Monday, August 21, 2006

Government food mania misleading and bad for kids

Ofcom - the UK Office of Communications, which monitors and regulates the British broadcasting industry - has put forward proposals to ban or heavily regulate adverts for fizzy drinks, crisps and sweets during children's TV programmes or during shows popular among children. Whichever of the proposals is finally accepted, the fact is that all of them amount to a serious clampdown on TV ads, and this is likely to cause serious problems for commercial broadcasting. One question is how channels other than the BBC (Britain's state-funded broadcasting corporation) will continue funding children's television without the lucrative revenue raised from such adverts.

There can be little doubt that ITV's recent decision to pull the rug on Granada Kids Production was influenced by Ofcom's heavy-handedness. For the record, I deplore ITV's decision; it was a cowardly and retrograde step for British creative talent. It was also a real abdication of a commitment to giving the young quality programmes, regardless of bottom-line profits. However, I would also like to say that I don't support any ban on advertising of so-called `unhealthy' foods to children - and unfortunately, there has not been enough opposition to Ofcom's proposals from the industry as a whole.

One reason for such a lukewarm opposition to such heavy-handed proposals is that many people feel queasy about appearing to back the likes of Coca Cola, McDonald's and Cadbury's. Many working in TV accept the popular prejudice that foods high in sugar, salt and other additives are indeed a threat to the health of the nation's children, and they believe that promoting such evil foods is a real `no, no' in today's climate of strict health correctness. More broadly, there seems to be what I would call a `fashionable queasiness' about corporate interests influencing children's lifestyles and diets.

However, I am queasy about something else - and that is the new phenomenon of children's broadcasters themselves seeking to influence the very same lifestyles and diets of the nation's kids. Last year, for example, Nickelodeon launched `Nicktrition', a series of programmes and live events accompanied by a website, all aimed at encouraging healthy lifestyles among children. This style of positive messaging seems to be seeping into children's programmes without any furore from within the industry.

But surely this is a major compromise of editorial independence? The story goes something like this: The government declares that there is an obesity epidemic (although note that many researchers believe this to be over-hyped scaremongering). The government then tells its regulators to declare war on junk food (although note that some experts point out there is no such thing as `junk' or unhealthy food. Our digestive systems do not distinguish between fish fingers and caviar.)

Then, following this political diktat that we should all obsess over healthy diets and panic about childhood obesity, children's broadcasters generate programme content that advertises the `correct' messages. This is best illustrated by proposals to ban celebrities like Gary Lineker, Britney Spears and even Thomas the Tank Engine from peddling crisps, Coke and fatty foods. Such celeb-led adverts are seen as a shocking manipulation of children's minds. But somehow it is not manipulative when the government quango, the Food Standards Agency, advocates that broadcasters use - guess what? - celebrities and cartoon characters to encourage children to eat healthier foods and to peddle the five-a-day message (where we are encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and veg every day).

So now Nickelodeon has the Olympic champion Sally Gunnell fronting its healthy lifestyle guide, and no one raises any problems with that. Meanwhile, BBC Worldwide uses CBBC characters such as the Teletubbies and the Frimbles to brand food products deemed nutritionally sound. One report says that, `By controlling the use of branded children's characters, the BBC is taking a positive leadership role in influencing the diet of children and encouraging healthy eating.'

It is worth noting a key difference here: the issue is not about using cartoon characters or celebrities to influence diet or lifestyle, but rather making sure that they endorse the right diet and lifestyle. And who dictates what is the `right' diet and lifestyle? It strikes me that what is `right' is increasingly dictated by the government and its agencies. So while everyone worries about the big bad corporate messages influencing the young through TV, no one seems worried about the government's `positive messaging' now sneaking into the schedules.

