Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Below is a copy of my email to BBC Director of Vision, Jana Bennett. The email with subject "BBC's public service obligation to adolescents" was sent earlier this afternoon.

Dear Jana,

You may remember that you made the keynote speech at Showcomotion in 2007, during which you detailed some of the BBC's achievements. I noted with interest the claim to "help children understand themselves and their relationships in all their rich complexity and in particular, understand their world – begin to fathom their navigation of relationships, their situation, through the experience of others whom they can relate to."

You said: "We achieve something really important ... we play a key role in preparing and equipping British children for the lives they are going to lead."

In view of your speech I'm unclear why CBBC axed the 'No Problem' growing up help in autumn 2007, and why in winter 2008 most of the popular children's message boards were removed. Inexplicably, Aaron - CBBC's agony uncle - was sacked at around the same time.

In May 2006 CBBC had axed Byker Grove, and in a live Newsround interview (12 May 2006) Richard Deverell answered viewers' questions. A question from Mark asked "So now there'll be CBeebies for toddlers, CBBC for primary school children, BBC for adults. Where does that leave us teens?"

In reply Richard said:

Well, he's right. I think there is a gap there for teenagers, particularly for the 12-16 year-olds and actually the BBC has recognised this and they've announced that they're going to launch some new services aimed at exactly that age group. So hopefully in the near future you'll see some services and programmes aimed exactly at the people that he describes.

However, on 2nd March 2010 the BBC announced that BBC Switch would close.The BBC will no longer be able to claim that it properly fulfills its Public Purposes. In making the announcement the BBC acknowledged the "lead role that Channel 4 and other broadcasters have in serving this audience."

The BBC would therefore appear to have two options:

(i) Give an appropriate proportion of the licence fee to Channel 4 to pay for their PSB work on behalf of the BBC


(ii) Revert to an earlier ethos where there was no conscious exclusion of older kids.

Had a similar Showcomotion keynote speech been made in 1990 there would have been ample justification, as can be seen, for example, in this 1989 video of a viewers' help section from a Saturday morning programme. Furthermore, online archives attest to the gritty realism of past children's drama.

Please could you let me know how the BBC plans to deal with the issue I've discussed?

Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

CBBC has been getting a bit more chatty than it used to be. The 5pm edition of Newsround on BBC One is now regularly hosted by two presenters instead of just the one. And at the end of Friday's programme, Ricky and Sonali confessed something about their media ambitions. It seems they're both keen to work on The X Factor ---

Sonali: Last up - things just keep on getting better for mean X Factor judge Simon Cowell. He's got a new girlfriend that's (sic) agreed to marry him despite him wearing his trousers that little bit too high.

Ricky: I know, and what's with the white T-shirts all the time?

Sonali: I know. Well the music man will get a big award, called an Emmy, for - wait for it - reshaping 21st century television and music around the world.

Ricky: And basically in English that means he made popular TV shows, I think - just like us.

Sonali: Just like us.

Ricky: Absolutely.

Sonali: We should get one of those.

Ricky: Oh well .. on that note, Sonali, I hear you've got an award-winning Newsround bulletin coming up very soon.

Sonali: At 6.25

Ricky: Do tell us where it is.

Sonali: 6.25 CBBC Channel, and of course we're on all weekend - three times each day.

Ricky: And do you think maybe we could one day audition for the X Factor - just be as successful as Simon Cowell?

Sonali: Can you sing? Oh to present it?!

Ricky: I can sing .. oh no I'd rather present it. I don't think I'd sing.

Sonali: Yeah, kick out Dermot, we'd be better.

Ricky: Yeah. Get rid of you Dermot. Sonali and Ricky - X Factor - next year

Sonali: So remember there's no Sportsround this weekend, but Newsround's still on so make sure you catch us. Have a brilliant one, bye.

Ricky: Have a great weekend, bye.

But it's not just Newsround which is getting chatty. A trailer for a CBBC programme called Big Babies was quite telling. The trailer went out on BBC One just after Thursday's edition of Newsround ---

Two big babies - Rocco and Brooks - are sitting on the sofa in front of the TV. A voiceover on their telly says to "Watch Big Babies - the brand new show on CBBC." Brooks imitates her words, with incomprehensible babbling, and when the CBBC logo comes up on screen they both join in singing "CBBC"

Rocco: Oh that show looks amazing.

