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Archive for the ‘Culture media and sport’ Category

Feb 12,2009

My debate on social networking has just ended. 

In my opening speech, I set the context by citing the OFCOM research that found that virtually all (99%) of children and young people aged 8 to 17 use the internet.  In 2005 the average time spent on line by children was 7.1 hours per week.  By 2007, this had almost doubled to 13.8 hours per week.  And virtually half (49%) of those aged 8 to 17 have set up their own profile on a social networking site.


My thesis was that social networking and video sharing sites, online games, iPods and internet-enabled mobile phones are now an integral part of youth culture.  While many adults worry that their offspring are wasting precious hours online, children and young people themselves see online media as the means to extend friendships, explore interests, experiment with self-expression and develop their knowledge and skills.


However, in the same way that young children are taught how to cross the road and at the same time safety features are built into cars and traffic laws regulate unsafe driving, we need to make sure that our children and young people are protected when they make their way on the internet.


As we know, there are real perils for the unwary.  Children and young people have been the victims of sexual predators as a result of the information they have revealed about themselves on social networking sites; there are increasing problems of cyber-bullying; security weaknesses on sites have led to serious privacy infringements; and young people have discovered the hard way that the permanence of information posted in public cyber-space may not only be embarrassing in later life but may also mean that employment offers (or university places) are not forthcoming.


I went on to argue that:


·     Children throughout their education should be taught digital citizenship so that they can both make the most of the internet but also recognise and deal with any dangers they may encounter.  As most parents acknowledge that their children are more internet literate than they are, there should also be a serious effort in parallel to help parents (and indeed all adults) to keep up with the rapid development of the internet and social digital media.


·     At the same time, privacy laws ought to be strengthened with an age-related component, specifically giving enhanced protection to the data relating to or provided by children and young people.  The US Children Online Privacy Protection Act, whilst not perfect, provides a model that has required a number of US-based companies operating on the internet to improve their standards significantly.


·     There should also be higher expectations on those responsible for social networking sites – particularly those aimed at children or where there are a significant number of users who are children and young people.  These higher expectations should include:

o        Prominent and clear safety information, warning about potential dangers;

o        Simple systems for reporting abuse or inappropriate/threatening behaviour with appropriate links to the police and law enforcement;

o        Increased numbers of suitably-vetted moderators patrolling areas of sites frequented by young people;

o        User-friendly systems enabling people to ignore and erase unwanted comments and to erase permanently their own profiles; and

o    Increased server security to prevent hacking and unauthorised access to personal information.


·     Finally, there should be urgent work undertaken by internet and technology companies to find and agree a simple, efficient and cost-effective means of achieving age-verification on the internet, so as to prevent under-age people accessing inappropriate sites and older people passing themselves off as under-18.


In addition, other peers made a range of interesting points. 

There was a notable contribution from Baroness Susan Greenfield approaching the topic from the stand-point of neuro-physiology. 

Baroness Doreen Massey told the House about the Bill she is introducing on internet age verification and the Minister replying, Lord Bill Brett, almost gave a commitment on behalf of the Government to support it – although when I pressed him on it he entered the most enormous health warning about what he had said.  Nevertheless, it was clear that there was a lot of support in the House for the principle of such legislation.

Feb 12,2009

The debate I have initiated on social networking is this afternoon and I have received a number of briefing/lobbying papers from different companies and organisations about the subject. Nothing improper in that. Some of the material has been helpful and interesting. Some of it less so.

One company – I won’t name them (they know who they are) – had the cack-brained idea to send their submission by registered post to me both at the House of Lords and at home. I got the Lords copy yesterday and read it – moderately interesting. I get home last night to find one of those ‘Sorry you were out’ cards from the Royal Mail saying they had a letter that needed signing for at the Sorting Office. So this morning I made a 45 minute detour to pick it up only to find it was another copy of the letter I read yesterday.
Question: is this more or less likely to make me favourably disposed to what they’re saying?

Feb 2,2009

I have been successful in the ballot to obtain a two and a half hour debate on the adequacy of the safeguards protecting children and young people using social networking sites on the internet.

The debate will be on the afternoon of Thursday 12th February 2009 and appears on the order paper as:

Lord Harris of Haringey to call attention to the growth in the use of social networking internet sites by children and the adequacy of safeguards to protect their privacy and interests; and to move for papers.

