What protection is there for children when their parents succumb to the temptations of chequebook journalism? At present, the answer would seem to be very little.

The case in point is that of the two boys, one 12 , the other 15, who are caught up in the controversy over the YouTube bullying video. I wrote about this in Crikey yesterday, describing the conduct of channels Nine and Seven in milking these two boys as akin to child abuse.

And I promised to get back to you with the response of the broadcasting regulator. Keep reading for that.

According to the Herald Sun, the boys’ families were paid $40,000 each in return for the interviews. The parents are clearly not wealthy, and are themselves vulnerable. They appeared in this confected morality play with — weathered faces, missing teeth, evidence of difficult lives lived hard. It’s not hard to imagine the potency of chequebook journalism in circumstances such as these.

Forty thousand dollars can be a life-changing amount of money.  And what to do when the other side of the dispute has already appeared on the rival channel? Is it wrong to want your say, have your piece of the action?

So is this a matter in which government regulators should intervene given that, sadly, we cannot depend on the sense or ethics of the media professionals concerned?

Should there be a role for government regulation, or not?

I say yes. Television and radio stations purchase licences to use a public asset — the usable part of the broadcasting spectrum. In return for their licences, they agree to certain conditions, which are policed, more or less, by the broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

An analogy would be a commercial business that purchases a licence  from local government to operate in a public park. Rightly, most local councils would set limits on what could be done there. The public traumatising of children in return for a profit would probably be banned, no matter what the parents said about it.

But television, and radio for that matter, are different. Understandable sensitivities about freedom of speech and avoiding onerous regulation have led to a system in which this public space is not safe for children.  This is not the first time this sad fact has been demonstrated. Remember Kyle and Jackie O, and the mother who, while on air, questioned her daughter about her s-x life, including a r-pe?

The chairman of ACMA, Chris Chapman, yesterday told me that so far his organisation has received no complaints about the broadcasts of the interviews with the boys. Sometimes, ACMA doesn’t wait for a complaint, but starts an inquiry on it’s own initiative, but normally, Chapman says, his role is only “enlivened” when someone complains. In this case he has no plans to start an inquiry off his own bat.

And if there is a complaint? Under the current Commercial Television Code of Practice it would seem the channels are in the clear — because the parents gave permission.

What seems to me to be the most relevant section of the code, 4.3.5 says:

“In broadcasting news and current affair programs licensees must not use material relating to a person’s personal or private affairs, or which invades an individual’s privacy, other than where there is an identifiable public interest reason for the material to be broadcast.”

But it goes on …

“a licensee will not be in breach of this clause … if the consent of the person (or in the case of a child, the child’s parent or guardian) is obtained prior to broadcast of the material.”

Then there is , which stipulates …

“licensees must exercise special care before using material relating to a child’s personal or private affairs in the broadcast of a report of a sensitive matter concerning the child.”

And that means?

“The consent of a parent or guardian should be obtained before naming or visually identifying a child in a report on a criminal matter involving a child or member of a child’s immediate family, or a report which discloses sensitive information concerning the health or welfare of a child, unless there are exceptional circumstances or an identifiable public interest reason not to do so.”

So ACMA would appear to be obliged to find that there was no breach, because the parents gave permission.

This recent case is yet more evidence that our light-on  regulatory system, which relies  on  codes negotiated with the broadcasters, is not up to the job of making sure the public asset of the broadcasting spectrum is used appropriately.

And it is one area where the codes might be reviewed. ACMA amended the code once before, following it’s review regarding reality television and the infamous  Big Brother turkey slapping incident.

On the other hand, as Media Watch pointed out on Monday night, even when there is a clear code requirement, it doesn’t seem to make any difference.

As we saw in the Kyle and Jackie O case, (and there may be changes to the relevant code in this case, too) if a parent puts their child into the media maw, the rest of us are helpless.

We can only hope the money will be used to improve the children’s lives. Can it possibly outweigh the damage that has been done?