I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to protect children's privacy in the media;
to make provision for the protection of children from avoidable emotional distress resulting from participating in, or being the subject of, media programmes or reports;
and for connected purposes.
I must admit that when I saw all the hon. Members piling into the Chamber, I thought that they had come to hear me. A few have remained, but unfortunately most have now piled out again.
I would not want people listening to this debate to think that I had misspent most of the summer recess watching television, but I did perhaps leave for the office a little later in the morning and arrive home a little earlier in the evening, and I did enough channel-hopping to rekindle my intention to initiate the debate that I want to raise today. I say "rekindle", because I have been concerned for some time about just where we draw the line in deciding whether children should be the subject, directly or indirectly, of some of our more voyeuristic and sensationalist television programmes.
We have often debated in the House the issue of children as the viewers of television programmes, whether we are discussing whether advertisements for junk food should be banned during children's broadcasting or expressing concern about what is shown before and after the watershed. Fairly strict guidelines are in place about the use of child actors in television or the theatre, which include a local licence scheme. When it comes to reality TV, fly-on-the-wall documentaries and daytime talk shows, however, it appears that the boundaries of what is acceptable are becoming increasingly blurred. I am particularly concerned about programmes that show children becoming distressed or which highlight their emotional or physical problems or their dysfunctional family lives.
A colleague made a good point to me yesterday: in the past, such issues were usually addressed by making drama programmes, which would handle the issues much more intelligently and sensitively. We all remember programmes such as "Cathy Come Home" or "Boys from the Black Stuff", which were compelling pieces of social observation. Today's equivalent, however, would be to stick television cameras in every room of someone's house and then edit the programme to show the arguments and tears of a family tearing itself apart. We have seen a surge of such programmes over the past few years—programmes that feature real children in real-life settings, such as "Wife Swap", "Brat Camp", "Teenage Tourette's Camp", "Can Fat Teens Hunt?" and "I Know What You Ate Last Summer". For "Brat Camp", the TV company's promotional blurb ran:
"What do you do if your teenage kids are rude, abusive, on drugs and out of control?"
The answer seems to be: put them on TV.
Some programmes handle their subject matter more sensitively than others. I recently saw part of a Channel 4 production, "Dana: The 8-Year-Old Anorexic", which was about a girl who weighed just 8 stone and who restricted herself to 175 calories a day. The programme provided an insight into the condition and a warning that girls—and young boys, too—are at risk of developing anorexia, but we are talking about a child with a form of mental illness, for that is what anorexia is. Could the same point not have been made without parading all the details of that child's life on television?
Many of the shows that are of concern are parenting programmes, such as "Supernanny", "Little Angels" and "The House of Tiny Tearaways". I am not going to pass judgment on whether such programmes are educational or exploitative, not least because watching screaming toddlers is not my idea of entertainment; indeed, I have rarely managed to last more than five minutes before switching the television off. However, concerns were raised this year by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which said that the Government should
"Intensify its efforts...with the media, to respect the privacy of children...especially by avoiding messages publicly exposing them to shame".
The shows that concern me most, however, are the daytime talk shows, of which "The Jeremy Kyle Show"—described by a judge in a recent criminal court case as "human...bear baiting"—is the most notorious example. The programme serves up damaged people in dysfunctional relationships for entertainment. It is the modern-day equivalent of the freak show. Some shows feature children as participants, but the ones that I want to highlight today do not. Let me quote some titles: "If I can't have children, how can it be my baby?" and "Stop ignoring your daughter—I'll prove you're the dad!". Then it gets even more complicated: "Brother—I'll prove I'm the father to your ex-girlfriend's baby!" and "Admit you're a prostitute then prove my boyfriend's the dad".
