Victim TV is such thin gruel

30th January 2009 at 00:00

The BBC's Panorama prides itself on being the world's longest-running "investigative" television programme. Unfortunately, as the screening of Kids Behaving Badly earlier this month proves, there is nothing investigative about this programme today.

Like many similar productions, it has become a form of advocacy journalism, set up not to "find out" things but to empathise with some victim group or other and to make us all "aware" of the problem.

This time round, presenter Jeremy Vine and his team aimed to educate us all about schoolchildren who were victims of "sexual bullying". Before watching it, I already knew exactly what the findings would be, how the problem would be understood and how it would be presented.

First find a victim of a serious crime - like sexual assault. Then get an expert (read "campaigner") to say it is the "tip of the iceberg". Link this, preferably with the help of an academic, to issues of power and a "culture of violence and abuse", show that some children use terms like "slag" and "gay" and, hey presto, we have an endemic culture of peer pressure and sexual bullying that can lead to cases of sexual assault. So "something must be done".

If there is a problem with children's relationships with one another, there was nothing in the programme that suggested to me that this was any different from when I was at school. What is very different is that the behaviour of children, like slagging each other off and "trying it on", is now being confused with adult behaviour and defined as abusive and potentially criminal. See, for example, the number of children being placed on the sex offenders register.

The term "sexual bullying" itself cannot be found in a British newspaper before 1998, which suggests that this type of behaviour is being reinterpreted and defined as a problem, rather than that there is necessarily any change in the behaviour of children and young people.

Once a problem has been discovered and defined by "experts", what happens next - as the programme illustrated - is that schools develop programmes to deal with it. Here we witnessed peer mentors walking around the playground with clipboards, creepily asking other children if they had ever been "inappropriately touched". Teachers were shown raising the "awareness" of pupils about how bad and dangerous their name-calling and immature fumblings were to one another.

Unfortunately, in the one-dimensional world of "sexual bullying", where everyone is fragile and in need of support, literally anything can be interpreted as damaging and dangerous. The complexities of personal and sexual relationships are reduced to a mantra whereby almost everything is read as a form of bullying. Here, education as "awareness training" becomes a rather silly dogma - which, thankfully, a number of the pupils being drilled appeared to recognise.

One of the great ironies inadvertently illustrated by Kids Behaving Badly was that, rather than "pressure" of a private and sexual kind simply being used by peers, we saw peer mentors and teachers being given the power of official sanction to ask intrusive and personal questions and set out a dogmatic zero-tolerance approach to relationships.

Once we have accepted that all children are potential abusers and victims of sexual bullying, who cares about things like personal space and privacy?

Stuart Waiton is director of Generation YouthIssues.org.

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