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Roger McClay Speech To Children In Media Forum


Grand Hall, Parliament

1.15 pm on Monday 27 March 2000

Presentation by: Hon Roger McClay
Commissioner for Children

It is my very great pleasure to address this forum today on a topic that is dear to my heart, and central to my role as Commissioner for Children - that of Children's rights in the media.

The basis for our understanding and appreciation of children's rights is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Signed by the United Nations in 1989 and ratified by New Zealand in 1993, this international document spells out the inalienable rights of children and young people under 18 years of age. It has been ratified by every United Nations member except the United States and Somalia, making it the most ratified of any UN agreement.

The Convention affirms a child's right to such basics as a name, life, access to health and education services and protection from harm and abuse.

But it also affirms the right of each child:

 to freedom of expression, association and religion
 to rest and recreation
 to participate in art and culture
 to respect and privacy
 to have a say in things that affect them

In drafting the Convention, the United Nations was cogniscent of the significant role played by the media in the lives of the children and young people throughout the world. They went as far as to include a specific article on this topic - Article 17.

I quote:

States Parties recognise the important function performed by the mass media and shall ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health.

In order to secure this right to access, the United Nations requires all States Parties to:

(a) Encourage the mass media to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child in accordance with the spirit of article 29

(b) Encourage international co-operation in the production, exchange and dissemination of such information and material from a diversity of cultural, national and international sources;

(c) Encourage the production and dissemination of children's books;

(d) Encourage the mass media to have particular regard to the linguistic needs of the child who belongs to a minority group or who is indigenous;

(e) Encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being, bearing in mind the provisions of articles 13 and 18.

Here we see international recognition of the media as an important information channel for children. It should be able to meet the specific needs of children from a range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. However, its effective use will require the development of guidelines to ensure children's rights to safety and privacy are not compromised.

In his detailed analysis of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the media, ambassador and former vice-chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Thomas Hammarberg, identified four major functions which the media can undertake to promote and protect the rights of children. These are:

1. monitoring abuse and progress
2. respecting the integrity of the child
3. allowing and enabling children to participate in the media
4. protecting children against harmful influences through the media

Let's look at these in detail.

1. monitoring abuse and progress

Hammarberg argues that the media should play an important role in reporting on situations where children, as individuals or as a group, are abused.

The identification of such incidents on the world stage can pressure the authorities to take appropriate action to protect the children and put in place legislation, policies and practices to ensure such abuses do not occur again.

However, the media must be careful not to report isolated incidents (such as deaths of children, paedophile and child prostitution rings or the illegal sale of children) as sensationalised news items, without a commitment to provide ongoing coverage on the progress taken to resolve the underlying problems.

This ongoing monitoring role by the media is essential if real and positive changes are to occur. We need regular 'follow up' stories on the scandal involving the sale of children in Romania, improvements to the daily lives of children in Rwanda, moves in Belgium to stamp out paedophilia and actions taken by the authorities in the wake of the Waterhouse inquiry into child abuse in North Wales children's homes.

2. respecting the integrity of the child

Respecting children's integrity means seeing them as individuals, with their own identities and personalities.

Hammarberg says that most media do not do this, preferring to describe children "from a distance", as victims or as 'nasty youth'.

Stories about child abuse, accidents and natural disasters tend to feature children as victims. Nowhere is this more obvious than the reporting of starving children in Ethiopia, Somalia or most recently, Mozambique. As famines, floods and civil wars dominate the news we receive from the African continent, we are left with the image of African children as helpless victims on the world stage.

With the exception of a recent television news report about fundraising by an Auckland schoolgirl and stories about New Zealand aid worker's in local newspapers, we seldom see the faces of intelligent, happy and confident African children.

Where are the in-depth documentaries about the millions of African children now attending school or having access to clean water? Or, closer to home, what about the positive changes in the lives of children in Bougainville or East Timor?

Coverage of the activities of older children and teenagers frequently supports the image of 'nasty youth'.

We need to look no further than coverage of events in Wellington over the past year to see how reporting of the murder of Jeff Whittington and the vicious assault of two other boys creates the image of 'nasty youths' running amok in Wellington's Manners Mall and Cuba Street, ready to attack innocent passersby.

It is too easy for these sensationalised images of nasty youths to be portrayed, while the positive contribution made by thousands of other teenagers in sport, art, culture, community and school life goes unreported.