Brooks: It looked rubbish, Rocco. It's just two babies sat watching telly - it'll never take off.

Rocco: Chill out!

Brooks: It's doomed to fail. It's an embarrassment to the channel. CBBC should be ashamed of themselves!

Voiceover: Brand new Big Babies - today at 5.45 on the CBBC channel

Rocco: So you're not gonna watch it then?

Brooks: I will if I've calmed down enough.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

These days Newsround seems rather reticent about having much to do with the UK children's commissioners. They didn't report when Keith Towler took up his position as the Welsh Commissioner in 2008. Nor did they have anything to say when Maggie Atkinson took over from Sir Al Aynsley-Green as the Commissioner for England earlier this month. You'd think that a kids news programme would cover exactly that kind of information. And perhaps they would also have a regular spot where the Commissioners would be invited to advise about young people's problems and issues. That might be the kind of thing an organisation committed to empowering kids would be thinking of...

In July 2002, UNICEF's Adolescent Development and Participation Unit commissioned the Commonwealth Youth Programme to prepare a toolkit on promoting meaningful children’s and young people’s participation based on lessons learnt by UNICEF country programmes around the world. Check out this pdf document, published by the Commonwealth Secretariat, which looks at the benefits and reasons for youth participation. It opens with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Article 12(i):

States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

Participation is a right which should not be unreasonably denied. To that end Global Youth Participation Week (GYPW) is planned to take place during the International Year of Youth. See also this facebook page where people can post ideas on ways to make sure young people’s voices are heard in local communities.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

From Newsround at 8.25 this morning:

Ricky: There's a big election coming up, when adults will have the chance to vote for politicians they want to run the country. But we want to know what you guys would do if you were in charge.

We then saw Ricky's video report: Have your say: If I were Prime Minister

In my blog on 18 March 2010 I ended with:

The BBC likes to pretend that Newsround is about empowering kids. But fundamentally their 'kids in charge consultation' is a sham - the programme and its website are ultimately controlled and manipulated by adults.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Children editorial principles (part 3)

In parts 1 & 2 we saw how the BBC controls kids' right to information and freedom of expression. Those rights are laid down in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And they're there for good reasons - to help kids grow up into mature adults capable of making moral decisions and value judgements.

Try to hide the truth from kids and you get into a web of deceit. That's what happened in January when Newsround reported the political crisis in Northern Ireland. And again when they delayed reporting on the John Terry affair.

Why does Newsround disempower kids? What is the BBC's agenda?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Children editorial principles (part 2)

Kids aged 9, 10 and 14 were amongst the guests on last week's Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. The children were from the cast of BBC sitcom Outnumbered.

Ross: Now you see we do have children on the show, as you'll be aware, and I've checked the BBC Guidelines, and there are certain areas we have to be a bit careful about. Hence for the rest of this evening my house band will be called '4 Unmarried Uncles and a Pianola.'

BBC Editorial Guidelines state that the BBC must balance its responsibility to protect children and young people from unsuitable content with their rights to freedom of expression and freedom to receive information.

All too often and without good reason the BBC denies kids their right to information and their right to freedom of expression. Look at the way Newsround handled the John Terry news. Newsround prides itself on sports coverage, yet for nearly a whole week they kept completely silent about the looming John Terry captaincy decision.

Presumably someone at CBBC thought that John Terry's antics were inappropriate for their target audience. Only when the decision to sack Terry had been made did Newsround deign to report the events which led up to it. If Capello's decision had gone the other way it's possible Newsround viewers would now be none the wiser.

Newsround did eventually put kids in the picture regarding John Terry. But as with Cert 15 films, which I mentioned in part 1, it seems that the Corporation is not prepared to allow kids to have their say on the message boards.

In the run-up to the General Election Newsround is asking "What if kids controlled the country?" - what would you change if you were in charge?

