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Children: Film and Television

Volume 693: debated on Thursday 5 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they support initiatives to safeguard and promote the development, production and distribution of films and television programmes for children which reflect the lives of children in the United Kingdom as well as in other countries.

My Lords, we support the broadcast of UK children’s television programmes, especially by public service broadcasters, and we welcome Ofcom’s review. We also support the UK Film Council’s work in distributing lottery and grant-in-aid funding for film, which includes films for children.

My Lords, given the Prime Minister’s stated aim to deepen our children’s understanding of the British way of life, and given the fact that only three out of the 19 children’s films published last year were in part British-made, will my noble friend go to the British Film Council and to public service broadcasting organisations such as the BBC to encourage them to develop a children’s strategy with a view to commissioning and distributing more children’s programmes? This would not only fulfil the Prime Minister’s aims but would also give our children a broader view of the world beyond the purblind prism and prison of Hollywood.

My Lords, we live in a digital age and therefore television’s public service broadcasters are supplemented by the vast range of channels now available digitally. At present, 80 per cent of households receive digital and when we have the switchover in two or three years’ time, the coverage will be almost universal. But my noble friend is right; we are concerned about the quality of children’s television. As regards film, the recent consultation that the UK Film Council carried out, Film In The Digital Age, indicated that its proposals and provisions received wide support from the consensus of view.

My Lords, did the Minister see the news story this morning entitled “TV News ‘a turn-off for young’ … Ofcom says solution could be to axe impartiality rules”? Does he not agree that any move to bring Fox News channel standards into our broadcast news would be an act of lunacy? Would he pass this message on to Ofcom: the reason we have a Communications Act and a communications regulator is to maintain public standards in this country and not to opt for the line of least resistance in news and children’s television whenever there is whining from commercial vested interest?

My Lords, Ofcom is taking this issue with regard to children seriously and is carrying out a review in advance of its review of the total position of public service broadcasting later in the year. It will of course bear in mind the points that the noble Lord made about certain extraneous American broadcasters.

My Lords, the Minister will nevertheless recall that during the debate on the advertising of foods to children, much play was made by the commercial stations of the impact of loss of revenue on children’s programmes. Will he assure us that Ofcom will be vigilant about this and that the BBC will do all that it can to redress the balance to ensure quality programmes, and more of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, outlined?

My Lords, the BBC is part of the digital age and has increased the number of channels that it makes available specifically for children. It is therefore already beginning to address that market. The noble Baroness was reflecting on the impact on commercial television of the restrictions on advertising for certain foodstuffs. That impact is direct and has caused Independent Television, for example, to reduce the number of children’s hours. A cost is involved in these changes, but the Government took a view that reflected the consensus of the nation: that it was necessary to protect the health of our children by restrictions on food advertising.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the key issue is not so much production and development, but the distribution of these films? These films do exist and some quite remarkable work is done. I commend to the House an extraordinary series made by the BBC World Service and the British Council called “African School”. It was a wonderful series of seven films, but it was put on late at night and was almost impossible to find. So long as we have a television system in this country judged principally on the basis of the ratings that it achieves, these excellent programmes will be marginalised and not seen, and we will be having debates such as this.

My Lords, my noble friend’s is a powerful voice in these issues and what he says will be borne fruitfully in mind by broadcasters. If such material is available, as it is, it is incumbent on them, for the good of our children and their development, to offer the highest quality provision.

My Lords, does the Minister remember that the very first White Paper on international development that his Government produced many years ago pledged to improve education on international development in our schools? To that end, will he see that films such as the one mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and campaigns and films such as we saw on “Newsnight” last night about the Stop the Traffik campaign, relating to children working in the cocoa industry in west Africa, reach schools in this country?

My Lords, our educators are very concerned to provide the best quality information in schools and they have the benefit of the huge expansion of resources in schools, which make the technology readily available for our children. Many people comment of young people these days that they are better informed about world affairs than they might have been in the past.

My Lords, will the Minister encourage the view that, if television channels are not prepared to attract child viewers, they are unlikely to remain attached to that channel? They should follow the example of the Welsh television channel which works in partnership with the BBC.

My Lords, the noble Baroness alluded to an important example. The Welsh television channel provides a good service in those terms. In general, it is for independent broadcasters to decide on how attract their audience. They have always recognised the importance of appealing to children.