Another key element in reporting on children with respect is upholding their right to privacy. Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically states that:

1. No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to lawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.

2. The child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The media, on the look out for a sensational news item to attract an audience, sometimes resort to news items which themselves violate the rights of children and young people.

Last year, you may recall that I made two complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

The first concerned 'You be the Judge' screened on TV2 on 29 March, in which private information relating to a six-year-old's conception and identity were revealed on national television.

The second, a Holmes show programme screened on TV1 on 4 March, identified personal information about a child suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome, and filmed the child against his will.

I was very pleased with the BSA's findings that in both cases the children's rights, and their best interests, had been contravened.

The right to privacy and dignity is not the sole domain of adults. Children are people too. Privacy, dignity, identity, decency, justice and fairness are the absolute rights which children are entitled to under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is of vital importance that children's rights are not trampled on in the rush to produce a good story.

3. allowing and enabling children to participate in the media

Reporting on events involving children is one thing. Allowing - in fact - enabling - children to actively participate in the media is another.

Child and youth participation is a challenge for all sectors of society, not just the media. How do we effectively involve children and young people in local and national government planning and decision-making, how do we support and mentor them, and then know when to 'let go' and allow them to organise and run their own programmes?

There is no easy pattern. Children, like adults, are complex individuals, with highly sophisticated tastes. However, it is logical that if we want to create better programmes and literature for our children, and encourage them to actively participate in the media, we need to work closely with them to make this a reality.

Children are full members of society, even though they do not yet have the right to vote. They are global citizens and as such should have the right to participate in the media in a way that works for them.

The International Children's Day of Broadcasting is celebrated annually on the second Sunday in December. It is a day when broadcasters around the world 'tune in to kids' and give them the opportunity to design and produce programmes. In 1999 some 2,000 children participated as young broadcasters!

This UNICEF-sponsored annual event is a good start, but I would encourage you all to think about ways you can help children and young people more effectively participate in your strand of media on a more regular basis.

Across the country we have excellent 'Youth Focus' and 'Newspapers in Education' pages in our daily papers and good coverage of events at local kindergartens, schools and recreation centres. Our home-grown children's television programmes are up there with the best. New innovative web sites offer kiwi children and young people the ability to share their ideas with others too and influence government policy and decision making.

Children's access to and participation in the media are critical to their role as citizens in democratic society. As Commissioner for Children I heartily endorse the good work done by many of our newspapers, television producers, web site developers and radio stations in training and involving children in the media. I would encourage all of you here today to give it a go - you will be surprised at the talent, initiative, enthusiasm, freshness and creativity children will bring to your programmes and productions.

4. protecting children against harmful influences through the media

While there are many exciting opportunities for children in the media, I have become increasingly aware that there are also risks and dangers lurking in the shadows.

Ulla Carlsson, Director of the UNESCO International Clearinghouse on Chidlen and Violence on the Screen said in March last year that

"It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the most vulnerable individuals in this world of globalised media are our children."

As we have already seen, programmers and editors, on the look out for a sensational item to draw the crowds, sometimes resort to programmes, stories and pictures which violate the rights of children and young people.

Then there is the problem of violence in the media, and the dangers faced by children who are fed a regular diet of this, and go on to exhibit violent, anti-social behaviour at school. At what point does media violence violate a child's right to safety?

The newest media, the Internet, with its wealth of information and its global reach across borders is also host to an increasing number of sites which provide pornography, self-help suicide manuals, child molesters' contact groups and prostitution rings.

Even if they manage to escape such sites, children and young people are frequently encouraged to divulge personal information about themselves, putting them at risk of abuse by others.

The good news on this front is that a New Zealand Internet Safety Kit has just been launched and sent to every school in the country. This is a great first step in educating teachers, parents and children of the need to be 'web wise' when using the internet.

Our forum this afternoon provides us with an opportunity to consider the rights of children in the media from three angles:

The new opportunities for child participation

The risks faced by children in media participation


Advertising and marketing to children

The issue of children's rights in the media will not be concluded here today. It is my hope that whatever field you work in, you will leave this forum with a better understanding of children's rights, and a commitment to doing your bit to furthering children's rights in the media.

We have been fortunate to secure a range of highly qualified and respected people as speakers this afternoon. They bring a wealth of experience in the production, broadcasting, education, legal, health, advertising, research and child protection sectors.

In thanking you all for coming, I wish you all a thought-provoking and interesting forum.

© Scoop Media

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