Comment: More inclusive media would help tackle homophobic bullying in schools

David Mason July 5, 2012
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A recent report by Ofsted ‘No place for bullying’ found that the least effective schools at tackling bullying were the ones which did not effectively develop pupils’ understanding about diversity, or help them empathise with each other to the fullest extent.

One of the Ofsted report case studies looks at the way, five years ago, a primary school had taken action to tackle homophobic language in the playground. The school’s concerns about the negative impact of the casual use of ‘gay’ as a term of derision led to a series of carefully planned actions. These included training for staff, working with pupils to extend their understanding, and altering the curriculum. The school appreciated that bullying, and feelings of exclusion, have a detrimental effect on self-esteem and consequently on achievement. Since tackling this issue with staff and pupils, homophobic language is hardly ever heard. Pupils are very comfortable using the terms ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ appropriately in conversation.

The experience from schools is quite unequivocal: embracing diversity is good for kids. There’s every reason to believe that an inclusive media would also help tackle homophobia and homophobic bullying. In fact the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child said, in 2008, that there was an urgent need for the UK mass media to address intolerance against LGBT children.

From its inception in 1922 the BBC claimed its mission was to inform, educate and entertain. You’d think it, too, would fully embrace diversity. And indeed that used to be the case. BBC children’s TV led the way, at a time when there were no laws to protect against anti-gay discrimination and Section 28 was very much in place. But, as I detailed earlier this year, the BBC is no longer in the forefront of equality and diversity.

When, in 2007, I asked the former Director of children’s services, Richard Deverell, about the discrimination on CBBC he responded by expressing concerns about what he called “the premature sexualisation of children.” But when challenged about use of the term only in relation to LGBT news or drama, he said that he didn’t mean to cause offence, but he had to take account of those who have “great sensitivity around particular subjects.”


The current BBC Director of children’s services is Joe Godwin. On 20th December 2010 Mr Godwin emailed me:

“… I do believe we’re getting better, but still with a way to go. TV, particularly drama, takes a long time to get from brain to screen, and I hope over the next year you’ll see more programmes on CBBC that either portray encouraging role models (adults or children) as well as a diverse range of families, and some programming that tackles issues. As you know, I spend a lot of time thinking about this, and discussing it with interested and expert external people. I know you’ve been sceptical about the value of this, but I do believe it will slowly build up our understanding of the challenges and issues, and help the whole issue of inclusiveness get deeper into our culture. …”

It would be nice to say there have been significant changes since 2010, but I think the day when gay relationships are portrayed on kids’ TV in the same affirmative way as straight relationships is still a long way off. And there’s still a disinclination to cover LGBT-related items on programmes like Blue Peter or Newsround. The centenary of Turing’s birth was just the latest in a series of missed opportunities.

A corporation that embraces diversity would not treat ‘gay’ as a four-letter word. Children are quick to understand that this silence implies disapproval, which does nothing to counter the negative vibes of hearing the word as a term of abuse.

So how serious is the BBC about tackling homophobia and school bullying? Disappointingly, the children’s department seems to move at a snail’s pace. In May this year, almost a year-and-a-half after Joe Godwin’s promise, I was told “proposals are still in the early stages of development.” Perhaps the outgoing Director-General will have more to say at Stonewall’s ‘Education for All Conference’ today.

This year’s Children’s Media Conference would have been an excellent opportunity to consider how TV can deal with diversity issues. The conference is organised by the Children’s Media Foundation, and unfortunately LGBT diversity is not one of the items on the agenda. The organisers said “.. we have set ourselves the objective of formulating policy based on thorough research wherever possible. At the moment we do not have the resources ..” I provided some relevant links to research and evidence, but then it transpired there was insufficient time on the conference programme which, I was told, would need to be cut rather than added to. Combatting homophobia is an issue which, I’m told, might be considered more closely in the coming months by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children’s Media and the Arts.

As usual, the 2012 CMC conference will be looking at forging lucrative business links – and, this year, Reg Bailey will be giving a presentation pertaining to his report about the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood: “Letting Children Be Children.”

Sexualisation – the latest buzzword

What precisely is meant by the sexualisation of children?

Recall that the phrase was used by Richard Deverell in an email to me in January 2007. The term ‘sexualisation’ has taken on extra significance with the government acceptance of Reg Bailey’s Report, though his work has been criticised by many in the academic community.

Bailey says that parents are the experts in deciding whether something is appropriate for their child. He suggests the most effective way to ensure that broadcasting, advertising, goods and services are appropriate for children is to pay closer attention to parents’ views rather than develop complicated, and contested, definitions of commercialisation and sexualisation. Bailey compromised his own Review days after it was published..

The term ‘sexualisation’ is critiqued in Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin in their 2009 article “Bad girls rule” (e.g. page 11) The authors argue that the term reinforces rather than challenges socially conservative assumptions about sex and sexuality. A similarly nuanced approach is taken by Professor David Buckingham and his colleagues in their report to the Scottish Parliament, where they say ‘The debate on sexualisation has often been conducted in very sensationalised and moralistic terms.’

But, quite obviously, for Reg Bailey ‘sexualisation’ is only about representing the views of Daily Mail types.

In 2003 a Somerset primary school headmistress wrote to parents of girls age 10 and 11, after hearing that some were wearing thongs.

The letter said: “This is not due to any personal objection on my part, but out of concern for the girls’ possible embarrassment while changing for PE or playing out in the playground, ie falling over or playing handstands and so on.”

However, one parent told reporters: “I have not told my daughter not to wear them and I do not ask her in the morning what she is wearing. She is 11 and she has a good head on her shoulders.” Another mother said she thought the letter was unbelievable.

Such are the vicissitudes of Reg Bailey’s reliance on parents for a definition of sexualisation.

One thing parents are agreed on is that they do not want their children to be bullied at school. A joined-up approach to diversity from schools, the media, and society as a whole would be an effective way to help achieve that goal.

More: anti-gay bullying, BBC, Education, Gay, Homophobia, schools

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