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Children's Rights In The Media Speech - Minister


Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. The broadcasting sector has been having a very high profile time of late, and the portfolio is not entirely free of delicate matters. But I must say that as Minister of Broadcasting I am delighted by the willingness of so many people to engage with the important issues, and to share their views and expertise.

In short – I am pleased to have been given the chance to address you. As you will know, I am also opening the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s Symposium on Children’s Broadcasting tomorrow. Consistency is perhaps an overrated virtue, but I suspect that there may be some eyebrow raising if my position was to change spectacularly in the few hours between now and then. Suffice to say, some of what you hear from me you will, if you are attending both events, hear from me again tomorrow. In this forum, however, I will give you a more general sense of my own concerns, and those of the Government. You will understand that I will do so primarily from a broadcasting perspective – but now and then, perhaps, one of my other hats might appear momentarily on my head.

So – the title of my section is: Where to from here with respect to children’s rights in the media? – a view from the new (- perhaps no longer very new -) Government.

Let me say firstly of radio and television, then, that they can be vital media for our own narratives and images. Television particularly has an extraordinarily pervasive presence in our lives, conditioning for better or worse the way we see our country, and the opinions and values we hold. It has a perhaps unparalleled capacity to provide a shared experience, and to make minority voices heard.

But this Government considers that television’s potential as a vehicle for New Zealand content and New Zealand talent has not been realised. The record of the last ten years, since the passing of the current Broadcasting Act, is one of under-performance. The genres that have the greatest cultural impact and require the greatest creative input are under-represented in our programme schedules. These genres include drama, comedy, documentary, and – and this is of great concern to me – children’s programmes.

I hasten to say that I know that there are some excellent children’s programmes being produced in this country. There are many little New Zealanders being creatively entertained and informed by – for example - Bumble and Suzy’s World.

At the same time, however, children are exposed to a large number of overseas-sourced programmes of variable quality. I am not foolhardy enough to take on all 151 Pokemons simultaneously by suggesting that New Zealand children would be better off without them altogether. In fact, I don’t want in any way to suggest that we try to close the doors on overseas influences. During their lifetimes our children, whether we like it or not, are going to be consumers of ‘world media’ to a considerable extent, and in ways that we can’t yet contemplate. But I do observe how television programmes can so comprehensively capture the imagination of children. And – with all due respect to Pikachu [peek-a-chew] - I do wonder if we might try and ensure that their imaginations are captured rather more…indigenously.

As you will know, I have been thinking also about the intensive advertising to which we subject our children. Sometimes, of course, it is hard to tell the difference between the programming and the advertising. In any event, children are a particularly vulnerable group of viewers –and of consumers - and I have real concerns about the way they are targetted.

I have concerns too about the way children and young people are portrayed and treated as both subjects and participants in the media. Let me quote from the document Labour on Youth Affairs: ‘the media tend to present an overwhelming negative picture of young people. Labour would like to see some balance by encouraging a positive media response, and developing appropriate mechanisms for young people’.

With respect to the involvement of children in television programmes, we have had a couple of instances where the privacy – and perhaps the dignity - of children have been compromised. They have not necessarily been accorded the respect due to them.

So what does this collection of observations mean for Government’s position with respect to children’s rights in the media?

It means that in developing appropriate policy settings, and in monitoring the effectiveness of the arrangements that are developed in the broadcasting sector, the Government will bear two things clearly in mind.

The first of these is that children are just that – children. They are a special case, not simply another demographic category or marketing niche. They deserve our particular and specific consideration – the sort of consideration, of course, that is being given them today and tomorrow.

It is because they are special that I have – for example - been so clear about my desire to reduce the amount of advertising that children are exposed to, and I am grateful for the support for that stance given me by many of you here today. I will be encouraging the Board of Television New Zealand to investigate seriously the level and spread of advertising, beginning with the reduction of advertising around children’s programmes. But I am also aware of the complexities inherent in the debate about the effect of advertising on children, ways of mitigating these effects, and the role that should be played by parties other than the Government – advertisers themselves, for example - in ensuring that children are appropriately protected.

It is also because children are children that the Government takes very seriously the need for appropriate and effective ‘standard maintenance’ regimes to be in place with respect to both the suitability of the material children watch or are enabled and allowed to watch; and the way they are used as ‘subject matter’. I am heartened by initiatives in this field by relevant organisations, but not complacent. As new technologies are developed and utilised, we will have to be very sure that our ability to respond effectively on these grounds, as a society, is maximised.

As a former teacher, I strongly believe that children have the right to be educated so that they can participate effectively in the world they live in. This does not mean that children can be educated into broadcasting consumers so sophisticated that the onus of responsibility might shift to them. But we owe it to our children to continue to ensure that as part of their learning they acquire the different literacies – including ‘media literacies’ - that they will need in their futures.

In our future, then, Government will remember that children are children! But Government will also actively recognise that children are citizens.

I understand that today you may have given some attention to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to the issue of profitability versus social responsibility. I would like to make the point that this Government distinguishes between children as consumers and children as citizens.

I consider that one of the obligations owed citizens by Government is a cultural one. Governments have a role in facilitating the development of a nation’s cultural identity; and in supporting key components and manifestations of that identity. One of these is broadcasting.

As citizens, children have the right to expect that they are involved in the processes whereby our identity as a society and a country is developed. And as a citizen, each child has the right to expect that his or her own tastes and interests are taken seriously. Children are not a single homogeneous group, who can be lumped together for programming purposes – no more than you and I would find it reasonable if this were to happen with adults. But the fact that I would generally choose to listen to Kim Hill as opposed to – oh – Radio Non-stop Heavy Metal Hits of the 80s, does not mean that I cannot acknowledge the rights of other listeners to have their tastes catered for as part of our broadcasting arrangements.

What I am saying, then, is that we must not take a simplistic approach to children’s broadcasting that focuses only on the number of Kiwi-produced minutes. We need to think very hard about the quality and range of what we produce, and the platform for New Zealand’s cultural development that we build for ourselves through doing so.

I’m certainly thinking about these things. I have established an officials group – led by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – to look at a number of issues related to public broadcasting, including the range of possible mechanisms that might be used to increase local content. Their investigations will take place over the next few months. The Government is committed to taking action in this area. Like you, we know how much depends on getting it right.

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