Reg Bailey: Mothers’ Union boss says he is ‘terrified by what violent images do to our children’s minds’

Reg Bailey, the man who advises No 10 on childhood, tells Chris Green that despite progress we still have a way to go to protect our young

Chris Green
Sunday 24 August 2014 22:55 BST
Reg Bailey has been chief executive of the Mothers’ Union for 15 years
Reg Bailey has been chief executive of the Mothers’ Union for 15 years

It is perhaps an unusual thing for the Government’s top adviser on childhood to say. Having spent a large portion of his August holiday looking after his six-year-old grandson, Reg Bailey jokes that he is “very tired” and glad to get back to the relative quiet of the office.

But Bailey, 64, has good reason to be cheerful. He spoke to The Independent shortly after listening to David Cameron, announce in a central London speech that online music videos will begin to carry cinema-style age ratings from October.

Bailey’s influential Government-commissioned report “Letting Children Be Children” first suggested the measure in 2011 and he was involved in the creation of the pilot project with YouTube and Vevo, an initiative he describes as “really good news”.

The offices of the Mothers’ Union, where Bailey has been chief executive for 15 years, are only a short walk from the Houses of Parliament and it is clear that he remains close to Mr Cameron, who has often spoken candidly about the difficulties of raising children and his own efforts to control his family’s “screen time”.

Bailey has his own views on this, saying that too often British parents let “screens take over” instead of speaking to their children. “We are certainly one of the heaviest users of screen-time – hours in front of the screen,” he said.

He is satisfied at the progress made on most of his review’s recommendations, such as opt-in internet filters, although he adds that parents still bear ultimate responsibility for what their children encountered online.

Other proposals, such as a child-friendly code of conduct for retailers have also had an impact. “Thongs for six-year-olds have simply disappeared,” he says.

But he is convinced that the Government can go further in making shops appeal to families, and has a bold suggestion for rewarding outlets that do so – one that he previously discussed with Mr Cameron’s former director of strategy, the bike-riding blue-sky-thinker Steve Hilton.

“One of the steps I’d still like to see is the idea of having a ‘family friendly’ sticker that you could award stores,” he says, pointing out that such as scheme could work in the same way as the green “scores on the doors” stickers given to restaurants and fast food outlets by the Food Standards Agency, which inform customers about their hygiene practices.

“You’d give them to the people who really thought about clothing, retail and so on. I talked a lot to Hilton about it when he was active in No 10. It was one of the ideas I tossed around with him, but it was a question of working out who’d administer it and what it would cost. I still think there’s an argument for making family-friendly retail space, because we all spend a lot of time in shops.”

Bailey’s review also recommended that so-called “lads mags” be moved to the top shelf or given modesty covers so they are not on display to children. He says the big retailers were quick to co-operate, but smaller stores “didn’t get it for a long, long time”. Now, he says a similar argument could be made about some newspapers.

Asked whether publications such as The Sun and Daily Star which feature scantily-clad women on the front page should be moved to the top shelf, he replies: “I have come more round to that way of thinking. I have less concerns about Page 3 because you have to physically buy the paper, but where it is very graphically on the front page, I do.”

He argues the same should apply to newspapers which use violent images on their front page, giving the example of the now notorious picture of a seven-year-old boy holding up the severed head of Syrian soldier, which several newspapers used on their front pages.

“I’m terrified by what that’s saying to children about respecting your fellow humanity,” he says. “I know people are in the business of selling newspapers, but was that really necessary? Violence is a thing that shapes people’s attitudes.

“I’m not trying to censor what people see; I think it’s about where you see it and at what point. Newspapers are generally the first thing you tend to see in the aisle. If you buy the newspaper and it’s inside, that’s your choice – but if it’s on the front page even the people who aren’t going to buy it are seeing it. That’s the argument that was always made by parents about the lads mags: it’s not ‘I want them banned’, it’s ‘I don’t particularly want to see them when I go shopping’.”

Some might accuse Bailey of wanting to wrap children in cotton wool, but he says he is only in favour of “sensible precautions” – and he is in favour of lowering the voting age. He is pleased that 16 and 17-year-olds will have a say in next month’s Scottish independence referendum, believing that getting young people involved in politics can only be a good thing.

“I think the more you can engage children with thinking about the future and their role in civil society – the earlier the better,” he says. “Many people might say that young people are too immature to make up their own minds, but in my experience they are, if anything, more prepared to engage with those issues when they’re young. I quite like the idea of youngsters being enfranchised.”

So will David Cameron soon be making a speech announcing the arrival of top shelf newspapers, family friendly shop stickers or votes for 16-year-olds? Only time will tell – but if Reg Bailey is involved, it could be a wise bet.

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