One of the most appealing features of Australian democracy is our enthusiasm for parliamentary committees. Committees are to politicians what Bob the Builder DVDs are to three-year-olds – if a politician is busy with a committee inquiry, then they can’t get up to any mischief.
So it was easy to be happy when it was reported earlier this year that swearing on television shows – which most people would agree is one of the top issues facing Australia today, perhaps second only to jaywalking – was to be investigated by a federal Senate committee.
Sure, it’s an embarrassing waste of taxpayers’ money to have politicians spend their days discussing the need for politeness when responding to complaints about TV programs. But doing so is a lot better than if they spent that time thinking up new taxes. Senators have to do something – let them deliberate over which words shouldn’t be said on TV.
But the final 80-page report released late last month (it took nine senators four months to write) isn’t limited to platitudes and speechifying. It recommends that all new televisions sold in Australia be compelled to offer a “parental lock”, which prevents children from watching programs above a certain classification.
On the surface, this seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? Adding a parental lock to new televisions isn’t likely to cost consumers too much more money.
But is good parenting impossible without help from Canberra?
The parental lock is very similar to a program implemented in the US after a surge in controversy about violence on TV. All TVs sold in that country have to have a V-chip installed that allows parents to block certain shows. (Journalists joked that if the sex-obsessed Republicans had introduced the measure it would have been called the S-chip.)
But while 70 to 80% of American parents claim that they are “seriously concerned” about their children watching inappropriate TV programs, their concern doesn’t extend to actually using the V-chip. In 2004, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that only 15% of parents had even tried switching it on. As a consequence, some US politicians have argued that the V-chip should be set at its most restrictive level as its factory default.
It’s easy for parents to claim in a telephone poll that they worry about their kids mimicking the rude words heard on TV. But you have to wonder just how seriously concerned those parents are if it is too much effort to switch on a function that their TV already has built into it. If the US experience is anything to go by, the parental lock will be a flop. And Australian television is already much tamer than TV in the US.
After all, just as you don’t have to buy your children junk food even if they really want it, you don’t have to let your children watch rude programs.
One of the more bizarre reasons the nine senators thought that parents needed help from the Federal Government was because televisions were increasingly being placed in kids’ bedrooms, far from the watchful eye of adults. But perhaps concerned parents could consider simply moving the offending TVs somewhere children don’t sleep.
Indeed, monitoring what TV programs children watch isn’t actually that hard. And for those parents that feel they need some technological help, there are numerous TVs and set-top boxes that already offer parental locks. Is it that hard for parents to inquire about these features when they first buy their TV?
Parents who want to shield their children from the rougher parts of pop culture can easily do so with off-the-shelf technology and simple common sense.
But nevertheless, politicians of all stripes pander to moralising conservative lobbyists for whom the real issue isn’t that their children could hear rude words on TV, but that there are rude words on TV at all. As usual, politicians aren’t actually thinking of the children. Politicians are thinking of marginal electorates.
Perhaps some perspective is needed. Parents and governments won’t have failed if the next generation of Australians lead happy and productive lives, but curse like drunken pirates. Society won’t crumble. The Senate committee should have asked everybody to take it easy – Canberra isn’t a parenting aide.