One of the most critical aspects to this debate is what, exactly, constitutes harm. Whilst Baby P (Peter Connelly) was, quite obviously, being beaten and tortured physically, can we take into account other types of harm?
How, for instance, should we deal with this comment from Miss Snuffleupagus?
And then at what point does the state interfere? Sitting a child in front of the television day after day has devastating effects. A parent could never lay a finger on a child and do him just as much damage which would end in death or a prison sentence. So at what point does the state interfere?
There are some who assert that smacking is just as much child abuse as those injuries inflicted on wee Peter. They are morons, although that hasn't stopped the introduction of a no-smacking law in Scotland, the first victim of which was a Frenchman on holiday with his family. In that case, which is the most traumatic for the child: a swift smack, or the fact that she and her mother had to return home, leaving the father in jail and awaiting trial?
I think that most of us would agree that it was the latter. One assumes that said Frenchman's employers did not sack him, but laughed over the whole matter—I'm afraid that I do not know. But, if he did lose his job, that would be even more catastrophic for the family in general, yes?
So, the state should intervene only when the child is suffering sustained physical abuse causing severe physical injury. We can, of course, have a debate about the word "severe", but I would define it, loosely, as those injuries leaving a permanent mark (yes, a cigarette burn will leave a near-permanent scar, and the tell-tale signs of a broken bone last for a very long time).
But should we view the watching of lots of TV as child abuse? No, I really don't think that we can. Miss Snuffleupagus may think that it causes damage to a child, but it is very difficult to prove this. After all, some programmes are educational, some are witty, some teach moral lessons—I would cite Doctor Who in this last category, for instance. And even in cops and robbers programmes, the baddies are almost always caught.
The costs of state intervention are very high—especially to the child. Children taken into government care have the worst outcomes of any group, even when said care homes are not operating as a kind of Utopia for paedophiles (something that is made far easier by the closed-ears policy of scum like Margaret Hodge). As such, state intervention should not be entered into lightly.
Regular readers will know that your humble Devil is no great fan of television; my upbringing featured severe restrictions on the amount that I was allowed to watch and, besides, until I was about sixteen, we only had a 12" black and white set anyway. On the other hand, our house was stuffed full of interesting things to do and, most importantly, read. So, I was able to engage with something other than the TV.
Now, I might argue that children should have their TV rationed and that they should be made to read books—indeed, I could argue that to do anything else is to harm said infants. But this is just my personal prejudice and, as you all know, I am no fan of imposing personal morality onto others through legislation—in fact, I utterly oppose it.
However, I do believe in one universal bit of state interference for all children—compulsory (and free-ish) schooling. It is in the schools that we try to mitigate damage that a parent's lack of care might do to their children. We should attempt to stimulate their minds, to make them understand the value of books and the sheer joy of simply knowing things. We should teach them theories and, to engage them, then demonstrate how those theories have application in the real world. We should show them the multifarious joys and thrills that life has to offer, over and above their televisual world.
So, yes, I may be being over-optimistic and I am sure that Snuffy will disabuse me of this foolish hope. But one thing that I do know is that we will never stimulate children as long as we teach to the test; we will never make them understand the value of an education whilst we maintain that the over-riding reason for all of this learning is merely some exam; we will never give them the opportunity to broaden their minds and try new things whilst education is used as a political football.
We must remove education from the control of the state: if only this one thing were achieved, then we would be travelling in the right direction. For, from an educated and motivated population flows great things: for fuck's sake, the Victorians were, on average, far less well-educated than ourselves and look what they achieved.
What is required is hope, inspiration, aspiration. These things are incredibly difficult to impart but they are, fundamentally, the only things that will improve the lives of our children and their children and so on. And these things will never be done whilst politicians and bureaucrats rule the schools.
And that last sentence applies to everything: as long as politicians and bureaucrats rule, then innovation and aspiration are stifled. It is why any state intervention should be kept to an absolute minimum and why even suggesting that children who are allowed to watch too much television should be removed from their parents is utterly wrong.
Because next thing that you know, we will all be giving up our children to Polly Toynbee's state podding hutches, and we all know what she thinks of giving kids aspirations, don't we?
[Polly] said that to tell children that they could achieve greatness was to fill their heads with fairy tale nonsense.
Let us move away from assuming that the state is the fount of all wisdom: sic itur ad astra.