Won’t someone please think of the children?

It is a difficult skill to master, the ability to wrap serious depth in light witticism. Frank McNally’s Irishman’s Diary in the Irish Times has it in spades. And yesterday’s column is no exception. Lurking within the comedy is a very serious point about advertising to children. Every parent is aware of the pester power of children. A children’s tv channel advertises the latest must-have range of fanciful dolls or transforming superheros, and children everywhere pester their parents until the wretched things are bought. But it wasn’t always thus. Indeed, McNally began yesterday’s Diary with a trip down memory lane: it marked

the 50th anniversary of a fateful event in the history of broadcasting: the end of the so-called Toddlers’ Truce … a 60-minute suspension of all programmes every day between 6pm and 7pm, so that – wait for it – the children could be put to bed.

Wow! Children going to bed at teatime!! Do modern children go to bed at 6.00pm?! More seriously, though, McNally’s point, buried in the comedy, relates not to this golden hour but to its modern possible alternatives, such as banning or regulating advertising aimed at children, (and not to protect adults from children’s pester power, but to protect the children from the advertising):

I used to have high hopes that the Swedes, who ban all ads to children under 12, would spread their enlightenment to the rest of the EU. But attempts to regulate television throughout the EU are bedevilled by the “country of origin” principle, which allows channels to braodcast in all states while only having to register in one.

Interesting use of “bedevilled” there, suggesting that the ‘country of origin’ principle is a bad thing. It may be, but a little background will help in making that judgment. Irish law at present does quite a bit to protect children from the effects (see, eg, these stories from the BBC* and the Guardian) of television and advertising. For example, section 19(1)(c) of the Broadcasting Act, 2001 gives the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (the BCI) power to prepare a code specifying standards relating to children’s advertising, and (as McNally acknlowldges) it has done so. The new Broadcasting Bill, 2006 not only replicates this power in respect of children’s advertising (Head 41(3)(g)) but also goes further: if enacted, it will give the BCI’s successor (the proposed Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (the BAI)) power to ensure that matters involving taste and decency of programme material shall be presented broadcasters with due regard to the impact of such programming on the physical, mental or moral development of children (Head 41(3)(f)(ii)). This is based on section 319(4) of the UK’s Communications Act 2003, on foot of which Ofcom has developed not only specific rules relating to advertising food and drink products to children but also, in its Brodcasting Code, a more general section on Protecting Under-18s. Presumably, the intention is that the proposed BAI, if and when it is established, will develop a similarly wide policy. In the meantime, the BCI will continue to develop its children’s code, and it and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (the BCC) will continue to police it.

However, Irish broadcasting and Irish law do not live in a vacuum. There is much signal overspill of terrestrial broadcasts from neighbouring jurisdictions, and cable and satellite platforms give us far more than 57 channels. And Irish broadcasting law is increasinlgy being influenced by EU law on Audiovisual and Media Policies. A significant element of this is the Television Without Frontiers Directive [Directive 89/552/EEC as amended by Directive 97/36/EC; a consolidation is available here (pdf)]. Article 2 of the Directive provides for the ‘country of origin’ principle:

Member States shall ensure freedom of reception and shall not restrict retransmission on their territory of television broadcasts from other Member States …

However, the Directive also provides for the protection of minors. Indeed, this is in many ways, its other great theme. Thus, as well as a general obligation under Article 22 for the protection of minors, Article 16 provides in particular that

Television advertising shall not cause moral or physical detriment to minors, and shall therefore comply with the following criteria for their protection:
(a) it shall not directly exhort minors to buy a product or a service by exploiting their inexperience or credulity;
(b) it shall not directly encourage minors to persuade their parents or others to purchase the goods or services being advertised;
(c) it shall not exploit the special trust minors place in parents, teachers or other persons;
(d) it shall not unreasonably show minors in dangerous situations.

Helen Lovejoy (via Wikipedia)Hence, although one EU country can’t prevent broadcasts coming from another, those broadcasts are subject to general rules on children’s advertising.

Moreover, the EU has continued to work on the proection of minors in the online environment, and in the current proposals to make further revisions to these Directives, on which the Department of Communications has conducted a public consultation process, the balance between ‘country of origin’ and protection of minors is largely maintained.

In other words, whilst the EU position is not quite as enlightened as McNally’s Swedish idyll, it is not quite an advertisers’ free-for-all either. An outright ban might be difficult to sustain at Irish or European law, but there is quite a bit of regulation. Won’t someone please think of the children (as The Simpsons’ character Helen Lovejoy (pictured left) might ask)? Well, in this respect at least, and perhaps quite surprisingly, the EU actually does!

*Update (19 February 2007): The BBC is running today with a report by psychologist Dr Aric Sigman listing 15 health problems that previous studies have attributed to excessive TV viewing.