As most people should be aware, the Bailey Review into the ‘commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood’ was published today under the title ‘Letting Children Be Children‘ and it’s already spawned a few notable commentaries. If the review interests you at all then I’d suggest you start with Dr Petra Boynton’s ‘Unpacking the Bailey Review‘, paying particular attention to the list of questions you should be asking when reading the review, before moving on to Belle Du Jour’s pin sharp overview of the report and Andy Toots delicious ‘Yippee-ki-yay, Mrs Dorries‘.
There’s also a Twitter hashtag ‘#BaileyReview’ where you can keep up with and debate the commentary from the blogosphere as its published.
For my own comtribution to the debate I’d like to begin by pointing out that the title of this article sounds a lot less confrontation if you sing it to the tune of the old Dixieland classic, ‘Won’t you come home Bill Bailey’, even if the general sentiments aren’t quite the same.
I’d also like to discuss the evidence base which underpins the report’s main findings…
Well that was short and sweet, wasn’t it?
The simple fact is that there is no evidence base behind the reports main findings. There are few moderately interesting references, pretty much all of which are dealt with in an entirely cursory manner, but otherwise there’s no substantive discussion of the existing evidence base and the report makes no effort whatsoever to gather any new empirical evidence whatsoever. There’s a bit of data from a poorly conceived/constructed questionnaire which falls short of push-polling only for lack of competence on the part of its designer(s) and feedback from focus groups which, in research terms, is the next best thing to worthless…
… or, as Kevin J Clancy of Copernicus Marketing Consulting aptly put it:
Focus groups are to serious research what bumper stickers are to philosophy—they’re poor substitutes for more rigorous methods.
The report does promise a rapid review of research literature since 2008 and a summary of regulatory frameworks in four other countries:
2. Reg Bailey was asked to take as his starting point the recent assessment led by Professor David Buckingham and the reviews led by Professor Tanya Byron and by Dr Linda Papadopoulos. He has also met and discussed the issues with all three during the course of the Review.
3. To update the evidence in this area since the work in paragraph 2 was undertaken, Reg Bailey commissioned from the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre (CWRC) a rapid review of literature available since 2008 on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood and a summary of regulatory frameworks in four other countries. The findings are available on the CWRC website: http://www.cwrc.ac.uk/projects.html
Unfortunately, as I write this, neither of these CWRC reports actually appear on this or any other page on the CWRC website, which could be nothing more than an oversight but, based on past experience of dubiously provenanced government ‘reviews’, is just as likely to indicate that these reviews don’t really support the findings and recommendations put forward in the main report and that they have, consequently, been quietly buried until the attention of the media has safely moved on to something else entirely.
Bearing all that in mind, I suppose I should tackle at least one substantive section of the main report, so I’ve decide to look at what the review has to say about the print media, starting with – of course – ‘Lad’s Mags’:
7. There is a widespread and specific concern, expressed both through our parental Call for Evidence and through the public campaigns in this area, about the display of magazines and tabloid newspapers with sexualised front covers or front pages on shelves where young children can see them. Although the content of such ‘lads’ mags’ and newspapers is not pornography in the accepted sense (that is, not strong enough to be considered as ‘top shelf’ magazines), they trade on their sexualised content and many parents think retailers should treat them in the same way as they treat pornography.
The ‘parental Call for Evidence’ is nothing more than the responses obtained from the entirely self-selecting group of 997 individuals who could be arsed to respond to a consultation document posted on the Department of Education’s website. It’s no more a representative sample than the Mumsnet survey that got Sunny a bit of a kicking in comments over at Lib Con a few months back.
This is not a credible piece of research but, more to the point, the data from the parental Call for Evidence fails to support the contention that there is ‘widespread and specific concern’ about Lad’s Mags:
4. Thinking about when you have been out and about with your child/children in the last few weeks, have you seen any images aimed at adults, which you thought were inappropriate for your child/ children to see?..
…134 respondents mentioned shop displays with the majority concerned about the display of men’s magazines and newspapers which contain sexual imagery on their covers being positioned at ‘child’s height’ in newsagents, supermarkets and petrol stations.
