With the Christmas and New Year haze lifting, I have some quick catching up to do. So here goes: ‘Congratulations, Nick, well done! I’m sure you’ll be a great leader, but what’s all this nonsense about restricting advertising aimed at children?'
One of the themes of this blog has been the contradiction between the Lib Dems’ oft-expressed commitment to individual liberty in the abstract and the enthusiastic support that the party gives in practice to banning things or activities (see fox hunting, smoking in public places, goldfish as fairground prizes etc. ad nauseam). Such a disjunction hinders the party’s attempts to create a coherent narrative – are we instinctive libertarians or health’n’safety fascists?
It would no doubt make the Lib Dems seem cranky if we were to mount noisy campaigns in defence of the right to smoke in public etc. But Liberal Democrats should at least not be in the vanguard of calls for restrictions on personal choice and liberty. Indeed I recall a rising star of the party saying as much at a conference fringe meeting a couple of years ago. He said that our role on such issues should be sceptical and questioning of the need for things to be banned. I was quite impressed by this and went on to vote for this person to be party leader, a post he now holds.
So where has this ban on advertising at children come from and why is it prominent in Nick’s new year message? According to Paul Walter (to whom thanks for drawing my attention to this), it’s not party policy and my only recollection of it being mentioned in the campaign was as an off-the-cuff response to a question at an interview with Lib Dem bloggers.
I should say that on the issue itself I have some sympathy with Nick. I find advertising aimed at getting children to emotionally blackmail their parents rather distasteful. If I were the sort of person who wanted to ban things, this is the sort of thing I would want to ban. But following my own wish for the party to have a coherent narrative and preferring the view of Clegg the rising star to that of Clegg the leader on this issue, I will follow the former’s injunction to be sceptical and offer the following concerns about this proposal.
First, it would another example of the state usurping the role of parents and undermining their authority in looking after their children. It’s part of a parent’s allotted role to have to tell their children that they can’t do everything, watch everything or have everything they might wish. Sometimes parents will feel mean in saying no, but it goes with the job. It’s not really very liberal to say parents aren’t fit to decide what to let their children watch and what to buy them, so the state must step in and decide for them.
Second, presumably a significant proportion of commercial children’s television is paid for by advertising. If advertisements shown during children’s television programmes can no longer be aimed at the viewers of said programmes, there is a risk that broadcasters will no longer consider it worthwhile to provide programmes or channels for children. Maybe that is no bad thing. I don’t watch children’s television so I don’t know whether the programmes are any good. But a ban on advertising is likely to mean less television for children.
Third, it might be harder than one might think to decide what is advertising aimed at children and what at adults or whole families. Advertisements that seem to say, ‘You’re not a proper family if you don’t take your kids out for burger, fries and fizzy drinks every other day’ are clearly not good. What about mars bars, or computer games, or family cars? I suspect a ban would not be quite that simple.
Finally, the essential problem won’t go away, just because a certain type of advertisement is banned. Children will still pester parents for stuff – not perhaps stuff seen in advertisements, but stuff featured in TV programmes, stuff they read about in books and magazines, stuff their friends have etc. So the ban won’t actually solve the problem, which is a wider one in society about the undermining of parental confidence how to bring up their children.
So, Nick, please drop this one quickly. If you are trying to promote a liberal vision, why take a stand on a policy position which, while not exactly illiberal, has rather dubious liberal credentials and appears to conflict with our wider message?