An interesting document was published by the Home Office this week, a report on the ‘sexualisation of young people’. Download the report here. Media coverage includes the Guardian on magazines, Toby Young in the Telegraph on electioneering and evidence, and an overview and video from the BBC. In one respect, it has performed the valuable service of putting a variety of important debates and questions before the public. Matters like the power of advertising, the ‘mainstream’ nature of sexual entertainment industries, and the ongoing problem of media and body image are all considered in a lively and engaging fashion. The report takes an admirably firm line on the presumption that the free market in media and entertainment does what it does without interference, using a range of social science approaches to question the wider significance of contemporary developments for issues like gender-based violence, alternative sexualities, career prospects and child safety. It is an affirmation of the responsibility of public authorities to take gender and child protection seriously, rather than admitting that the Internet is the end of law and policy as we know it. For that, I am very pleased. Yet I think there are some problems with the way that the report presents its evidence and recommendations, particularly in respect of supposed legal solutions.
In the body of the report, a wide range of sources are referred to, although in a very general fashion. There are no pinpoint citations, for example, and many important points are referred to as being from ‘evidence supplied’ by named individuals. Unlike reports of parliamentary committees, we don’t get to see the evidence, and given the rather general tone taken in the main text, it’s hard to verify the strength of the source. Similarly, this is not really a literature review in the sense of dealing with various arguments; the bulk of the space (and, it appears from the list of witnesses heard, the most part of the time) is given to arguments that are accepted by the author. I would like, for example, to hear the views of those involved in the (rightly criticised) ‘lads’ mag’ industry as to the decisions they take, the reasons for their imagery and the ways in which things could be changed.
Finally, and most importantly, it is difficult to accept the recommendations for legal change when very little attempt is made to deal with the legal context. It’s suggested that ‘pro-ana’ websites be blocked by UK ISPs – a hugely significant debate for lawyers and for others, but simply dropped in here as a recommendation without any serious discussion of it. Given the long discussion over the blocking of child pornography and file-sharing, to take two examples, there is too much on the table about this to ignore. Take too the discussion of sexually explicit and pornographic material, which fails to define such in a sufficiently precise fashion, or engage with scholarship on the extent of and limits to freedom of expression. This is not to say that law is unnecessary, but it is better – in my opinion – to start with an interdisciplinary conversation, rather than making confident recommendations for legal change without consideration of the most rudimentary issues, such as the role of the Human Rights Act (not mentioned in the entire report). There’s also a lack of understanding of the relevant principles of media law; the report recommends, for example, that the Government extend the ASA powers over websites to close a supposed ‘loophole’ – despite the ASA’s existing website powers not deriving from Government in the first place! Similarly, it’s suggested that local authorities regulate the content of outdoor billboards, without any significant discussion (other than a reference to the authorities’ gender equality duties) on how should happen. Indeed, the fact that there is a separate chapter for recommendations (with no link drawn between such and the chapters that come before it) causes me to doubt the link between the evidence discussed in the detailed chapters and the lengthy wishlist included in the recommendations; in the case of billboards, they are not considered until the recommendations section, which is far too late. The discussion of video-on-demand reproduces the test for Ofcom intervention regarding harm to minors, without mentioning (even in passing) that the exact language is that of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive or that the UK government opposed (tooth and nail), with the support of the content industries, the calls of other EU member states to have a higher level of regulation for VOD than was ultimately agreed.
Now it might be suggested that this is not really a problem, and that the boring and technical questions of law can be considered by the Home Office experts at a later stage. However, we’ve seen already in the case of the Byron Review (re the Internet, video games, etc) how a report of this nature then becomes the basis for specific statutory proposals, and by then it’s often too late to have a serious interdisciplinary consideration of the important questions. In order to ensure that this happens, the Home Office should immediately publish all the evidence referred to in the report. Scholars from other disciplines should be invited to add their views on the matters considered and the recommendations made, including an assessment of the role of human rights instruments (including provisions regarding equality, freedom of expression, and the like). The report should be discussed with those involved in the media (and not just sympathetic voices) in a non-adversarial fashion. There is a great opportunity here to consider necessary legal and non-legal reforms if the right tone and approach is taken.
Postscript: this is yet another report where the personal position of the ‘celebrity’ author, Dr. Papadopoulos, is front and centre (see again the Byron Review!). The tone is set in the introduction, where we are reminded that the author’s comments are ‘often syndicated by the press and discussed by television and radio networks both in Britain and in America’ and that she ‘enjoys family life in London with her husband and their young daughter’, followed on a later page with a nice big photograph. This might be appropriate for a book jacket, but is completely the wrong approach to take to work commissioned by a Government department informing public debate, not least one that talks about the pressure to look glamorous in the face of the male gaze. The credentials of an author in a report of this nature should be restricted to those appropriate to the task; I’m rather fed up of being reminded about people’s happy home lives in what is supposed to be public policy work (is a scholar who lives alone less qualified?). I’m very pleased that the author refers (more than once) to her understanding of how her little girl should grow up, but equally I have met some fabulous scholars who understand children’s issues without being married parents or media stars themselves.