Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-45)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q40  Paul Farrelly: You are evading the question. The question is quite clear.

  Professor Livingstone: Then I may need to ask you to repeat it. I did not grasp it.

  Mr Carrick-Davies: I would like to hear the question again, please. I do not think it is unreasonable, just to be clear.

  Q41  Paul Farrelly: If the purpose, by custom and practice, what is going on on the ground, of taking mobile phone pictures of an offence such as what has been called "happy slapping" is actually to then upload them on to places like YouTube, where people can watch them, so they can watch them, in that instance, if content providers like that continue to show that sort of content, like the person taking the photograph, because of the purpose of the whole activity as demonstrated by what happens, should the law be clarified that actually, if they continue to show that, they should potentially run the very clear risk of being convicted of aiding and abetting an offence?

  Mr Carrick-Davies: Mr Farrelly, that is a straight question. My straight answer is "yes" but it is a challenge because we need to rehearse the arguments carefully. With respect, none of us are legal professionals. The issue of media law is incredibly complex. You have to think about the rights of the vendor as somebody who provides this content. Do they have content status or vendor liability? These are difficult things to work out but that is a very good question for this Committee to look at. We have precedent now where a court case has been held and aiding and abetting has been proven. That could be one of the very simple actions that will actually stop a lot of this content being put together.

  Q42  Paul Farrelly: Was that clear enough for you, Professor Livingstone?

  Professor Livingstone: Yes, it was. I think, with the caveat that I am not an expert in media law, I would probably say yes, except that I am just worried about the balance between, as it were, criminalising the user who is uploading rather than the person who is providing the site. If I think about the different area of music copyright, we have effectively criminalised half our young people in this country because they are using software and facilities which have been made available by the market. I do not know that that is a constructive way to go. I think we are teaching a lot of children to ignore the law.

  Q43  Adam Price: I think one of you said there is no silver bullet but the Australians think they may have found it in their so-called Cleanfeed system, which will block all access to certain categories of extremely harmful material. The Howard government promised to do it seven years ago; they did not succeed. It became a big issue in the Australian election campaign and the Labour government are going to introduce the system. Should we be doing that here as well?

  Mr Carr: I am very happy to tell you that the Australians copied it from us. BT—bless them; they did not have to do it—developed this thing called "Cleanfeed". I think in your next session you have Peter Robbins, the Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, appearing before you. I do not want to steal his thunder but it was the IWF who pioneered this policy. They maintain a list of the illegal websites, they hand it to internet service providers. BT was the first one to do it and that is why 95% of domestic internet users in the UK can no longer get access to that kind of material. Many other countries are beginning to copy it, including the Australians. It certainly has wider applicability but it only deals with illegal content. It is absolutely limited to illegal content and, in this particular case, it is only dealing with child sex abuse images.

  Q44  Adam Price: In Australia it has given rise to a wider discussion, including legal challenges. I understand that the Australians—and I am familiar with your work—are looking at maybe widening it to other categories of material which is seen as harmful and unnecessary and illegal. That is the question I am asking.

  Mr Carr: I think you are legally obliged to provide a filtering package. Every Australian internet service provider is by law required to offer free to every Australian family a filtering package. I am not sure what the rate of take-up is but it is an interesting experiment.

  Q45  Janet Anderson: Could I ask you, Professor Livingstone, about media literacy? I think you say in your evidence that you are not sure about how effective this is. What is the importance of the role of media literacy? Microsoft have called for a government-funded public information campaign. Would you support that?

  Professor Livingstone: Yes, I would support all information provided to parents and children—indeed, to everybody—about the possibilities and the risks posed by all media, particularly the new media that people are unfamiliar with. I think media literacy is a crucial part of the broader picture. I think people are motivated to try to understand the media that they are using and that their children are using and they would like to understand it better and be more sophisticated users, though they have constraints in how far they can do that. What I put in the evidence was a note of caution that—ironically, in a way—just as there are questions about the evidence for harm, so too are there questions about the evidence that media literacy works. In other words, I do not think we yet have a body of evidence that shows that if you provide or increase the level of media literacy among some compared to others, that those people then encounter fewer risks or are better able to address the risks that they do encounter. That is the follow-up point I really wanted to make. So people learn more about the media but very often, when people know more about something, they use it in an even more complicated way. So media literacy might be the springboard to taking yet further sophisticated risks and encountering other kinds of harm. What I saw in the UK Children Go Online project was an association between those children who did go online and gained more benefits, they thereby learned more about the internet, they were more media-literate but they were the ones who were getting into more of the risks, and it is often the na-­ve, cautious one who knows less that is also safer. This is a paradox that I think we will really struggle to address. One thing I would urge is that, if we do have a big public-funded campaign, we do not evaluate it in terms of asking whether people got the message of the campaign but we evaluate it more ambitiously in terms of whether people then encountered fewer risks or whether they were better prepared to deal with the risks that they did meet. That is the question that does not get asked.

  Mr Carr: There was some work done in the University of Central Lancashire in Preston a few years ago. They interviewed a whole range of different children and found some of the children who were doing very risky things on the internet were absolutely 100% aware of all the dangers and all of the risk and it did not have any impact at all on their behaviour. There are obviously some children who are disposed to risky behaviour, perhaps those who come from more vulnerable backgrounds or whatever. They are the ones we really need to find a better way of targeting.

  Mr Carrick-Davies: Could I make a real plea to the Committee that, as you look at the whole issue of media literacy, you understand what is happening within the curriculum taught in schools? Universal access to the internet takes place in schools; most schools have 100% connectivity. It is now finally embedded on the QCA, the Qualifications Curriculum Authority key stage three. That is 12, 13, 14-year-olds and upwards. Why is not the content of e-literacy with a reference to safe and responsible use embedded at the age of seven, eight or nine, when children are just beginning to use this technology and we have greater opportunities to influence behaviour? We would argue that we need to do that in tandem with three other things: first of all, the empowerment, training and support for teachers coming into the profession. They do not understand how the swimming pool works; they have never dived into it. This needs to be hands-on experience and extensive work with the TDA, Becta, and Microsoft in doing a resource called Know It All for Teachers, where we have actually helped them to understand the online safety issues. That is to be welcomed but more needs to be done. Secondly, if you think about where teachers derive their continuing professional development, we need to find ways to actually empower some of the teachers who have never used these social networking services, do not know a thing about the technology, because it is so much a part of children's lives. The whole point of schools is to prepare children for life outside the school gates, so we need to ensure that children look at this. If I argue that the Government believes healthy eating and obesity and school meals should be on the agenda, what are we saying about the reality of children's lives online, and we do not touch it? To quote somebody from Becta who said it a few years ago, it is almost as if we said, as we did in the Sixties, "We have a no-smoking policy therefore we don't talk about smoking." You may not be able to access that very rich, interactive, potentially harmful and dangerous content in schools but we need to prepare life for it. I would argue that the biggest opportunity you have is to strengthen the curriculum on media literacy and ensure that schools are playing their part. This is my last point and then I will shut up. Parents do trust schools. They do not trust, with respect, large companies that look like they are trying to shift product. They also, with respect, often do not trust big government. What they will trust is the relationship they already have with their child's school, with their social worker, with a health worker. This is the challenge, if you like. We need to combine strategic initiatives with random acts of education, where children and young people are talking to their parents and understanding that we have a duty of care and if we can engender that culture to get children and parents to talk together, get schools to address this issue because it is so relevant to children's lives, then I believe this Committee will make a profound impact in this area.

  Janet Anderson: Thank you very much.

  Chairman: Can I thank the three of you very much.

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