For months now colleagues and I have been pushing to strengthen the Online Safety Bill, not least in relation to media literacy. There are a vast number of clauses within the Bill, but I believe a focus on media literacy is essential.
Media literacy – perhaps better if reframed as media competency – is the ultimate skill that our young people (and all of us) require to navigate our changing world. If got right, it can act as sword and shield.
It was gratifying that our voices were heard when this week the Government brought forward significant changes to the Bill to address our concerns over media literacy.
Minister Parkinson made this clear in opening:
“I am grateful to noble Lords from across your Lordships’ House for the views they have shared on this matter, which have been invaluable in helping us draft the amendments.”
Echoing our views from earlier debates the Minister set out that:
“Media literacy remains a key priority in our work to tackle online harms; it is essential not only to keep people safe online but for them to understand how to make informed decisions which enhance their experience of the internet. Extensive work is currently being undertaken in this area.”
Ofcom is essential to this task and the Minister confirmed that Ofcom are “developing best practice principles for platform-based media literacy measures and has published guidance on how to evaluate media literacy programmes.”
Also adding media literacy objectives to the regulator’s remit.
“We have listened to the concerns raised by noble Lords and understand the desire to ensure that Ofcom is given media literacy objectives which are fit for the digital age.”
The first objective requires Ofcom to take steps to increase the public’s awareness and understanding of how they can keep themselves and others safe when using regulated services, including building the public’s understanding of the nature and impact of harmful content online, such as disinformation and misinformation.
The updated duty will also compel Ofcom to encourage the development and use of technologies and systems that support users of regulated services to protect themselves and others.
Alongside this, it was good to see that Ofcom is also required to publish a strategy setting out how it will fulfil its media literacy functions including the new objectives. Ofcom will be required to update this strategy every three years and report on progress made against it annually to provide assurance that it is fulfilling its duty appropriately.
In concluding the Minister commented:
“I am confident that, through this updated duty, Ofcom will be empowered to ensure that internet users become more engaged with media literacy and, as a result, are safer online.”
As Baroness Kidron rightly put it though, media literacy is not the whole story:
“It should not be a substitute for designing a service that is safe by design and default.
“To make my point absolutely clear, I recount the findings of researchers who undertook workshops in 28 countries with more than 1,000 children. The researchers were at first surprised to find that, whether in Kigali, São Paulo, or Berlin, to an overwhelming extent children identified the same problems online—harmful content, addiction, privacy, lack of privacy and so on. The children’s circumstances were so vastly different—country and town, Africa and the global north et cetera—but when the researchers did further analysis, they realised that the reason why they had such similar experiences was because they were using the same products. The products were more determining of the outcome than anything to do with religion, education, status, age, the family or even the country.”
Someone who has done so much on media literacy probably summed it up best, Lord Knight:
“The Government have moved on this issue, and I very much welcome that. I am grateful to the Minister for listening and for the fact that we now have Section 11 of the Communications Act being brought into the digital age.
“The public can now expect to be informed and educated about content-related harms, reliability and accuracy; technology companies will have to play their part; and Ofcom will have to regularly report on progress and will commission and partner with others to fulfil those duties.
“The importance of this was underscored at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council just two weeks. Nada Al-Nashif, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights in an opening statement said that media and digital literacy empowered individuals and should be considered an integral part of education efforts”.
It is for this reason also that I continue to push the Government to set up a commission to consider the transformation of every element of our schools curriculum, not least in respect of media literacy, digital and data literacy and, indeed, financial literacy, to enable generations to come to be more than equipped for what is already increasingly upon us.
As Lord Knight concluded:
“…this is so much more about empowerment than it is about loading safety on to individuals.”
Lord McNally rightly raised that constant of all Governmental challenges, that of cross Whitehall working.
“Could I ask the Minister a question? He has put his finger on one of the most important aspects of this Bill: how it will integrate with the Department for Education and all its responsibilities for schools. Again, talking from long experience, one of the worries is the silo mentality in Whitehall, which is quite often strongest in the Department for Education. Some real effort will be needed to make sure there is a crossover from the powers that Ofcom has to what happens in the classroom.”
Minister Parkinson responded:
“I hope what I have said about the way that Ofsted and Ofcom are working together gives the noble Lord some reassurance. He is right, and it is not just in relation to the Department for Education. In my own department, we have discussed in previous debates on media literacy the importance of critical thinking, equipping people with the sceptical, quizzical, analytic skills they need—which art, history and English literature do as well. The provisions in this Bill focus on reducing harm because the Bill is focused on making the UK the safest place to be online, but he is right that media literacy work more broadly touches on a number of government departments.”
In conclusion, a good week for media literacy, for young people, for all people.