Programmes may reiterate government messages because TV generally reflects the zeitgeist. But my fear is that, too frequently, broadcasters seem to have become the unwitting dupes of current official orthodoxies. Traditionally broadcasters prided themselves on their editorial independence. When ITV's head Charles Allen (since resigned) and New Labour broadcasting minister James Purnell debated whether to relax rules on product placement - when programmes promote, either explicitly or implicitly, a certain product on behalf of the business or corporation that makes said product - a key concern was `preserving programmes' editorial integrity'. However, there is no debate - and I think there should be - about a new phenomenon: that is policy placement through positive messaging, which really does compromise programmes' editorial integrity. `Policy placement' is now widespread on TV....

Many of us argue against the authoritarian consequences of the growth of a `nanny state' pushing something like a smoking ban apparently for the good of the nation's health. Many of these health promotion orthodoxies have far-reaching political consequences, particularly in relation to personal freedom, and as such they should not be accepted uncritically.

Yet somehow, TV-land seems oblivious to these tensions, and it too often repeats government messages with little thought about the political consequences. I know that celebrity chef and school dinners campaigner Jamie Oliver has been virtually canonised in broadcasting circles. But his Channel 4 show Jamie's School Dinners, and his campaigner for `better' grub in schools more broadly, have had political consequences in the real world - and some of them are far from saintly. A number of draconian measures have been brought in by politicians, all of whom cite Oliver's series as an inspiration. For example, the government has introduced controversial `fat charts' into schools, involving the mass weighing and measuring of children from the age of four. Meanwhile, local authorities are piloting schemes involving the compulsory finger-printing of children as they queue up for their school dinners. One of the justifications for this is that it allows school authorities to monitor children's nutritional intake. And guess what, both the FSA and Ofcom have cited Oliver in their proposals to regulate or ban certain kinds of food advertising....

Both the BBC and ITV have fully embraced the government's policy for mass behaviour modification in relation to health....
How does all of this impact on children's programmes? Well, in terms of factual content, the healthy lifestyle agenda is everywhere. I do feel sorry for kids these days: nutritional awareness and fitness quotas are now cross-curricula priorities. Back in September 2004, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) produced the report Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools, in which it said that one key objective was `to use the full capacity and flexibility of the curriculum to achieve a healthy lifestyle' - that is, by incorporating the mantra of healthy eating into science, geography, maths, religious education and history.

So history lessons include modules on `insights into changes in our ancestors' diets and how some now familiar foods were introduced into this country', while in science lessons students are taught how to measure their BMI index. And that's before they get preached at in Personal and Social Health Education classes. They then go home and try to relax in front of the TV, but there they only get more of the same...

Another problem with policy placement is the danger that it might compromise journalistic integrity. Too often, policies and political positions - which should be open to challenge - are passed off as facts. When policy or political issues are the focus of current affairs programmes or documentaries, they are supposed to adhere to strict guidelines of veracity and balance. But when policy messages are delivered through entertainment formats and popular dramas, they are less susceptible to challenges when it comes to factual accuracy. When the BBC declares that it is `working to keep the problems of obesity in the public arena through incorporating the issue into its programming' and that `by including the issues as part of a drama, the BBC continues to involve its audience in the debate', one has to ask how the public can debate the facts when they are dressed up as fiction? While news reporters keep a rein on politicians' wild claims in news programmes, in other, softer forms of programming little scrutiny exists when claims are presented by celebrities or reality TV `experts'.

When erstwhile poster boy for Sainsbury's, Jamie Oliver, tells children that there is evidence to show that their diet affects their behaviour, their physical and mental development, and their ability to learn, he does not provide any hard evidence (of which there is little, as it happens). His assertions are in fact hotly debated and doubted in educational and scientific circles. But how does one confront a celebrity chef with this lack of evidence when he is fronting a show as a campaigning hero?...

Likewise, when Oliver proclaims to the nation's children that processed food is bad and organic food is good, are children fully informed that the evidence for this claim comes from the Soil Association, the main advocacy group for organic farming in the UK? This raises a serious problem with policy placement: it is inadvertently eroding the difference between advocacy and factual accuracy in children's broadcasting.

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