After the unedifying spectacle of those couples or former couples airing all their dirty linen in public, the matter is resolved with a DNA test result being announced live on air. I watched one such show last week—purely in the interests of research, of course—which involved a young mother and three young men, each of whom could have been the father of her eight-month-old baby. One had been in prison when the baby was most likely to have been conceived, but was now back in a relationship with her. The second, who was one of his mates, had got together with her once the first had gone inside and had acted as the child's father while he was in prison. Indeed, the second young man even had the child's name tattooed on his neck. The third young man was someone whom she had picked up on the way home from a nightclub and who, when told that he might be the father, had urged her to have an abortion. Of course, when the DNA test results were revealed live on air, it was the last young man—the one who did not want the baby—who turned out to be the father.
People might make excuses and say that there is a public interest in showing such programmes or that they may encourage young women and men to be more careful about having unprotected sex. That would certainly be Jeremy Kyle's excuse. One might say that the show's producers will ensure that counselling is provided to the participants and that the young man involved will be given advice on how to be a good father, or that the participants do the shows of their own free will.
Someone from ITV called me today and told me that the channel adheres to strict internal guidelines and to those in the broadcasting code. It always requires parental consent for under-16s to appear on a programme, and DNA tests are carried out only when it is an essential part of the storyline—a statement that is slightly disingenuous given that the storyline is usually about who the child's father is. It does not do DNA tests on school-age children, and does them only rarely on children over 18 months old—again, it is not done unless it is essential to the storyline—so the DNA tests mainly involve babies.
One might say that what a baby does not know will not hurt them, but the chances are fairly high that a baby who features on such a television programme will find out about it when they grow up. People in the neighbourhood will not forget about it, and the child's future schoolmates will find out about it, so they risk humiliation and bullying, and feelings of rejection and hurt. I cannot help feeling that even if they do not find out about the programme, there is something plain wrong about it. Perhaps we do not use that word often enough these days.
The obvious line of defence is that it is ultimately the parents' prerogative to decide how they bring their child up and to what degree they protect their child from or expose them to the risk of humiliation, embarrassment, bullying or worse. However, parents are enticed and encouraged by the media to appear on such shows, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they are not always sure what they are letting themselves in for. Carole Cadwalladr recently wrote an excellent article in The Observer called "When reality bites, it leaves deep scars", which accused the show of disregarding evidence of a young man's mental health problems before he appeared on it. A DNA test was done, confirming that he was the father of a baby girl. When he was interviewed afterwards, he said:
"I was totally stitched up...It was public humiliation...I just wanted the DNA test...And I didn't have the money to get it done...it just seemed that they didn't care."
I suspect that there is an element of snobbery involved with such programmes. People think that kids with parents like that will have such dysfunctional lives anyway, and will be exposed to such pernicious influences and will be so damaged that the programme is the least of their problems, but I think that we have to establish a marker in the sand. That is what I want to do with my Bill. Surely the overriding principle when children are involved with such television programmes, either directly or by association, should be whether the show's commissioning or broadcasting would be in their best interests.
The broadcasting code and the accompanying detailed guidance say broadly that due care
"must be taken over the physical and emotional welfare and the dignity of people under eighteen who take part or are otherwise involved in programmes...irrespective of any consent given by" a parent or guardian. Children
"must not be caused unnecessary distress or anxiety by their involvement in programmes or by the broadcast of those programmes."
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children believes that those guidelines do not go far enough, and it has set up an advisory body of experts to consider the welfare of children who participate in reality TV programmes. The NSPCC suggests that there should be greater recognition of the fact that it is often the most vulnerable families who take part in such programmes, and that parents and older children should have the right to veto any programme before its transmission. It also suggests that Ofcom should be able to intervene before programmes are broadcast and that the use of children in such shows should be carefully monitored. I agree.
All I ask today is that the broadcasters should start to show more responsibility and that the relentless tide taking us towards ever more brutal, humiliating and degrading TV programmes should be halted, at the very least where children are concerned.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Kerry McCarthy, John Battle, Roger Berry, Annette Brooke, Ms Karen Buck, Alistair Burt, Mr. Tom Clarke, Andrew Gwynne, Dr. Doug Naysmith, Mr. Jamie Reed and Alison Seabeck.