Balls acts to protect children in reality shows from ‘exploitation’

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The Independent Online

Tougher rules governing the use of children in reality TV shows were demanded by the Government today.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls ordered a review of existing regulations governing children performing – which were drawn up in 1968.

He said that parents and ministers were worried that programme-makers were guilty of “pushing the boundaries to provide “shock value” and boost ratings – rather than putting children first.

The existing regulations had been drawn up in an era where there were only three TV channels operating.

They included strict rules governing the use of children in entertainment programmes but they did not cover factual programmes – such as BBC 1’s John Craven’s Newsround and Blue Peter.

“When you come to reality TV shows we have a combination of fact and fiction and the regulations really don’t cover them,” said Mr Balls.

“Where many parents, educators and ministers become concerned is when programme makers seem determined to keep pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to provide shock value for viewers and push up ratings – rather than do anything positive and meaningful for our children, our culture or our country.”

He cited one Channel Four programme, Boys and Girls Alone, as having caused concern. In it, a group of 20 children aged eight to 11 were left to their own devices in isolated cottages in Cornwall. The show contained scenes of the youngsters fighting and crying.

He also said that programmes like Channel Four’s Wife Swap, where parents swop families as evidence of those that needed new regulations to cover them.

One of the protections that the regulations should give children was to ensure their education did not suffer. The time-consuming nature of participating in reality TV shows could erode that.

“As a country, we want to continue celebrating the brilliant performances of children in stage shows like Billy Elliott or programmes like Britain’s Got Talent and it is right that our talented children should continue aspiring to appear on those stages. ...

“The original laws were drawn up in 1968 to ensure that children could perform but without harm to their health or education and we now need to make sure they are fit for the 21st century.”

Mr Balls announced that Sarah Thane, who formerly chaired the Royal Television Society, would head the review. It would cover local theatre and talent shows as well as TV and films.

One of the problems with existing legislation is that local authorities have been left to police it – with the result some take their responsibilities more seriously than others.

“The incentive for the production company is to look around the country trying to find somewhere where you can get away with a little bit more,” Mr Balls added.

The review was ordered on the day ministers published a report on the impact of the commercial world on children’s wellbeing by Professor David Buckingham, of London University’s Institute of Education, who warned: “Today’s children are growing up in an increasingly commercial world.”

The report, which also warned that many aspects of digital media were exempt from existing regulations, estimated that it now cost – on average – £194,000 to raise a child from birth to 21 (or £25 a day). “This figure has risen 38 per cent in the past five years,” it added.

One of the reasons is that ad hoc gifts to children have soared to the tune of £16 a week – although pocket money has remained relatively constant in real terms for the past few decades – at £10 a week in today’s figures.

It concluded: “Television companies’ decisions about what kinds of programmes to produce are also based on the potential for selling programmes in international markets.”