Dodgy polling underpins child sexualisation review

Regulators need to decide and impose standards of decency, not rely on polling alone.

There's a lot of common sense in Reg Bailey's review of childhood commercialisation and sexualisation. Who wouldn't want to "let children be children"? But for a major government sponsored policy review there is a distinct lack of evidence and an even more worrying reliance on simplistic polling data.

The rapid response of retailers is a big win for the review. The naming and shaming approach is already working and we can expect the shelves to be cleared of products like padded bras for eight year-olds, the 'future WAG' t-shirt for 3 year-olds, and the 'junior vajazzle' for 11 year-olds. But for the children whose parent bought them this junk, we can only hope for a clear out of the wardrobes and a new approach to parenting.

Parents need help to make the right choices for their children and support to introduce children to appropriate content at an appropriate age. Unfortunately, the capacity to regulate in a fragmented media age means that regulators are struggling to keep up with content. No doubt that is why the review places so much faith in streamlining parent's ability to complain. Ultimately, it is the children of the parents who do not complain that need most protecting.

Too much has been made of the importance of the 9pm watershed, as if on-demand television had never happened. When you look at the polling data in the report's appendix, you find that just 41 per cent of parents said that they had seen programmes or adverts on TV before 9pm that they felt were unsuitable or inappropriate for children to see. If the issue of strengthening the TV watershed had been put to a referendum, the no campaign would be proclaiming a resounding victory, with 58 per cent of parents saying they had seen nothing unsuitable or inappropriate for children.

The watershed is a favourite bug bear for the middle market press. The Daily Mail website allows you to watch, on-demand, anytime, The X Factorperformance that outraged so many and generated so many complaints. Actually, only 3,000 complained (0.02 per cent) - 15 million watched. The reason the watershed is an issue for some parents is because watching TV as a family forces them to engage in potentially awkward discussion of the content with their children; something they don't need to do if their children are watching age inappropriate music videos via the MTV website on their internet enabled mobile phones (you can watch all the inappropriate top 40, on-demand, before 9pm, by just entering a made up a date of birth). It's the same reason that soap opera storylines, like those featuring a lesbian kiss, as Brookside did two decades ago, prompt complaints. The living room TV forces parents to discuss sexuality with their children and might even help young people to come out to their folks.

There are huge issues of both 'taste' and 'class' underpinning this public policy debate. The polling published in the Bailey Review shows that 40 per cent of parents said they had "seen things in public places that they felt were unsuitable or inappropriate for children to see because of their sexual content (e.g. shop window displays, advertising hoardings)". Ignore for a moment that 60 per cent had not seen anything unsuitable or inappropriate and consider the social class breakdown. Half of well-to-do parents - in social classes AB - had seen things in public they felt were unsuitable, while around a third of poorer parents in social classes C2, D and E said they had.

Perhaps billboards in Essex should have lower decency standards than those in Chelsea? Obviously that is nonsense. Perhaps children themselves could be the judge? The Bailey Review certainly asked them: a sample of 520 children and young people aged 7-16 found that just 79 of them (yes, that's a statistically insignificant 15 per cent) had seen "things in public places, such as shop window displays or poster adverts" that they thought were "not suitable because they were too grown up for young people of your age to see". Or put another way, 85 per cent of 7-16 year olds can't see what all the fuss is about. These are issues that can't be decided by polling alone, regulators need to decide and impose standards of decency not just for billboards but across the board.

The Review says that a recent report shows "there is no clear evidence of a causal link between [print media] images and harm to young people" but that "both parents and young people who contributed to the Review see such magazine coverage as contributing to issues such as low self-esteem and self-image". But look and you will find that there is no evidence in the published polling, nor in the write up of the focus groupsconducted for the Review. Some in this debate want a ban on busty lads mags, while others want a ban on super skinny fashion models. In the absence of evidence of harm, regulators need to make decisions about taste, while policy makers have to deal with the consequences of what is left unregulated.

There is however, important evidence in the Review on two crucial issues that affect children. The first is a long running issue affecting young Brits: underage and binge drinking. The focus groups highlight concern over "alcohol advertising that is felt to really be targeting teenagers by using very young adults and glamorising alcohol". And yet, there are no recommendations to address the fact that British teenagers drink more, and younger, than the rest of the world. This might have been outside Bailey's remit but it is an issue the Government need to face up to.

The other overlooked issue is more contemporary and highlights just how misguided the obsession with the 9pm TV watershed is. The Review polling shows that a third of 7-10 year olds are using social networking sites and that almost 70 per cent of 11-13 year olds are social networking, mainly on Facebook. What's the problem? Well Facebook has a minimum age limit of 13, for very good reasons, but it is clearly being widely ignored. Tens of thousands of children are social networking, against the rules, without adult supervision.

While the banning of paying children to be 'brand ambassadors' is an important step, it is the spread of inappropriate content via social networking, especially on internet enabled mobile phones, is the future of this debate. But the Bailey Review simply recommends that it should be "easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material from the internet". Not so much a recommendation as an admission of defeat.

The only way to deal with inappropriate content is to talk about it. You can "let children be children" but you can't stop them from growing up eventually and every generation grows up in a world different to their parents.

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DfE 2004-2005 and is now Head of News at IPPR.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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What will Labour's new awkward squad do next?

What does the future hold for the party's once-rising-stars?

For years, Jeremy Corbyn was John McDonnell’s only friend in Parliament. Now, Corbyn is the twice-elected Labour leader, and McDonnell his shadow chancellor. The crushing leadership election victory has confirmed Corbyn-supporting MPs as the new Labour elite. It has also created a new awkward squad.   

Some MPs – including some vocal critics of Corbyn – are queuing up to get back in the shadow cabinet (one, Sarah Champion, returned during the leadership contest). Chi Onwurah, who spoke out on Corbyn’s management style, never left. But others, most notably the challenger Owen Smith, are resigning themselves to life on the back benches. 

So what is a once-rising-star MP to do? The most obvious choice is to throw yourself into the issue the Corbyn leadership doesn’t want to talk about – Brexit. The most obvious platform to do so on is a select committee. Chuka Umunna has founded Vote Leave Watch, a campaign group, and is running to replace Keith Vaz on the Home Affairs elect committee. Emma Reynolds, a former shadow Europe minister, is running alongside Hilary Benn to sit on the newly-created Brexit committee. 

Then there is the written word - so long as what you write is controversial enough. Rachel Reeves caused a stir when she described control on freedom of movement as “a red line” in Brexit negotiations. Keir Starmer is still planning to publish his long-scheduled immigration report. Alison McGovern embarked on a similar tour of the country

Other MPs have thrown themselves into campaigns, most notably refugee rights. Stella Creasy is working with Alf Dubs on his amendment to protect child refugees. Yvette Cooper chairs Labour's refugee taskforce.

The debate about whether Labour MPs should split altogether is ongoing, but the warnings of history aside, some Corbyn critics believe this is exactly what the leadership would like them to do. Richard Angell, deputy director of Progress, a centrist group, said: “Parts of the Labour project get very frustrated that good people Labour activists are staying in the party.”

One reason to stay in Labour is the promise of a return of shadow cabinet elections, a decision currently languishing with the National Executive Committee. 

But anti-Corbyn MPs may still yet find their ability to influence policies blocked. Even if the decision goes ahead, the Corbyn leadership is understood to be planning a root and branch reform of party institutions, to be announced in the late autumn. If it is consistent with his previous rhetoric, it will hand more power to the pro-Corbyn grassroots members. The members of Labour's new awkward squad have seized on elections as a way to legitimise their voices. But with Corbyn in charge, they might get more democracy than they bargained for.