Vivienne Pattison, recently appointed director of Mediawatch UK, talks exclusively to Simoney Girard about her campaign for decency and accountability in the media.
ET: What is the role of TV? Is there a difference between the BBC and, say, the independent channels?
Vivienne Pattison: The big difference is that we, the public, fund the BBC, whereas the independent channels are funded by advertising. So the role of the BBC, in particular, as founder of the BBC Lord Reith said in 1926, is to ‘educate, entertain and inform’.
This phrase has been used dismissively, but we do get so much of our information from what we see. This is why it is pernicious that so much of what we watch is coloured by party politics and hidden agendas.
ET: What is the role of Mediawatch?
VP: Mediawatch exists to campaign for decency and accountability in the media. Mary Whitehouse CBE, its late founder, was widely mocked for saying that if violence is normal on TV, it will help to create a violent society. But it is true that people are influenced.
It’s no coincidence that one of the world’s biggest household names, Coca-Cola, spends $3 billion on marketing. For example, in an episode of Waterlooroad last year, schoolchildren broke into the chemistry lab and drank ethanol. The next day, some children in the West Midlands copied it. People are influenced by what they watch.
ET: Is the role of Mediawatch still viable, given the wide availability of digital media?
VP: Digital content is difficult to police, so we need to keep lobbying for better protection for children.
We have been talking to the Shadow Minister of Culture about the casual violence of such video games as Call of duty, as well as the looseness of the watershed. It’s so easy for children to access digital content any time of the day, especially as the controls on offer are totally inadequate, often consisting of no more than tick-boxes: e.g. ‘Are you over 18?’
Even younger children will be able to tick ‘yes’ and access unsuitable and potentially harmful content. We want proper protection, such as a pin number from broadband or the TV licensing authority to ensure that users accessing these services really are adults.
ET: Does society reflect what it watches, or does TV reflect what is happening in society?
VP: The average child can expect to see 8000 murders on TV before they reach senior school – that’s hardly a reflection of reality. I’m not naive enough to say that if certain children had not watched TV after the watershed, then they would not have committed crimes. But we must think about what we allow our children to watch and we need to clean up what is being streamed into our houses.
If there is a violent film on at the cinema, it has an 18 rating and it is harder for children to see it. But it can be seen any time at home – 70 per cent of children have a TV in their rooms. This freedom to watch such programmes helps create a toxic home life, which spills into society.
ET: Do you work with religious groups?
VP: Yes. Much of our support comes from this area. In January, the BBC opened a consultation into how the general public felt about content; and it was important that Christians had their say. Do people think there is a problem with the content that is being shown? Have we gone too far?
We often consult with faith organisations and, indeed, anyone who pays their licence has the right to stand up and say what they want to see on their TV screens.
ET: What about your personal faith?
VP: My Christian faith is what motivates me to do this job; it’s also what sustains me at the end of a difficult day. I’ve found that because I’m campaigning in a secular area it’s often the first thing that critics will use to dismiss me without even listening to the arguments I put forward. So there are times when it’s more productive not to mention it. They don’t seem to get that I can stand up for Christ on the one hand and present a reasoned argument for Christ on the other.
ET: Do you find your job difficult?
VP: When I started last October, one of the first things I had to do was talk at the Westminster Media Forum about standards. There were representatives there from Ofcom, the BBC and Channel 4. I made a speech that I felt went down like a lead balloon! I felt ostracised, but people came up to me afterwards and said they agreed with what I had to say.
It’s also difficult to hold a mirror up to society. We can’t stop broadcasters doing anything, but we can speak for thousands of concerned people. People have a right to ask questions about why awful, violent, explicit things are being beamed into our living rooms in the name of entertainment.
When I took the job on, people said I was going to get some stick and it was depressing when I Googled myself and read some of the comments – I won’t make that mistake again! But if we were not doing something worthwhile, then no one would be attacking us.
ET: What attracted you to Mediawatch?
VP: I had a good job in publishing, but an advert for Mediawatch kept following me around! So I put in my application – on the very last day – and got called for an interview. My faith led me to this role, although we are not a Christian organisation. My faith is central to my life and impacts my working life completely.
ET: How do you see your role as director developing?
VP: I am very concerned about children having access to awful content. We are in a sad state in the UK where the only thing we can agree on politically is child protection. So, protecting children and promoting family values is going to be a core part of my plans to attract more parental support for our campaigns.