The Times, 6 August 2007


It’s sunny, it’s warm, and, sitting by my window, I can see a woman in an unfeasibly small bikini, and smell the faint aroma of charred cow– it’s either the summer holidays at last, with attendant barbecues, or there’s been a further outbreak of foot and mouth, this time in north London, and with surprisingly under-dressed vets. Which begs the question: if you were twelve, and these were your school holidays, where would you be spending them? Outside, with the risks of skin cancer (or, only days ago, drowning), car accidents, and predatory paedophiles? Or inside, with the potential for sedentary obesity and aching thumbs?

The charity 4Children suggests that children no longer relish the prospect of a long break, having questioned 16,000 children and discovered that 70% of them were fearful for their safety over the summer holidays. 66% of them have been bullied in the past year, many of them outside school. 70% of full-time working parents continue to work through the school holidays, presumably because most employers won’t let them have six weeks off in a row. Not if they intend to come back, anyway.

So if fear of crime, anti-social behaviour and bullying is so prevalent, no wonder children are playing outside less, and staying at home more. But again, this appears to be fraught with danger – last week, the Professional Association of Teachers called for websites such as YouTube to be banned, to prevent bullying of children and teachers. Kirsti Paterson, who proposed the motion, said that one teacher had been the subject of a death threat – a pupil had posted a doctored picture online, rendering the teacher headless, and added the caption, ‘You are dead.’ Now, I would suggest that bullying is in the eye of the beholder – one man’s victim of bullying is another’s opportunity to educate, perhaps by posting a comment, pointing out that the correct tense to have employed would have been the future indicative, ‘You will be dead’, or perhaps a nice subjunctive, ‘You would be dead, were I to be an all-powerful despot, and not some manky, acne-riddled teen.’ I think it’s safe to assume that most people don’t support the idea of closing down websites they don’t like – the magnificent Emma-Jane Cross, chief executive of the charity BeatBullying, responded to this week’s suggestion, saying, ‘Calls for social networking sites like YouTube to be closed because of cyberbullying are as intelligent as calls for schools to be closed because of bullying.’ That, one would hope, told them.

Teachers do seem to be having a tough time in the techno-world – in June, a teachers’ union called for mobile phones to be classified as ‘potentially offensive weapons’ (along with pencils, which can be used both to write something ungenerous, and to poke someone in the eye. And not Facebook poke. Actually poke). Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, claimed to have evidence of more than 100 teachers being bullied by email, text message and online.

But cyberspace is just like real space – if you don’t like what goes on there, you can often change it by adjusting what goes on here. In the case of YouTube showing video footage of teachers being harassed in their classrooms (the cool thing to do is to goad your teacher into throwing a fit, video it, and then post it online. I know this because a young person told me, not because I am cool. I think even the word cool is no longer cool), the smart thing to do isn’t to close down YouTube. It’s to stop kids from having video cameras in a classroom, for which, let’s all remember, there can be no educational need whatsoever. In my teaching days, which are admittedly distant, hell would have frozen cold and hard before a child brought a phone into my classroom. Headteachers could reduce this kind of bullying, of children and teachers alike, by explaining to parents and children that phones, mp3 players and other electronica aren’t allowed in school. If they insist on bringing them for that elusive emergency, they can check them into lockers before they go into class, and pick them up at the end of the day. This works perfectly well with rabid journalists at film-screenings, it would work perfectly well with fourteen year olds. No-one has the right to be perpetually contactable.

The market is already regulating websites – after Panorama recently showed footage of adverts for John Lewis, Orange, BT and others splashed across a site called Pure Street Fights, they pulled their advertising. YouTube is owned by Google, who make their billions from small ads, just like free newspapers. If no-one will advertise with them, they’ll change their content. This has already been happening in the last few days with Facebook, who have lost advertising from six major companies, including the Prudential and the AA, because their ads were appearing on a rotating basis on a BNP-related page. Which is, in a way, a pity, because the BNP’s presence on Facebook is one of the most unintentionally brilliant things I have ever seen – the British National Party Group lists first among its related groups, ‘50 Mistakes Women Make When Having Sex.’ The biggest of which, surely, is finding yourself in bed with a fascist. Do you think at the end of the night, they want to send their partners back where they came from? Me too. But then, the BNP’s homepage is responsible for the funniest headline I’ve seen all year – ‘“Pork Rain” complaints from pushy Muslims.’ Pork rain, I hear you ask? Is that Prince’s less successful, earlier single? And is it just pushy Muslims who don’t want pork to rain down upon them? Or do many non-pushy, non-Muslims feel the same way? I know I do.

Cyberspace isn’t so bad, you know. Ugly and frightening though it is, the fad for children to injure each other on film will turn out to be just that – a fad. In two years’ time, I guarantee, they’ll have become like every other documentary-maker, and the fights will all start being faked.