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Children may not want TV fame

Youngsters pushed in front of the cameras need more rights, says a new report. Adrian Mourby looks at the evidence

TV programmes which exploit children for cheap laughs or to provoke a sentimental response have come under scrutiny in a new report, Unconsenting Children, published by the Broadcasting Standards Commission earlier this week.

According to Dr Maire Messenger-Davies of Cardiff University, one of the report's co-authors: "Parents are often more enthusiastic about seeing their children perform on television than the children themselves."

This BSC-funded study has focused not so much on child actors playing Julian, George and Dick in yet another remake of the Famous Five as on youngsters who appear in television non-fiction programming.

This category includes shows as diverse as Panorama, This Morning with Richard and Judy, Chris Evans' TFI Friday, Channel 4's late night comedy series Jam, and the Jenny Jones talk show on Channel 5.

The Broadcasting Standards Commission often receives complaints from viewers who feel that children have been exploited in adult programme-making. One of the recommendations in its report is that programme makers should think more seriously about why they are using children for adult entertainment purposes.

"We interviewed 24 families with children aged seven to 14," says Dr Messenger-Davies, "and found that they had serious questions about the motives of programme makers. Very often the inclusion of a child is just to elicit laughter, as in Michael Barrymore's Kids Say the Funniest Things, or as a tear-jerker in news coverage.

"Apart from uncovering concern that children should have the right to refuse to take part in programmes, we also found that there was a desire tht more of the safeguards which apply to child actors should also apply to non-performing children."

Currently local authority licensing requires consent not only from the parent but also the child, but Dr Messenger-Davies believes that children do not always comprehend what it is they are consenting to.

"It may be necessary for programme makers to show children a video of the kind of programme that they will end up in so that they can make an informed decision."

As part of its study, the project team was also given unprecedented access to the production of the Carlton Central children's game show Mad For It which Dr Davies considered dealt very responsibly with its young participants.

"They take account of local regulations at every stage and always make sure the child as well as the parents has given consent."

Launching the report, Lord Dubs, chairman of the BSC, said: "This study demonstrates that good practice exists on the use of children in television programmes. However, there is a lack of 'formal' regulations such as those in place to protect professional child performers.

"It is important that broadcasters consider whether to extend these guidelines to cover all uses of children on television."

Dr Messenger-Davies said: "I think most parents act in good faith, assuming that their children would like to be on TV. But we were surprised to find with Grange Hill, for instance, that although 63 per cent of parents would like their children to take part, only 29 per cent of children wanted to do so. This discrepancy needs to be looked at in more depth."

I have written extensively about bringing up my children, but I may think twice in future about putting my offspring in the public glare.

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