The process was that at the beginning of the session I tabled my debate proposal and waited to see whether it would be successful in the ballot: in fact, I gather it was fourth in the ballot for 12th February but those winning the top two slots couldn’t manage the date.

I have been interested in the issue for some time and I hope the debate will cover the extent to which children and young people are encouraged to post personal information on social networking sites to an extent that damages not only their personal security but also their future job prospects.  Nearly 50% of those aged 8 to 17 living in this country are – according to OFCOM – members of an online network community.  Often the warnings given to those signing on for the first time are inadequate.  The Home Office has issued guidance to social network providers but the guidance is not mandatory and has little effect on sites run from outside the UK.

Jan 28,2009

I’ve already made my views known about the tactics employed by The Sunday Times in pursuing their House of Lords story.  They did deceive: they purported to be from a fictitious public affairs company with a fictitious website and they said they were acting for a fictitious client.  They did try to entrap by coaxing those they saw to offer to do things that clearly should not be done.

But is the story itself in the public interest?  Well the answer has to be “Yes”.  It should not be possible for commercial (or any other) interests covertly to purchase changes to legislation.  As Leader of the House, Jan Royall, said this morning:

“the standards, probity and conduct of members of the House of Lords must be of the highest level”.

She has pledged that the investigations into the actions of individuals must be searching and fair.  This is right – all those named must have a full opportunity to defend themselves against the accusations against them.  It would be wrong to pre-judge the outcome of those investigations.

She has also initiated a full review by the Privileges Committee (not a Labour-dominated body incidentally – it has sixteen members: four Labour, five Conservative, two LibDems and five Cross-benchers) of the House’s rules governing external interests.  Again she made clear her position this morning:

“In the review of the rules of the House in this area – including the place of consultancy work, and whether we should have much more forceful sanctions against peers found to be in breach of the rules – I believe we do need to make changes. The House is a more modern and professional place in a very different world: we need to make sure our rules and structures reflect that.”

The outcome of this review will, I hope, be much clearer rules and guidelines as to what members of the House can and cannot do (with appropriate – and significant – sanctions available against anyone who goes outside those rules).

If that is the consequence of The Sunday Times story, then that result is in the public interest.

If it also helps bring about a proper debate about the role of the Second Chamber and the purpose people want it to fulfil in our system of government within our unwritten constitution, then that too is unequivocally something to be welcomed.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like the journalistic tactics to which I personally was subjected …….

Jan 26,2009

The answer is unpleasant. 

About three weeks ago out of the blue I received a phone call from a woman calling herself Claire Taylor, purporting to be from a Brussels-based public affairs company, called MJ Associates.  She said they were working with a client that wanted to understand the workings of Parliament better and could she discuss it further with me.  After an exchange of emails, I met her and the colleague she brought with her.  They asked about the consultancy and advisory work I do.  They told me they represented a Chinese retail company that wanted to expand its High Street presence but were concerned about the draft legislation on supplementary business rates.

They must have been disappointed that I specifically said I would not move amendments to a bill or ask Parliamentary Questions on behalf of any client, that I would not arrange introductions for them or their clients, nor would I make any representations on their behalf. 

However, they persisted and I told them I was happy to explain to people how the Parliamentary and political processes worked and the backgound to policies being supported by the major political parties, that I offered strategic (non-Parliamentary) advice to a number of organisations including to one or two overseas companies.   

I did not agree to do any work with them and said, if they wanted to pursue it further, they would have to put something in writing, so I could look at in detail and decide whether it was appropriate.  To be honest, I was slightly suspicious: they seemed rather naive and kept pushing me to offer to do things that, if they were genuinely who they said they were, they should have known were improper. 

I didn’t hear any more from them.  Finally, ten days later – last Friday morning, I got a call from The Sunday Times, saying that the people from MJ Associates were actually undercover reporters: the whole thing had been an attempt at entrapment.  And, of course, while I had made it clear, I would not do those things that would have been improper, a clever journalist can write a story full of hints and innuendo, taking what was said out of context and by only using selected parts of what was said create a sensational and damaging story. 