In all, 874 people responded to the question which spawned this ‘evidence’ of the supposedly ‘widespread and specific’ concern generated by Lad’s Mags, so the 134 people who expressed a specific dislike of Lad’s Mags amount to a mere 15.3% of the people who answered the question and only 13.4& of the people who gave some sort of response to the questionnaire. There are local planning applications that easily attract more complaints than Lad’s Mags and yet this wholly unrepresentative survey of just under a thousand people who could be bothered to fill in an official questionnaire is presented as justification for change in national policy.
There is, I know, rather more to the debate surrounding Lad’s Mags than the abject paucity of supporting evidence provided by the Bailey Review, so please refrain from dropping any feminist brain dumps in comments until you;ve at least read the rest of my commentary, because what I want to do is contrast the reports overblown response to Nuts and Loaded with its utterly spineless approach to other areas of the print media in the section of the report that deals specifically with regulation of the print media.
16. In terms of print media, as set out in Theme 1, the use of sexualised pictures on the front page or cover of tabloid newspapers and magazines (for example, the so-called ‘lads’ mags’) has raised concerns. Some parents are also concerned about the pictures of models or celebrities that fuel anxieties in children about their bodies, that is, that they do not conform to some arbitrary standard of beauty.
To put this statement into context, the supporting data for this section comes, in the main, from a nationally representative survey of 1025 parents of children aged 5-16, for which the weighted sample size was 1198, conducted by the market research firm, TNS, and despite the survey’s generally poor design the results indicate that 47% of respondents felt that pictures in newspapers and magazines encouraged children to ‘act older than they are’, while 57% thought that these pictures put too much pressure on children to conform to a particular body shape and size.
Yes, when it comes to Lad’s Mags, 15% of an unrepresentative self-selecting group is a ‘widespread and specific concern’ while 57% of a nationally representative sample is mere ‘some [concerned] parents’. There seems to be quite a degree of hypocrisy creeping into the report, particularly when this apparent downplaying of parental concerns is followed, immediately, by the following observation:
17. Although, as a recent report for Demos (Darlington et al, 2011) points out, there is no clear evidence of a causal link between such images and harm to young people, it is clear that both parents and young people who contributed to the Review see such magazine coverage as contributing to issues such as low self-esteem and self-image. A number of the young people’s and women’s organisations who contributed to the Review also shared this view. Currently the only avenue of complaint on these issues is to the magazine itself or the retailer as this is not covered by the regulatory system for print media. The public campaigns currently running on both magazine display and airbrushing should help raise awareness of these issues. For example, Girlguiding UK’s petition calling for labelling to distinguish between airbrushed and natural images received over 25,000 signatures.
There’s no clear evidence that the front cover of Zoo has a causal effect on the alleged ‘sexualisation’ of children either, not that Bailey thought to mention this when he was spinning the anti-Lad’s Mag line earlier in the report, but all of sudden the equivocal nature of the evidence base on which this entire shoddy exercise is premised is a matter of sufficient concern that it merits at least a cursory mention.
Why is that, do you think?
18. In terms of the editorial content of the print media, parents contributing to the Review reported very little concern although there were a few comments made about the age-appropriateness of the content of some teenage magazines. The main regulatory body for the print media, the Press Complaints Commission, is responsible for complaints on the editorial content of newspapers, magazines and their websites but its remit expressly excludes matters of taste and decency (Press Complaints Commission, 2011). Matters of taste and decency in print can only be raised with the publication in question, although complaints specifically about the sexual content of teenage magazines can be directed to the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel (TMAP) but only after the complaints process of the magazine in question has been exhausted (Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel, 2011). However, the panel has only ever ruled on three complaints, with its last adjudication in April 2005, and Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, has described TMAP as a “toothless watchdog”.
So, parents didn’t have much to say on the subject of the editorial content of the print media, which should come as no surprise whatsoever as they weren’t asked any questions that directly sought to solicit opinions on the old dead tree press, but nevertheless the review goes on to make it absolutely clear that if, as a parent, you’re not happy with what you’re seeing in the print media then there’s basically fuck all you can do about it. TMAP is described as ‘ toothless watchdog’ and the PCC isn’t really described at all, although I’d suggest ‘toothless lapdog’, if only to continue the canine motif.
So, the press gets a free pass from both the report and from parents, then?
Well, not exactly… I’ve already pointed out that the actual survey data showed that between three and four times as many parents expressed concerns over the pictorial content of the print media, generally, than expressed specific concerns about the covers of Lad’s Mag and to that we can add the number one concern amongst parents who said that they’re worried about the media pushing their kids towards growing up to soon or developing body image problems – ‘Celebrity Culture’.
