A couple of weeks before the 2013 general elections, in collaboration with the Office of the Commissioner for Children, I had published a report on the agreeable level of involvement of children in the political landscape. This article was the result of over 60 interviews with media experts, parents, psychologists, journalists, educators, politicians, party officials and children themselves. I must say that by and large all seemed to agree that we need to regulate and govern the way children are projected during a campaign trail.
But the truth is that when push comes to shove, in this country of ours, as usually happens, the goalposts shift. To my knowledge there seemed to be consensus that children should ‘not be used’ during election time but surprise, surprise, the first thing we see in any campaign is the leaders petting children on the head as cameras roll with the latter completely alien on what the fuss is about.
I will not go as far as Professor Kevin Aquilina’s claim in his paper. ‘Children’s rights in the Maltese Audiovisual Landscape: Proposals for legislative reform (Mediterranean Journal of Human Rights, Vol 9, No 1, 2005 pp. 81-120) that “Children are fragile, vulnerable and need protection”. I believe that while it is the responsibility of society to protect children we cannot deny the fact that kids are shrewd and astute. Quoting media expert, Rev. Dr Joe Borg; ‘I do not favour the use of the faces of Maltese children on political billboards or propaganda, but is there any evidence which shows that such depiction has resulted in negative effects?’
I still believe that children need to be sheltered from situations where they are ‘used’ as ‘props’ in political partisan activities especially during electioneering particularly in negative campaigning like we have seen throughout the ‘divorce referendum’. To compound to this our legislation does not regulate the participation of children in politics.
Experts have a concoction of positions on this issue. For example Professor Paul Pace from the Faculty of Education, queries; ‘How can we identify if children want to be involved or not?’ Roberta Farrugia, Psychologist and Family Therapist, on the other hand says that,‘…there are issues of brain washing that we need to take care of.’ Then again, Professor Kenneth Wain, Philosopher, Commissioner of Voluntary Organisations and eminent lecturer says, ‘Children should be informed about the party’s programs, [because] what is happening in the country affects them directly. [Children] should be part of the political life of this country.’ The general tone of agreement is that there are certain standards that need to be taken into considerations when one is contemplating the involvement of children because as Alison Bezzina, marketing specialist and columnist states; ‘They should be taught how to filter political speeches and why some politicians might act one way and not another… and not in the red and blue kind of way but rationally and as objectively as possible. They should be made aware of the power of political parties and what political scene exists… in the grander scheme of things. They should obviously be involved and included when it comes to drawing out an electoral manifest… adults don’t always know best.’
One of the greatest gifts our society can bequeath to children is the motivation to be an active part of their community. Coaching children on the responsibility and enfranchisement of polling will carry through with them throughout their adulthood. Journalist Kristina Chetcuti in her piece ‘Should we talk politics to kids’ (Times of Malta, 10/6/2012) states; ‘So now aged nearly six, my daughter knows the basics: That we choose people every five years to be leaders and these will set the rules we have to follow… Of course I do not sit her down and preach the notions of ‘electoral programmes’ and ‘party policies’; instead I tell her that we can vote for the one who promises more playgrounds, more trees, more books in libraries and so on so forth (far-fetched I know, but white lies are permissible every now and then). According to an acquaintance, I am “spoiling the child’s innocence”. But I can’t see how. It’s not that I’m fuelling her with hatred against any politician. I’m just explaining to her how our democratic society works.
Censoring children is not in my book.
In all truth, children are already inadvertently involved in the political scene and there exists no blueprint to keep them at bay because they form a pivotal part of society.
Subsequently I suggest we consider the following;
Political parties are to commit themselves to refrain from using children, particularly those under eight years of age in political campaigning unless the issues are evidently correlated to children. Children’s images used in political ads are to be retrieved from stock photos to avoid potential labelling, bullying and any other negative impact.
The Press Act [Chapter 248] needs to be amended to include the setting up of a Commission that will have the responsibility to oversee and monitor political party propaganda (billboards and other printed materials and social media campaigning) involving children in the build-up to the general elections, referenda and local council elections. All political publicity material that involves children should be screened prior to publishing or broadcasting by the said Commission as established by the Press Act [Chapter 248]. A thorough, exhaustive and mandatory screening process needs to be undertaken by media assessors. In view of this, I am recommending that the MCCAA takes on the role of establishing the standards of the content of political publicity material that to date is not monitored by the Broadcasting Act, namely, printed ads on newspapers and billboards. This would be an instrument to ensure the fitting portrayal of children’s representations. Negative exemplifications are to be eliminated completely.
A children’s ethics board should be set up as part of this procedure. The Minister responsible for Social Policy, in collaboration with the Commissioner for Children, should embark on a national media information campaign with the objective of educating the general public on how children and their families are to grasp and analyze political messages.
Political parties need to be encouraged to have a child-friendly version of their political manifesto, and are to commit themselves to making it available in a variety of accessible formats (including large print and audio). Political parties are also to be encouraged to meet with children between the ages of 12 and 17 years, to discuss their political programs. Preferably, children under the age of 16 are not to be included as a ‘backdrop’ (seated or other) during election-time events.
The Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) in collaboration with the Commissioner for Children should offer concept training to photographers, camerapersons, reporters and journalists on how children should be embodied in the images they capture.
The Ministry for Education and the Office of the Commissioner for Children is to keep building on the work that is currently being done vis-à-vis children’s rights, both within theNational Curriculum Framework and through direct schemes being taken up by the CfC. It is recommended that a shared strategy should ensue. It is advisable that all proposed legislation directly relevant to children is in a format suitable for this particular population. It is recommended that the Parliament Offices be responsible for this initiative. The well-designed ‘EkoSkola parliamentary session’, the ‘National Youth Parliament’ and the ‘Youth Local Council’ models are all valid and successful concepts. Consequently, I recommend the setting up of a National Children and Young People’s Assembly under the auspices of the Parliamentary Offices in collaboration with the Office of the Commissioner for Children. This Assembly, representing children from all over Malta and Gozo, will meet regularly to provide an opportunity to filter all proposed legislation relevant to children.
Political parties and political candidates need to fill in a detailed, exhaustive and comprehensive consent form not only signed by the parents/guardians but also by the children who intend to participate in newspaper, billboard, TV and other political ads. The informed consent procedure in schools and NGOs needs to include the children’s signatures as well, especially when the event is political and public. It should be clear with the producers, designers, party officials and station managers that they have a responsibility towards children especially during electioneering. None of the photos and films should be used in contexts other than those specified in the initial agreement.
So there you go, what I am proposing is not fading children into thin air but engaging them in age appropriate events keeping in mind that children are not puppies to be petted during a campaign trail.