Baroness Kidron interview: ‘Children’s online safety is too vital to leave to Government’

The James Ashton Interview: The film director who took Bridget Jones to the edge of reason has found a new outlet for her energy. And woe betide anyone who tells her it’s a battle that she can’t win

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The Independent Online

First, an outburst. Baroness (Beeban) Kidron, who directed Renée Zellweger in her second movie outing as Bridget Jones, is horrified at the fuss stirred up over the actress’s face.

“Her face belongs to her body and everyone else should shut the hell up,” she says of the acres of commentary about Zellweger’s strikingly different visage. “I find it quite offensive, I really do.”

Then, a surprise. Lady Kidron, 53, who was one of the few women in the film industry when she started out, has finally discovered a world of diversity in the unlikeliest place: the House of Lords. When she walked in two years ago as a crossbencher, she encountered “an incredible collection of empowered, articulate and educated women: scientists, lawyers, campaigners, nurses. It was a very moving experience for me”.

Some of them have signed up to the cause she insists she isn’t leading. Called iRights, a charter to make children’s use of the internet safer has won support from former Google and Facebook executive Baroness (Joanna) Shields, lastminute.com co-founder Baroness (Martha) Lane-Fox, as well as a wide coalition of the NASUWT teachers’ union, the Oxford Internet Institute, Barclays and the Scouts.

Lady Kidron spelled out the ambition of iRights yesterday at MozFest, a developers’ gathering in east London run by Mozilla, maker of the Firefox web browser, supporter of the “open” web and financial backer of the cause, along with innovation charity Nesta.

Named Beeban because “my father thought it was the name of an Indian princess, but he was mistaken”, Lady Kidron is doing a good impression of being iRights’ frontwoman, meeting me at a quiet table in the Royal Institute of British Architects headquarters in central London to hammer home her points.

“I had a mad-as-hell moment. So many people said this is a problem but there is nothing we can do,” she says, droll and determined, in blue sweater, jeans and boots.

“It would be easy to be drawn in as someone with a very naïve, very personal agenda but the truth of the matter is I feel that it’s not acceptable to say this horse has bolted, it’s not acceptable to leave something so fundamentally important to Government and tech who sort out the rules in five-star hotels. This is actually a social issue of the greatest importance and I suppose that is why I felt we needed a civil society voice.”

Which horse exactly? That today’s infants will reach the world of work with more than a decade of digital history scattered across the internet, that flimsy privacy settings are no defence against a tidal wave of data. And that despairing parents who see their children for two hours a day wonder what they are getting up to online for the other 22 hours.

At iRights’ heart are five principles: that under-18s should be able to take down any content they have posted on the internet; that they should have a right to know who is holding or profiting from their information; that they should be able to explore the internet safely; that there should be safeguards on compulsive technologies such as gaming; and that they should be educated to best know how to navigate their way online.

Lady Kidron doesn’t want new legislation, describing the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the “right to be forgotten” that sparked an avalanche of requests to delete web links as “very complicated”. Instead, she hopes a movement grows up to make web owners – including Facebook, which is “interested” in the project – think.

“The best way I have of explaining it is that if you think what it was like with diversity in the boardroom 10 years ago – nobody gave a shit, nobody thought it was a problem. Now you can do it well, you can do it willingly, you can do it not at all, but everybody has to think about it.”

Lady Kidron’s passion comes not because of concerns about her own three children, whose mobile phones are banned from the dinner table, but after making InRealLife, a documentary that explored the impact the internet was having on children’s lives, including web porn. At one point she offered to visit any school that wanted her to discuss the issue. “It was like a tsunami, the most idiotic thing I ever did,” she says, having done 50 visits. The impression that the youth of today are supremely comfortable living their lives through Facebook, Twitter and beyond is misplaced, she believes.

“This idea of the digital native in the bedroom taking down a fascist regime and building a billion-dollar company is a very attractive image, but actually if you look at the research, young people are on the lowest rung of digital opportunity.”

Blocking X-rated websites doesn’t always work; children need educating. And the proliferation of smartphones, meaning everyone carries the internet in their pocket, makes the issue more acute. Without a step change, “we are saying it is completely normal to watch a gang bang on PornHub as your first sexual encounter,” she adds.

The fire in Lady Kidron’s belly was kindled at an early age. Her father, Michael, was a Marxist writer, but her mentor, Eve Arnold, the first female photographer to join the Magnum picture agency, really set her on her life path. Arnold saw her talents in some of her photographs and took her on as an assistant straight from Camden School for Girls. The job involved sorting slides and collecting dry cleaning and she was fired two years later – Arnold’s way of forcing her to join the National Film and Television School.

“Eve was the person who made me,” says Lady Kidron. “It still brings me to tears when I think about her. She was a true pioneer: this little woman with long grey hair who was fearlessly polite, fearlessly determined and fearless.

“I know every time I get to the point I think something must be done that I have Eve in my bones, I have that woman who says you never, ever give up until the job is done.”

Lady Kidron’s breakthrough came on television, directing an adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which brought lesbian sex to an unsuspecting television-watching British public. The pair are working together on a stage version next summer, which will mark 30 years since the book’s publication.

Her career has matched the gritty with the comedic: a documentary about Greenham Common, another, from the streets of New York, entitled Hookers Hustlers Pimps and their Johns, but then Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything!, starring Patrick Swayze as a drag queen.

“For me, trying to articulate the world to help people see it in a way they haven’t seen it before is hugely important. Sometimes you have to take something that is completely inexplicable and say, look, here is the beating heart of something you must understand.” Measured against that, Bridget Jones seems to be the exception.

“Bridget was such a calling card for women and I was just really interested in that character and why we all identified so insanely strongly with her.”

Away from the camera, Lady Kidron’s causes don’t end. There is Into Film, the charity created when her Film Club merged with James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli’s First Light. It aims to teach and encourage the next generation of film makers.

“The reason the film business is white and male is because you don’t go looking: so we are going looking,” she says. Like iRights, it is about giving children a fair chance. “What is so fantastic is the kids who shine are not necessarily the ones who shine in other parts of the curriculum.”

The CV

Education

Studied at Camden School for Girls, north London, and the National Film and Television School

Career

Three decades in feature films, television drama and documentary. ‘Carry Greenham Home’, ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’, ‘Antonia and Jane’, ‘Used People’, ‘To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything!’, ‘Hookers Hustlers Pimps and their Johns’, ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason’.

Personal

Married to playwright and screenwriter Lee Hall, who is best known for the ‘Billy Elliot’ screenplay and the stage musical co-written with Sir Elton John. Three children. Relaxes by ‘eating, walking and searching charity shops for old plates’.

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