The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

The Jimmy Savile Affair Raises Broader Questions About Children in the Media

The following post is is a copy of a blog written for the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster

In light of the allegations that TV presenter, Jimmy Savile, abused young girls, Prof. Máire Messenger Davies takes a timely look at the issue of protecting children in the media.

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The other day, (Tuesday 9th October) I was interviewed on Radio Foyle about the latest rehash of selected research findings from psychologist Aric Sigman claiming that being exposed to TV and computer screens was harmful to developing children’s brains. I was interviewed because, in 1989, I wrote a still-cited book called Television is Good for Your Kids, (2nd edition 2001) which, like Sigman’s article, was certainly a selective account. But in this case, it was an account of some of the positive results that can be found in the research literature about children’s relationship with television. I acknowledged that my book was partial – and I did so to make this very point: that research literature on social topics can be mined selectively to support many different points of view. However, I based my book on evidence from my own research, as well as on others’, which Sigman has never done. He does not do original media research himself. Medical journalist Ben Goldacre has done an excellent job of unpicking just how unscientific Aric Sigman’s supposed “research” is and I don’t propose to better this.

The other reason I’ve taken to the blogosphere now is because, in parallel with this cynically-hatched media fuss about secondary research findings which aren’t new, there have been the shocking revelations about sexual abuse of young girls allegedly carried out by Sir Jimmy Savile while working for the BBC. The producer of Savile’s BBC show, Jim’ll Fix It, Roger Ordish, who worked on the show between 1975 and 1986, said on Channel 4 News on Monday 8th October that there were no child protection procedures in place at that time (the show ran from 1975 to 1994). Really?

That sent me back to a piece of research that I conducted for the Broadcasting Standards Commission, with my colleague, Nick Mosdell, at Cardiff University, in the 1990s. Published in 2001 by the BSC (now taken over by Ofcom) our report was called ‘Consenting Children?’ and it dealt with this very issue of the use, potential exploitation and abuse, of non-performing children in adult television programmes (i.e. children who weren’t actors – child actors have very strict employment protection). The report can be found on our CMR website here and on the Ofcom website, in its final published version here.

This research was commissioned by the BSC in response to a number of complaints they’d received about children being exploited and distressed in adult programming (a little girl bursting into tears when required to compete in a staring competition on C4’s TFI Friday, for example). We covered a lot of ground in this study – we did a content analysis of adult daytime programming to see how non-performing children were used (and they were, in all kinds of ways, including as adult comedy fodder); we interviewed children and their parents; and we reviewed the guidelines used in the 1990s by the BBC and ITC (Independent Television Commission, then responsible for regulating ITV).

ITC guidelines stipulated the consent of a parent or guardian, as well as the child, ‘with exceptions only for the least sensitive interview topics’.  We commented in our report that ‘Producers are expected to follow industry guidelines (the ITC and BBC codes) about the use and protection of children on television, but the mechanisms for ensuring that they are followed can depend on producers’ discretion’. (2001:9)  The BBC Guidelines that we consulted in 1999-2000 when we did our research, required consent from children to take part in any kind of programming, and they recommended producers to seek professional advice when in doubt. The guidelines stated:

The use of children in programmes often requires handling with great care: it can be difficult for programme-makers to strike a balance between competing interests – of the child, of the parent, and of the audience as a whole … programme-makers must have due regard for the welfare of children who take part in their programmes. (BBC Producers’ Guidelines, 1999, Chapter 14)

More recent BBC Editorial Guidelines (2005) state that:

In the course of our work, if we suspect a child may be at risk or we are alerted by a young person to a child welfare issue (including allegations against BBC staff) the situation must be referred immediately to the divisional manager with responsibility for the Child Protection Policy.(2005:89)

In our research, we contrasted the somewhat vague approach (‘producers’ discretion’) to child protection in adult programming, with the much stricter codes of practice used in children’s programming. We did a case study of the Carlton (ITV) game show Mad for It,which used a lot of children competing in games with each other, and which had a live child audience. We interviewed producers and sat in on behind-the-scenes planning and on the recording. We found that regulatory procedures for ensuring consent, parental approval, safety, audience feedback, welfare and active enjoyment were explicit, and routinely applied as part of the production process. We recommended in our report that these examples of general good practice in children’s programming should be applied in all programming. Although Jimmy Savile’s alleged abuse took place during many years prior to our research, there certainly would have been examples of good child protection practice within the BBC during his career that could have been followed for the many programmes he worked on involving children.  It would seem that they were not.

Lord Alf Dubs, chair of the BSC, said in his foreword to our report:

These issues become increasingly important as we move towards a more lightly regulated broadcasting environment. We must ensure … that those who are, or may be, vulnerable are offered adequate and appropriate protection. We hope that this report, … will stimulate the debate such subjects deserve. (2001:1)

The debate has been re-activated again, in the light of these even more serious allegations of child abuse within the entertainment industry. Let’s hope the debate will lead to appropriate action and regulation across the board – not just in broadcasting but in the hypocritically-sanctimonious tabloid press, who excoriate the BBC, but try to defend the Sun publishing a will-she-won’t-she countdown to Charlotte Church’s 16th birthday, the sexual age of consent.

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