The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Is Anyone Listening?

 

Greg Childs, Director of CMF, assesses the current issues facing children's media makers and the young audience.  Huge plans for change are under discussion - but are any of the responsible parties listening to the many advocates for young people - or to the young people themselves? 


The Coroner's verdict in the Molly Russell Inquest was a damning indictment of the failure of social media platforms to take their responsibilities to children and young people seriously. It set us thinking at the Children's Media Foundation. First of course about the tragic circumstances of Molly's death and our sympathy for her family who have campaigned tirelessly to shift the narrative on online safety. But then more broadly about how the many issues we engage with at the Foundation are in a state of "stall" - partly due to disruption of the political process but also due in no small measure to a lack of care for the children's audience. That indifference is displayed by media institutions and by those responsible for regulation and policy .

The Online Safety Bill is at last going through Parliament. We are promised it will be debated again before Christmas. The coalition of organisations brought together by Baroness Kidron's 5Rights Foundation have put up serious and important amendments that will ensure "safety by design" as the principle which should govern all websites that might be used by young people. CMF supports the amendments and we hope that legislators will too.  We've come a long way from early exponents of free speech and self-expression at all costs - "you can't regulate the internet" - to scenarios which have seen a recent €405M fine for Instagram for infringing teen data-privacy regulations, and a fine of £27m for TikTok which may be imposed by the UK Information Commissioners Office for a similar offence. So regulators are beginning to bite back, and if the Online Safety Bill doesn't get watered down by government backsliding, then more regulation is coming.

But in the meantime we still have to wonder if anyone in the social media giants is actually listening?  The representatives of Pinterest and Instagram at the Molly Russell inquest seemed to be living in different worlds from real people, with real kids in real life. Perhaps they are already living in a perfect Metaverse...

I have to admit that whenever I see posts marvelling at the latest developments in the Metaverse or VR Headsets being promoted by Mark Zuckerberg I simply want to tweet back: "how about an apology for Molly Russell's parents first, followed by a promise to clean up your act, before you create another child-ignoring monster?"

In analysing the way things have been going across the children's media spectrum, I'm afraid it's clear that few people are listening.

Not the ministers and DCMS officials who happily closed down the successful Young Audiences Content Fund to replace it with... nothing.

Not the BFI who have come up with a strategic plan for the next ten years which hardly mentions young people other than in the context of media education, offers nothing to replace the YAC Fund they administered but are now silent about, but does much for film and the games industry.  The BFI conducted a massive consultation, asking organisations like CMF about how they could get more involved in television as well as games and the big screen. They invited recipients of YAC Fund finance to round-tables to discus the fund's value and how it could relate to their future plan. But their final report completely ignored the importance of small screens amongst young people, and for the most part ignores young people themselves. The young audience is new to them. But they handled the YAC Fund successfully. Yet they are unprepared to include anything like it in their long-term plan.  It's utterly short-sighted. If they don't address kids and teens now, on the screens where they are predominantly finding content - on TV, on-demand, and online - then the BFI grand plan will fail.  Once again for lack of listening. The BFI plan is just managing decline and catering for an ageing elite - not recapturing the imaginations of a generation.

Not Ofcom who were empowered in 2017 to regulate the commercial PSBs to commission children's content, but have said nothing about the implications of the demise of the YAC Fund and nothing about what they plan to do to ensure continued spend on children's content by the PSB's. Despite Ofcom's own regular warnings that there is "market failure" in children's provision in the UK.

Not the PSBs themselves whom we suspect will soon revert to the low levels of commissioning that prevailed before the Fund put up 50% of financing.

Not the BBC, who are happy to support a strategy to tackle the loss of audience to YouTube and the streamers with more animation, that will inevitably impact on the spend for live action content. The live action content which is the backbone of public service for children in the UK. We applaud BBC Children's for tackling the issue of the departed audience. But we deplore the failure of BBC senior management to provide the finance needed to ensure there is no reduction in public service content.

And not politicians who will happily see the BBC's funding decimated and Channel 4 privatised, without thinking twice about how this impacts on the future media choices of young people. And how that impacts, in turn, on mental well-being, cultural cohesion, civic engagement, and the sense of belonging which holds a society together.  Though it sounds as though with the departure of Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries - those plans have mercifully slipped down the "to do" list.

If all these organisations are not listening to the clear voices of reason and care who know about kids and media in the many consultations, surveys, round-tables and everything else they've cheerfully ignored, they are - worse still - not listening to young people at all.  In all of the inquiries into the various changes facing the media industry and the audience - the voice of children and teenagers is woefully absent.

So what - I hear you ask - is the Children's Media Foundation going to do about it?

We are going to pursue the ideas set out in our Report on the Future of Public Service Media for young people: Our Children's Future: Does Public Service Media Matter? They offer solutions which reflect the way young people are accessing and consuming media while consistently supporting the underlying aims and purposes of public service. Ideas such as levies on platforms and the streamers to provide new sources of funding, or the concept of funding producers to make public service content rather than broadcasters to commission and carry it.

We'll explore these in public and industry events - like the successful debate we produced at the Children's Media Conference in July which has already led to the creation of a campaign group with an ambitious new plan for funding public service media for the young - a campaign we are supporting as it develops. We'll partner with organisations like BAFTA, the RTS and CMC to achieve maximum traction for events of this nature.

We'll continue to support the BBC to be the best that it can be for young people, pressing for more funding and clear messages about their commitment to public service media of relevance to UK kids.

We'll bring new ideas before Parliamentarians in the Children's Media and the Arts All Party Parliamentary Group and we'll press forward with meetings with the new ministerial team at DCMS which has begun to show some understanding of the arguments we and others, like Animation UK and PACT, are putting forward.

All of this will be informed by our partnerships with research organisations in our "Listening to Kids" campaign - building a portfolio of insights into the way young people are thinking and behaving, what media and in particular public service content mean to them, and how they want it delivered.  More research partnerships are planned.

The answer to "Is Anyone Listening?" is clearly not the big institutions who should be. But CMF is, and the kids industry is - and we'll press that home until new, radical approaches to funding, commissioning, providing and delivering content for young people become part of mainstream thinking when the future of public service and all forms of media policy and regulation are under consideration. From keeping kids safe online, to how to deliver public service in the Metaverse, the CMF renews its promise:

The Children's Media Foundation is dedicated to ensuring UK children have access to the best possible media, on all platforms, at all ages.

 

 

And you can help.  Everyone who cares about the future of media for the young can get involved.  Contact us if you have expertise or time to offer. And most important, join us... Become a CMF Supporter or Patron and with your donation - as little as £25 a year - help us continue to be independent, pro-active, innovative and continually demanding of policy makers that they care about kids and the future of media as much as we, and you, care.

Greg Childs OBE
Director CMF

 

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