“It’s clear that he is a young boy under a lot of pressure,” said the voice-over, as the 12-year-old ducked his head and wept. And the camera moved in.

And on the other channel, a 15-year-old confessed to the nation’s viewers something that apparently  he had not even confided to his parents — that bullying had made his life such a misery that he had contemplated suicide.

It seems that we must accept that the victims of the current affairs ratings war are getting younger, and more vulnerable. It seems we must accept that the if-it-bleeds-it-leads mentality leads journalists and producers to abandon the most basic moral impulses. Rather than protect the young, they exploit them.

In fact, it’s child abuse. Yet of a kind that the child welfare agencies are powerless to prevent. The broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, is likely to be powerless to act. Calls to ACMA this morning were not returned before deadline. I’ll keep you posted on the regulator’s response.

I am talking, of course, about the boys involved in the YouTube bullying video sensation du jour, now fodder for tabloids and tabloid television. Unless you have been living under a rock you will now know that the video, posted to YouTube by some teenage media adept, shows a skinny little kid throwing punches at a bigger boy, before being picked up and slammed into the concrete.

So it was not commercial TV current events that committed the first act of publication. But boy, did they move in fast.

It would be nice to say the behaviour of Today Tonight and A Current Affair was shocking, but sadly we are no longer shocked by them. They are living down to expectations.

Yet it is also true that this is a new low.

And here is something new, and boy, it takes the breath away. It is a twist worthy of Jonathan Swift, or of Kath and Kim, or any other piece of biting social satire that shows up our grotesqueries.

Except it’s real. These two programs, which reportedly have paid the boys’ families $40,000 each for interviews, are fighting over the fact that they lifted and used each other’s footage.

Oh, the outrage. What’s the point of paying all that money to the sad families involved, when your footage is simply lifted?

Channel Seven is threatening to sue Channel Nine because the latter ran the Channel Seven interview without attribution. In turn, Channel Seven ran slightly less of Channel Nine’s interview, also without attribution. See Mumbrella for a report of the tit for tat.

So these two channels seriously pretend that they have some kind of moral standing in this debate. Clearly they have no shame, no sense of their own place in this sad tableau.

It is hard to believe that the dispute will ever go to court, but if it does we will be treated to the two channels huffing and puffing over who “owned” the interviews. Meanwhile, the boys concerned, having wept their public tears, will have probably disappeared from the headlines, back in to the hard realities of their lives. There will be nowhere for them to hide from the consequences of those interviews. They will always be defined, more than they would otherwise be, by their troubled teenage selves.

They will still be living with it for five, 10, 20 years.

Who can doubt they will still be suffering, and that suffering will have been made no easier by their appearance before the cameras. But the shows will have moved on, the producers and reporters still puffed up with their sense of self importance, their apparent licence not only to broadcast but to use and abuse.

Bullying is a serious issue, of course. Perhaps the most serious issue in many young people’s lives. It deserves media treatment.

But 12-year-olds encouraged to cry on television? Fifteen-year-olds confessing to suicidal thoughts? Children made to perform in a confected morality play to feed the ratings war?

And then a spat over who owns the results?

For pity’s sake, spare us.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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