It’s unusual for a Parliamentary report to signal in its very first paragraph that readers should prepare themselves for a cop-out. “This is a community responsibility which demands action by society,” begins the Senate report on the s-xualisation of children.

The recommendations that follow amount to nothing more than a polite request that advertisers and broadcasters might perhaps, if it’s not too much trouble, consider listening to community concerns a little more.

The advertisers could not be happier with the outcome and have roundly congratulated the Senators on their very sensible report. But they had to work hard to get the result they wanted.

As anyone who’s watched ABC TV’s The Gruen Transfer knows, the advertising industry is the master of spin and manipulation — that’s what they do. When confronted by a potential threat to its freedom to operate we would expect the industry to use all of its wiles to get the outcome it wanted.

In fact, I have been leaked a memo prepared by the peak advertising body which sets out the strategy to deal with the threat posed by the Senate inquiry. Marked “Highly confidential”, the document is dated 26th March 2008, two weeks after the Senate referred the matter to the Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts.

The memo begins by noting that the community campaign represents “a significant threat to advertisers”. The organisation will “make its presence felt in Canberra” by lobbying key senators, reminding them that advertising is essential to a healthy media environment that is “vital to the political process including election time”.

Under “Actions” the memo includes the following:

  1. Work has begun on revising the advertising code of conduct to include reference to s-xualisation of children for the first time. This will be released in the course of the inquiry to demonstate [sic] our responsiveness and head off any push for stronger regulation.
  2. The Advertising Standards Bureau will be commissioning research designed to show that its decisions are in line with community attitudes. Focus groups will be asked to comment on ads that have been the subject of complaints. Favourable outcomes will be released well before the Senate is due to report.
  3. It may prove difficult to find appropriately qualified people to counter the views of many experts (psychologists, doctors and child development specialists) who will be critical of the industry. We anticipate that two or three well-known media academics will be of great help to our case.
  4. Sympathetic experts will argue that: there is no evidence that children are being harmed (although more research is needed); children are active and critical media consumers; the media helps children form healthy s-xual identities; parental guidance is the most important influence; and, children are naturally s-xual beings. Experts in support of our position should preferably have no association with the p-rn industry.

The memo goes on to list some “talking points” for industry representatives to use in media interviews to help “frame” the debate.

  • We take community concerns very seriously. While we don’t believe the s-xualisation of children is widespread, we welcome the Senate inquiry and will fully co-operate.
  • The industry is highly responsible and we have a very effective system of regulation in the Advertising Standards Bureau. (Note: there is no need to mention that it is an industry controlled body, but if asked, stress that the Bureau takes its role very seriously and its membership is chosen to reflect the range of community viewpoints.)
  • While we do all we can, in the end it’s the responsibility of parents to decided what their children watch or read.

The March memo finishes by saying that “our experts” will also help frame the issue in the media by arguing that “the community concern is a moral panic, referring often to the more whacky complaints received by the ASB, and suggesting that those campaigning against s-xualisation are ‘wowsers’ who are out of touch with the mainstream”.

Cynical or just self-protection? However you view it, the strategy worked a treat. The Senators were snowed. Rather than help protect children from s-xualisation, the inquiry actually worked in favour of advertisers because it served to take the heat out of the public debate.

The reluctance of the committee to take any steps to prevent the s-xualisation of Australian children was reflected in the bizarre comment of inquiry chair, Labor Senator Anne McEwen, who told ABC radio: “I think most Australians would be very, very hesitant to have a Government that wanted to go down the path of imposing a government view on what should be community standards.”

Earth to Senator McEwen: This is what governments do, represent community standards. It’s why we have an Office of Film and Literature Classification, rules governing children’s television, and new rules to shield children from internet p-rn.

And what of Senator Lyn Allison, who instigated the inquiry with strong words? Rejecting criticism that the inquiry was a damp squib, she said: “This is a call to industry to shape up or we’ll get tougher”.

So, Ms Allison is going to get tough after she’s left the Senate.

I did not, in truth, receive a leaked memo from the advertising industry; but the fact that you’ve read this far suggests that it’s entirely plausible that such a memo could have been prepared.

Clive Hamilton is the former director of the Australia Institute, whose report ‘Corporate P-dophilia’ prompted the Senate Inquiry.

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