In the event, I was not named in yesterday’s Sunday Times story, but as I was one of those approached by the under-cover journalists in question, I have asked to appear before the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Privileges that will be looking into the issues raised by the Sunday Times story.  I am confident that I did not breach any of the House’s rules, nor did I offer to do so.  Nevertheless, as I was one of the subjects of the journalists’ deception and attempted entrapment, it is clearly important that the Sub-Committee have the opportunity to question me.

Jan 22,2009

An unedifying spat has broken out between London Boroughs as to which Councils can use the Olympics rings logo in the run up to the 2012 Games.  Apparently, the five Boroughs around the Olympics Park believe that they should have the exclusive right to use the logo.

They are wrong.  The bid was for London as a whole.  All of London (and indeed the rest of the country as well) should feel ownership of the Olympics.  Yes, of course, the five Boroughs face more disruption than the rest, but they will also get more of the long-term benefits.

Grow up and stop being parochial.

Jan 6,2009

Those who know me will be aware that I am not exactly a fitness fanatic (My exercise philosophy is “no pain, no pain”.), but I do like to go for a swim every so often.  For the last few years, however, I have always avoided going in January so as to avoid the crush of those who have bought gym memberships as part of a New Year’s resolution drive for fitness – by February or March most have stopped using their memberships (but the business model of the fitness club’s, of course, requires a year’s subscription …).  Today, because an appointment had been unexpectedly cancelled, I thought I would risk it.  The place I go to was virtually deserted with only one person there whom I had not seen before.   Clearly, the economic situation has focussed people’s New Year’s resolutions in a different direction this year, unless, of course, I was just lucky and everybody else had decided it was too cold …

Dec 27,2008

I have just finished reading Ben Goldacre’s book, ‘Bad Science’. Much of the book will be familiar to assiduous readers of his regular column in ‘The Guardian’ each Saturday, but even for them it is worth having all the arguments in a fuller form with the detailed references cited.
Ben Goldacre should be essential reading for all ‘opinion formers’ and indeed, given the prevalence in the media of misrepresentation of scientific stories and of pseudo-science masquerading as fact, we would all benefit from the crash course that Goldacre offers.

The book takes the reader through what constitutes a good scientific experiment and a meaningful clinical trial and then looks at how various widely-reported issues measure up. Along the way ear candles, the Brain Gym (shamefully promoted – with the connivance of the Department of Children, Schools and Families – throughout the school system), homeopathy, and most commercial nutritionism are systematically debunked. This leads into a discussion on the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry’s products are promoted and concludes with the way in which the media hyped up a manufactured scare about the MMR vaccine.

So why are people so taken in by pseudo-science, by health scares and health fads? I suspect, while the media should take a large chunk of the blame, the real reason is that as a society we have been collectively undervaluing science and technology for several decades. Not enough is done in schools to promote not only the wonder and excitement of science, but also a basic understanding of scientific principles and method. Perhaps as a first step Ed Balls and senior officials at the DCSF should have as their New Year Resolution to read ‘Bad Science’ and figure out how to include its central message in the National Curriculum.

Dec 8,2008

Am I alone in being perpetually irritated by BBC Weather – both on the radio and on television?  Not about the content or accuracy of the forecasts themselves, but about their perpetual bias against London.  Always, there is a lengthy description of the weather conditions in the furthest reaches of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and then only a cursory mention of London and the South East (even then often subsumed in a general reference to England).

Isn’t it about time that BBC Weather (and for that matter most other allegedly UK institutions) realised that there are more people living in London than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

Oct 26,2008

The play, Red Fortress, at the Unicorn Theatre is offering children some serious and thought-provoking theatre.  It tackles religious tolerance and violent extremism in the name of religion, together with loyalty, friendship and love.  Three young people – one a jew, one a christian and one a muslim – originally living side-by-side in a harmonious Granada in the late fifteenth century find themselves tossed around in a war between religions.  It doesn’t pull any punches, nor is it history-lite with stereotypes.

The audience when we saw it (the target age-range is 10 to 15) were pretty riveted – proof if it were needed that there can be an antidote to Disney-fied offerings like High School Musical 3.  Alas the latter will no doubt be seen by more children and young people than will make there way through the Unicorn’s doors for a bit of live theatre in SE1.