The BBC likes to pretend that Newsround is about empowering kids. But fundamentally their 'kids in charge consultation' is a sham - the programme and its website are ultimately controlled and manipulated by adults.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Children editorial principles (part 1)

CBBC's policy on Certificate 15 films is still unclear (see also blogs on 23 February 2009 & 2010)

Last Monday, Newsround at 3.55pm began with a report on the Oscars, during which Ore mentioned that the Best Film award had gone to The Hurt Locker which, he said, was a war drama about soldiers defusing bombs in Iraq. So it looks like present policy permits talk of Cert 15 films on the programme. However they cannot be mentioned on message boards (Rule 11) nor, it seems, on Newsround's feedback pages.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Newsround reports from Haiti

Sonali could well be up for an award for her Newsround reports throughout the week on the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.

Last Saturday we saw Sonali preparing for the outward journey. This would have been a good time to provide viewers with a little bit more background, but we had to wait a few days before we saw a special behind-the-scenes report.

The first main report was shown at 5pm on Monday 8 March, and we experienced scenes of random destruction - Sonali said that seeing the damage up close was really shocking. Kids talked about what happened when the earthquake struck on 12 January.

In later reports we heard about how aid was being distributed. We saw kids who had been injured and needed to have limbs amputated. At the end of the week Newsround reported on efforts to rebuild Haiti.

Sonali answered children's questions in a web chat on Friday afternoon.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

According to Thursday's Daily Mail teachers are to be told that even if a primary school child uses homophobic or racist words without knowing their meaning, simply teaching them such words are hurtful and inappropriate is not enough; incidents must be put down on record.

In fact, as the paper points out, teachers have been required to record incidents of racism for some years now, but more recently similar procedures have been recommended in the case of homophobia and prejudice against disabled people.

The paper cites an example of a boy called Peter from south west England who, it says, called a friend 'gay boy' outside school and was overheard by another mother who reported the incident to the school head. According to the Mail, Peter's mother is furious that her son had been put on what it calls a 'hate register' or 'hate list'

Peter's mother, who seemed content to have her boy identified by name and photo in a national newspaper and on the internet, told the Daily Mail that her son "doesn't even understand about the birds and the bees, so how can he be homophobic?"

The Daily Mail on 4 March 2010 commented:from Daily Mail front page - 4 March 2010But the Mail's professed opposition to homophobia is belied by its shameful reputation: around this time last year the Daily Mail was running a vicious and prolonged campaign against gay adoption. More recently, in the same mould, there was the notorious Jan Moir piece about Stephen Gately.

Now compare the mother's 'mindset' with that of CBBC.

The prevailing ethos in the BBC is that references to lesbigay issues and people are intrinsically about sex, and therefore not suitable for a pre-teen audience. However, the BBC takes the view that Newsround gossip reports about 'who's going out with whom,' and fiction programmes involving hetero affection/love, for example, Lockie Leonard and Eliot Kid, are suitable for pre-teens.

Think about it carefully - Peter's mother is saying, in effect, that if he uses an epithet like 'gay boy' that's not an issue, because a 10 year old 'doesn't even understand about the birds and the bees.' But her attitude has the same consequence as the BBC's discrimination: at the end of the day both stances condone homophobic bullying and prejudice.

In the past CBBC wasn't so reticent about tackling the distress caused by homophobia, and I'll be talking a bit more about this in a future blog.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Congrats to Newsround's Ore for correctly predicting the footie score in tonight's England v Egypt friendly: England 3 - Egypt 1.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

It seems like only yesterday that BBC Director-general, Mark Thompson, was complaining about top-slicing. According to the Telegraph Mr Thomson said:

"There is a suspicion that for some years now there has been a small group of people who have been ideologically focussed more on the principle of getting a wedge into the licence fee and trying to prove a point about the principle of top-slicing, rather than having a particular urgent need.

"When Ofcom was interested in a public service publisher, it was going to take about £100m and the licence fee looked like a good source for that. Then it was Channel 4 that was going to need perhaps £100m and the licence fee was a good source for it. ..."

Strange to see that today the BBC has more or less officially abandoned teenagers, stating the lead role that Channel 4 has in serving that audience. In fact Mark Thompson again mentioned the role Channel 4 has in serving the teen audience during a live interview on Sky News this afternoon.

This blog saw problems coming ages ago. If the BBC can't fulfill its obligations as a public service broadcaster and has to rely on Channel 4, why shouldn't Channel 4 get a share of the licence fee? In fact it seems only fair that it should.

The other option, still open to the BBC, is that it reverts back to the time before children's programmes were "dumbed down," so that they once again appeal to, and serve, teenagers as well as younger kids.