If it is our biological imperative to make babies, it is our most basic instinct to protect them. Baby-makers and baby-carers everywhere know what a challenge it can be to shelter a tiny human being from the dangers of the world ... from the cold, the rain, the sun, the road. Sharp objects, moving vehicles, heights, fire. Hairdryers in the bath, knives in the toaster, fingers in the electric socket. Things they could fall off, fall into, have fall on them.
How will we know where Baby is all the time, without eyes in the backs of our heads? How do we stop Baby falling from a great height in a flaming vehicle? How could we live with ourselves if we left Baby alone long enough to take the hairdryer swimming in the rain?
What happens when we have to protect Baby from ourselves?
When the whisper of pedophilia is enough to start a witch hunt and the prospect of abduction is ever-present in the news, it's no longer just about Baby. It's about warding off the panic and the hype of parenthood. It's about knowing that phantom kidnappers don�t make regular visits to your neighbourhood. It's about teaching your child early how to think for themselves. It's about somehow debunking sensational news stories.
It is no wonder that abductions of children, cases of sexual abuse and gross negligence are given such priority on News/Current Affairs programs. They offend our most sacred moral standard; to protect children. We watch stories about helpless parents so we can indulge our own fears. This vicarious vulnerability is exacerbated by the knowledge that we can secure any of our other assets, but not our offspring. There are security systems to protect cars, pets, houses, buildings, phones and computers but the chilling absence of any mechanism to protect our children breeds paranoia among parents. Parental paranoia feeds into media panic - and there begins the cycle of public fear.
Madeleine McCann, who disappeared over a year ago in Portugal while her parents were having dinner nearby, has had unprecedented media attention. For the duration of her case, newspapers have affectionately referred to Madeleine as �Maddie�, despite being told by her father that family and friends had never used this nickname; clearly a device to make her more familiar to us.
Pretty, blonde and fine-boned, "Maddie" was presented as the every-child to appeal to the universal fear of losing a child. The story ceased to be about one girl; it became about good and evil, parenting skills, childhood vulnerability, babysitting, Portuguese tapas, truth and grief.
"Our Maddie" is emblematic of the fear that pervades the Western psyche and the media's propensity to play into it. Her parents have made a website complete with daily blogs, links to donate money and a timer to count how many days she has been missing. British tabloid papers have paid the McCann's $60,000 compensation for accusing them of killing their own child. Busloads of tourists have arrived in Portugal to see the places where Maddie slept and where her parents ate.
Very little thought seems to have gone into the effects that such attention might have on Maddie�s siblings, Maddie�s friends and any child who watches her on the news.
Consider Madeleine McCann herself, whose angelic face has been seen by anyone who has watched TV, read a paper or been on the Internet in the last year, whose parents have been accused of her murder and whose trauma has been exposed for all to see. If she were to be found, she would grow up a morbid kind of celebrity whose personal horror held the world captive during her formative toddler years.
Media coverage of the "Maddie" case has misrepresented the significance of the story and implicitly suggested that foreign abduction is a perennial concern. This is a terrifying notion for parents, but because of their underdeveloped grasp of empathy children have far more difficulty in qualifying that kidnapping is not an ever-present threat.
Similarly, how are children to know that babies are not left by dumpsters, killed by their axe-wielding grand-fathers or gassed to death in a car with their brothers and father every day?
These stories appear prominently in the news because they are terrifying anomalies to everyday existence, not because they reflect normal social behaviour. How are children growing up in a world saturated by reports on disaster expected to recognise that the news is not a daily sample of what could happen to them?
As Jeanne Brooks-Gunn points out, children are more likely to be kidnapped by someone they know than a stranger, yet the disproportionate media attention given to the case of missing Madeleine directs people's anxiety towards the unidentified assailant. There's a "Where's Wally" mentality, along with public fantasies about the heroism and excitement of being the one to find Madeleine.
Global sympathy has rallied people together in a bid to combat the �evil� that mysterious men who steal children represent. It creates a happy spectrum; pedophilia and abduction at one end, middle-class suburban normality at the other.
�Heavy exposure to major catastrophes in the news is associated with intense fear and even post-traumatic stress in children�, says academic Barbara Wilson. Children are known to identify strongly with characters like them in their favourite television shows, but we can hush their crying because it�s only make-believe. What comfort can we give them then when children on the news are only ever in accidents, hurt, stolen, sick or in danger?
