. Obviously there are exceptions when bans are justified and within the parameters suggested by J.S.Mill. The protection of the public's health can be used to justify the public smoking ban. The protection of innocent animals from cruelty can be used to justify the ban on hunting with hounds. And obviously you can make a case that a ban on advertising to children is protecting children who cannot protect themselves. Except, of course, their parents can protect them. It's called the "remote". Unless of course, parents aren't there with their children or are unwilling or unable to adjudicate on their offspring's viewing choices. In which case, some sort of ban is taking over the parents' role for them. I don't think the state should be doing that any further than Ofcom is doing it already. If parents let their children watch lots of advertising then they are the ones who will get the pestering and who will have to, if they cave in, shell out on unwanted gizmos or whatever. The parents own the responsibility and the consequences of not properly shouldering that responsibility.

All right, you could say that all Nick is doing is highlighting existing party policy. Well, if that is the case then he is in danger of misleading people. By emphasising this policy in such a generalised way he is giving the impression that the LibDems will pursue a wider ban than just 'restricting' advertising of unhealthy food - which is our current policy. (I have not noticed a great deal of food advertising on Children's TV, by the way - with the possible exception of adverts for Coca Cola and Pepsi. But there is a very easy way to stop children drinking those sorts of drinks too much - just say "We've run out". It works every time.) He is also, unnecessarily I think, in danger of giving people the impression that the LibDems are the "banning party". Yes, he has a good defence by saying that tackling unwarranted intrusion into children's lives is the same as tackling state intrusion in adults' privacy. But it still comes across with the headline word "ban", which sits very uncomfortably indeed with the word "liberal".

And if Nick is talking about wider restrictions than the current party policy then he will have to get the policy through conference. Good luck to him! He could be in for an exciting ride! And is this really the sort of issue which a leader wants to take to the wire at conference? "Leader pushes party to adopt ban" doesn't seem like the sort of headline which Nick will want in his mission to make Britain a more liberal country, now does it?

UPDATE: From further research, I note that Ofcom introduced the new measures below in November 2006. So it appears that our 2005 manifesto policy has been substantially achieved anyway. So what is it that Nick Clegg wants in addition to the strictures which Ofcom have already introduced? Or is he tilting at a windmill?

Scheduling restrictions should be confined to food and drink products that are assessed as high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) as defined by the Food Standards Agency’s nutrient profiling scheme;

Advertisements for HFSS products should not be shown in or around programmes specifically made for children (which includes pre-school children). For the avoidance of doubt this measure will remove all HFSS advertising from dedicated children’s channels;

Advertisements for HFSS products should not be shown in or around programmes of particular appeal to children.

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