30 July 2001 – The media, both print and broadcast, are having a field day at the expense of Chris Morris and the Brass Eye team for their satirical onslaught against media representations of paedophilia. Distasteful as some may have found the programme, the real pity is that it did not refine its cutting edge to slice more keenly through the dangerous cant and prurience of so much coverage of the sexual abuse of children.
Unfortunately, Brass Eye also made some errors of judgement, among them the use of actual children, which the producers will have a hard time defending. These have encouraged government ministers to jump on the critical bandwagon at a time when media regulation is on the legislative agenda, thus skewing the debate we should be having about the role and style of regulation in a multi-media age.
The programme was exposing hypocrisy and ignorance: the newspapers which are guilty of ‘shock horror’ headlines and sensational coverage of child abuse, while running chat-line and porn ads which nod in the direction of paedophilia.
These are the same newspapers which brandish semi-nudity and suggestive copy, all conferring legitimacy on sexploitation. The motive is profit, not the protection of innocent children, and the same can be said of the ratings-obsessed chat shows and studio debates about such sensitive issues. They deserve to be lampooned, especially when they generate more heat than light.
The big problem is that the public (and perhaps the media) know very little about paedophilia. Media coverage of the topic featured in a major study conducted by PressWise in 1997 and overseen by Elizabeth Lawson QC (then chair of the Family Law Bar Association). It revealed the paranoia that has developed within and between the police, social services, lawyers and the media when child abuse hits the headlines.
Her recommendations included improvements in training for all these professions, so that they appreciate more clearly the different roles they play in both protecting children and alerting the public, and the difference between secrecy and confidentiality.
If the hysterical debate about Brass Eye persuades media professionals to reflect upon their own ignorance and excesses, and encourages child protection agencies to rethink their relationship to the media, the regulators will at least be able to call in aid the purgative value of satire when adjudicating on the record number of complaints.
(Bulletin No 48)