Now we can get a real sense of perspective. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the best-selling Lad’s Mag in the UK – FHM – shifts at best around 180,000 copies a month and the total monthly circulation for the half-a-dozen or so titles that could reasonable be categorised as Lad’s Mag barely reaches 600,000 copies a month.
When it comes to pimping out ‘celebrities’. Hello magazine shifts 400,ooo units per issue while Richard Desmond’s two main titles, OK and Star, have a combined circulation of around 850,000 per issue to go with the 1.43 million weekly circulation of his clutch of Women’s Interest and Women’s Weeklies titles.As for the UK’s most prolific celebrity pimps – the tabloids – The Sun has a daily circulation of over 2.7 million to go with almost 1.4 million unique visitors to its website every day, while The Daily Mail flogs 2.1 million copies a day and scores almost 3.6 million daily unique visitors off a relentless diet of celebrity pimping – today’s big news is that Kirstie Alley’s lost weight – presumably to go with the senses she lost on becoming a Scientologist – Natialie Cassidy smokes in public, Lady Gaga’s been out in public in a see-through top and no bra (no change there) and – apparently – Flavio Briatorie’s wife has a nice arse, although the Mail does make an effort to inject a little class into its musings on thesubject of bikini-clad butt cheeks by referring to it as a ‘pert derrierre’.
Perving over someone else’s wife is just sooooo much more acceptable if you do it in schoolboy French.
However, I have to say that may absolute favorite story of the moment appears in the Mail’s sidebar under the title More than S&M? Rihanna strips off into a revealing two-piece outfit as she displays her most risqué dance moves yet to which the site’s editor has added the puntastic strapline …not much more to see here – apart from 10 large photographs of Rihanna on stage, several of which go directly for the always popular crotch shot. The Mail’s pictorial does, however, provide an interesting insight into the underlying psychology of the Mail’s editorial staff in it use of ‘More than S&M?’ as part of the headline to a bunch of photos of a pop star in an outfit which appears to have been constructed from Liqorice Allsorts, so if Max Mosley is still looking for a bit of revenge I’d suggest he hires a private detective to find out which of the Daily Mail’s senior employees has a Bertie Bassett fetish.
I’m not setting out here to advocate press censorship on the grounds of taste and decency – there are more pressing issues that need to be tackled, like simply getting the bastards to tell the truth. What I am trying to point out is not just the Bailey Review’s inherent hypocrisy – I expected that all along and so cannot profess to be disappointed at finding my expectations confirm, but rather it craven acquiescence in the face of the commercial interests of the print media. The reports surveys and focus groups might not be worth much but the very clearly indicated that the parents who were surveyed were far more concerned about the perceived impact of so-called ‘Celebrity Culture’ – a term that, in itself, strikes me as falling somewhere between an oxymoron and vaginal thrush – and the pictorial content of the mainstream media than they were about Lad’s Mags and yet all they get from Bailey by way a response to their concerns is ‘Sorry, there’s fuck all we can do about that so we’re not even going to mention it very much’.
Fuck you very much, Reg.
Overall, it seems to me that there are two very basic problems with the Bailey Review.
One is that the review is an utterly dishonest attempt to give a preconceived quasi-populist, illiberal moral agenda a wholly unmerited and unwarranted veneer of legitimacy.
The other is that its an utterly incompetent attempt to give a preconceived quasi-populist, illiberal moral agenda a wholly unmerited and unwarranted veneer of legitimacy.
Its not that there aren’t some genuinely serious and complex issues here, rather its the case that the Bailey Review epitomises HL Mencken’s still-relevant observation that:
Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.
And so, as a contribution to the overall public debate on the ‘commericalisation and sexualisation of childhood’ I’d rank it somewhere below Jedward’s contribution to solid-state physics, if perhaps a little higher than Nadine Dorries’ contribution to our entire species.
That said, the Bailey Review and its rapid and unqualified acceptance by the current government most closely resembles and validates what is, for my money, the most perceptive of all of Mencken’s observations on the nature of democratic politics:
Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
Feminists who possess a keen sense of irony might like to reflect on the fact that that last quotation is taken from a 1918 book by Mencken entitled ‘In Defence of Women’.