Children have long been typecast as sinners or victims in the news, and very rarely have they been able to speak for themselves on the matter at hand. Clearly children who have not yet learned to speak are exempt, but otherwise there is no universally cogent reason for young people to be silenced when their pictures, families and experiences are used in print or film. If, as Wilson says �media can contribute to long-term fear through its influence on conceptions of social reality�, then what sort of reality are we providing for our children; a reality in which children are abused but not heard from?
Professor George Gerbner said that "disproportionate preoccupation with victims in an underrepresented population diminishes and degrades that group".
All humans are entitled to the same dignity, but somehow this basic principle evades the way we structure our news services. Documentaries frequently feature underage Thai women, child prostitutes or victims of abuse without any attempt to censor their identity. Young people are used as walking symbols of a larger social problem, with no respect for the fact that they too are people and are entitled to their privacy. If we are shown again and again that young people are voiceless victims, we not only become more protective but more dismissive of their rights.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) enshrines children's right "to freedom of expression and to protection of privacy and attacks against their honour and reputation". Just this month there was an article about a man charged for sexual assault who insisted that further DNA testing would prove his innocence. (There is no sense in repeating the names of anyone involved, for that would only build on the defamation committed). The story all too rapidly segued from a plea for innocence to a detailed discussion of semen stains on the underwear of the six-year-old young girl, which constitutes a gross and wildly unnecessary invasion of her privacy.
The article detailed the size, shape, state of decay since the crime took place and other vaginal liquids that might have been on the fabric of the underwear. It concluded by suggesting the girl could have been lying. There was no honour; there was no dignity in this article. Why wasn't the girl approached for her version of the story? Why wasn't she asked if she minded that the contents of her underwear were publicly discussed? She probably wasn't even aware that she could object to this kind of intimate disclosure.
An article like this is written by someone posing as the voice of justice and all the while employing the same disregard for a child's right to privacy that he condemns. Why wasn't there a Bill Henson-scale protest to the publication of this information? Where are the outraged parents and politicians when children�s privacy is surreptitiously undermined like this, or systematically ignored?
The solution seems to be to make news "adult-only" viewing or to somehow dilute the darker events of the world for children, until they can psychologically digest it properly. But this would not address the remaining scorcher of an issue; that children have no voice in the news.
If we delineate between children and adults in terms of recreational magazines (Kidz Zone v Vogue or The Economist), it follows that there should be a market for news from all ages. Children should be in the news - as sources, authors and witnesses. They should be interviewed on things that concern them, but not as a novelty. Rather than having children's perspectives appear in different news beats why not appoint special children's correspondents? They could be trained to deal with children sensitively and function as a messenger between children and the media.
Childcare worker Kelly Royds has introduced an interactive learning site called Short Reporters (only accesible to staff and students), which allows interested children at North Newtown Primary to contribute everything from jokes and articles to pictures of SpongeBob SquarePants.
"The aim of the online network is to provide children with a safe and supervised space in which they can share ideas, upload writing and talk about the media" says Royds. "At the moment the Short Reporters are writing critical reviews about why they don't like Hannah Montana and Dora the Explorer, so they're beginning to think about the media in a more critical way." Here children are writing for children - if only we could extend this so they were heard by adults too.
So often there is outrage about the sexualisation of children, the violence in video games and the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen-inspired trend towards materialism. As soon as Baby develops speech and shows some sign of engaging with the world, parents lather themselves into a panic about any form of media informing their lives. "Objectification!" they cry, "Contamination of young minds!" What they must realise is that "media" (as synonymous with "culture" or "entertainment") is far too big to bring down with protests about content or social trends.
As technology gets fancier, media is only going to gain momentum - so the most viable option we have is to equip children with the skills to deconstruct media messages. If we cannot hide our children from the media, we may as well teach them to understand it properly and then let them loose on it.
If only we could credit children with being intelligent enough to comment on news stories, to know the difference between right and wrong, fact and fantasy. Perhaps then we may not only realise that it is necessary and just for children to participate actively in news stories, but that often their perspective is clearer and savvier than our own.