It was a case of having things back-to-front Down-Under. As Wendy Francis of the Australian Christian Lobby was being hanged, drawn and quartered for objecting to a bus-stop advertisement spruiking condom usage in male-to-male sex, a UK report calling for the removal of sexualised advertisements from public spaces was being showered with praise back in Old Blighty.
The Bailey report — the product of an independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of children, commissioned by British PM David Cameron, and headed by Reg Bailey, chief executive of the UK-based charity, the Mothers’ Union — goes some way to vindicating the concerns of Francis, a mother of three who, like many parents, is fed up with the incessant sexualisation of public spaces.
The “wallpapering” of children’s lives with sexual content comprises one of the report’s four key themes, and when it comes to outdoor advertising, the authors note that whereas TV can be switched off, billboards and bus-stop adverts cannot.
The report also addresses the emerging market in sexualised clothing for children — such as padded bras for prepubescent girls — and investigates the increasingly common treatment of children as consumers in their own right.
Most emphatic in the review is its call to make parents’ voices heard. Indeed, the review gives credence to parents’ concerns in a refreshingly candid manner.
It states: “The conclusion of this Review is that parents are the experts in deciding whether something is appropriate for their child. … The most effective way to ensure that broadcasting, advertising, goods and services are appropriate for children is to pay closer attention to parents’ views rather than develop complicated, and contested, definitions of commercialisation and sexualisation” (p.8).
The report provides a powerful counterpoint to hackneyed libertarian accusations of wowserism. It also rejects the familiar assertion that there is no conclusive evidence that exposure to sexualised content harms children, and that parents should therefore simply put up and shut up.
It makes the following observation: “If parents are concerned that their children are exposed to potential harm from commercialisation and sexualisation, it is their common sense and their sense of what is right for their family that tells them this.
“We should use that same common sense and those same values to take a precautionary approach and say that there are actions we can and should take now to make our society a more family-friendly place” (p.7).
The report similarly skewers a tactic employed by TV broadcasters whereby viewer-polls are used to show that a majority of respondents consider programming to be age-appropriate. The report points out that any such majority view is likely to be out of step with the genuine concerns of parents, and that in matters concerning the exposure of children to sexualised content, parental concern must take precedence.
In all, the report makes 14 recommendations, including:
• Reducing the amount of on-street advertising containing sexualised imagery in locations where children are likely to see it.
• Ensuring that content broadcast in child-friendly TV programming times meets parents’ expectations.
• Introducing age-ratings for music videos.
• Making it easier for parents to block adult material from the internet, including by requiring service-providers to ensure that parents actively choose the content they want to allow their children to access.
Notably, however, the report stops short of recommending government regulation, suggesting rather that a family-friendly media environment can be attained by the voluntary efforts of commercial media, retailers and advertisers, through better compliance with current self-regulatory codes.
The report’s reliance on self-regulation has attracted the chagrin of campaigners such as Australia’s Melinda Tankard Reist, whose organisation, Collective Shout, is at the forefront of the fight against the sexualisation of children in this country.
As Tankard Reist told Channel Seven’s Sunriseprogram (June 6), recommendations from a similar 2008 Australian Senate inquiry continue to be ignored both by government and industry. Self-regulation has simply failed to deliver results.
However, as Tankard Reist told Sunrise, early signs suggest that the response to the Bailey report may be different. In the immediate aftermath of the report’s release, nine major UK fashion retailers eagerly signed up to a new code of practice on childrenswear, reflecting a groundswell of recognition that there is in fact a problem, and that action must be taken.
What’s more, the report recommends that, should self-regulation fail to yield satisfactory results within 18 months, government regulation should be introduced to achieve the recommended outcomes.
In this, the report’s authors may have adopted a clever tactic. For while the recommended grace period wards off any immediate industry backlash, the report nevertheless amounts to a clear warning that standards must be raised.
Given that the 18-month period sits well within the expected current UK parliamentary term, the report provides the Cameron Government with a rare opportunity to enact real change on this particularly pressing issue.
Tim Cannon is a spokesman for the Australian family Association.