Friday, 21 December 2012

1,2, 3 and Breathe - what was Newsnight like?

Yesterday I spent a lot of time with people asking me what Newsnight was like.  What was Jeremy Paxman like? What do you say when the lights go down? Much more interested in many cases about Newsnight than about what we were talking about!

So, I thought  I would blog about the experience and my response to some of the content.  As a first timer on Newsnight in preparation I watched a couple episodes on You Tube.  Mistake - the ones on You Tube are the ones to be frightened of - Chloe Smith's interview.  I knew it wouldn't be like that, but might it be like the night Peter Hitchins and Russell Brand debated drug policy with rudeness and people talking over each other?

I was expecting the panel to consist of Amber Rudd MP who had chaired the inquiry which led to the recommendation that SRE be made statutory (sign our petition here, a young mother whose name I did not know at the time, Professor David Paton, from Nottingham University who is anti-abortion and has active links with the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) and myself.

Whenever I am representing Brook and young people in the media I have a degree of trepidation, and the level of this depends upon the programme, the topic, the interviewer, who you are on with etc.  So it is fair to say that I needed to do 1,2, 3 and breathe a few times throughout the evening, particularly as Paxman turned to me for the first time.

It was pouring with rain. when I left home. My hair will stick up at the back at the best of times, and best when wet.  So I arrived in 'make up' to see a peculiar brush head.  As emergency arrangements for hair, lightening of tired eyes and stubble took place I saw that Antonio Tully also from SPUC was also on the list. So now it was me, Amber Rudd, a young mother and two people with strong anti-abortion and anti SRE positions.

I went to the green room and Antonio was already there. I struggle to connect well with people who I perceive give out misinformation and perpetuate myths which is exactly what Antonio does about sex and relationships education.  So we made some small talk and then were joined by Sorayah, the young mother who the wonderful @Prymface had asked me to 'look after.'

Jeremy Paxman came into the green room, introduced himself and immediately said to Sorayah - they can look after themselves (indicating to us). He said something along the lines of  I just need you to know that I won't ask you any difficult questions and its just a conversation. Don't worry.  In his role as a journalist Paxman can be intimidating (watch the Chloe Smith interview).  I really respected and liked the approach he took coming in and seeking to reassure Sorayah.

First up, we learnt was the DG of the BBC about the Newsnight decision to drop the programme exposing Jimmy Saville as a paedophile.  Paxman and I spoke briefly about the importance of SRE - ie naming body parts, appropriate touching from an early age to help protect children against sexual abuse.  You can't always say everything you want to in a programme so here is 10 things about the programme content;

1. It was reassuring that the introductory film had the right information about teenage pregnancy and the fact that the TP strategy reduced conceptions by 25% and conceptions leading to live births by 35%.  Often this is not reported accurately.

2. It was brilliant to have young people's voices from the Respond Academy at the beginning of the programme.  You can read Brook's input to the Rudd inquiry based on the views of over 100 young people based on a memo that was sent from Amber Rudd's office following consultation with the young people from the Romance Academy

3. Paxman turned first to Sorayah who told us a bit about her story and emphasised that she has no regrets being a young mother.  This was really important because it is really easy in these short debates to demonise young parents and that is unacceptable.  Young parents across the UK can be, and are very good parents as long as they have the support they need.  The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy always had two aims - prevent pregnancies AND support young parents

4. Antonio Tully suggested that parents must be involved and be the first educator - at Brook we absolutely agree, but we do not agree that parents are airbrushed out of the picture, rather that those who feel that are often the absolute tiny minority of parents who do not agree with SRE.  The consensus in support of SRE is well established across children, parents and teachers.

5. Antonio Tully also talked about sexually explicit sex education including naming of the body parts. I absolutely agree that sex education needs to include more on relationships and emotions, but I do not agree that it is too sexually explicit and I certainly do not think that body parts are explicit - even the penis and the vagina.

6. Sorayah July was very clear that she did not have sexually explicit sex education more needed to be done about consent, about emotions - linking the biological and the mechanics with the emotions.  Amber Rudd emphasised that there needs to be lots more education about relationships to be sex in context - whether it is in Citizenship or other parts of the curriculum.

7. David Paton expressed the view that because Holland has low teenage pregnancy rates and SRE isn't compulsory that SRE isn't effective.  The evidence is very clear that SRE alone is not adequate, but SRE, services young people trust and will go to get contraception, combined with a positive and open culture where parents talk to their children about relationships and emotions, high aspirations and expectations in general and in relationships.

8. David Paton also suggested that there are high failure rates of condoms and the pill amongst young people and unfortunately this went unchallenged and without any further discussion about long acting methods of contraception that are available if more effective for a young woman.  He also talked about confusion about underage sex and the law and in the same sentence made reference to the BBC having problems with this linked to Jimmy Saville and abuse.  There is of course a world of difference between child sexual abuse and two 15 year olds having consenting sex and the two should not be discussed in the same sentence.

9. Following on from the discussion about consent, which Rudd had emphasised as critical in the report, I wanted to be clear that SRE is about young men as well as young women which was raised strongly in the report.  It is not just there to protect young women from young men.  SRE has to be meaningful for both genders. Yes, young men will often present a macho front, but behind that front there is marshmallow, fear and insecurity - young men are human after all - and we need to find creative ways to work with them in SRE their fears without exposing them to ridicule from their peers.

10. Antonio Tully talked about young people as though they are not able to make 'good' decisions.  This is an extraordinary view of young people in my view.  Kristin Luker, the great social researcher from the USA told me 'we get what we expect from young people - expect them to be irresponsible they will be, trust them to be responsible and they will be'.  We know at Brook that most manage their sexual health very very well.  Whilst many people may share the view that young people cannot make good decisions for themselves I and everyone who works at Brook are not of their number.

Finally when it comes to discussing SRE and consent in the context of teenage pregnancy it is easy to become narrowly focused.  We must forget that SRE is a right and an entitlement for everyone - gay, straight, young men or young women. SRE is about developing their confidence, their skills and enabling them to develop their own morality and autonomy.  So regardless of any arguments about evidence SRE is important.  Lets also remember the evidence shows that if you have the right context and culture coupled with SRE and services that young people absolutely trust and use, young people will have sex when they are able to enjoy and take responsibility for it, and teenage pregnancy rates will be lower - as we saw in England between 1998 and 2010.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to go onto Newsnight to talk about SRE because a cross party inquiry has recommended it is made statutory. Now the really difficult bit - making sure it damn well happens.  As Amber Rudd said the government hasn't agreed to make it statutory yet, but she has only just started.  For those of you like me who have been round this loop before, it may not feel like it, but then we must push with all the enthusiasm as each and every time we have tried before.  

You can read the Rudd report of the cross party inquiry into unplanned pregnancy and link to the Newsnight on Iplayer is also here for the next few days

Almost forgot what happens when the lights went down, we all breathed a sigh of relief, reached for our water went to get up too quickly, pretended we weren't trying to get up, were told to stay where we were because the camera was still on us, and then we laughed and talked about wondering what happens when the lights go down.

Happy Christmas!

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