Media: Never mind the facts, feel the pressure

The quest for bigger ratings is the driving force behind recent questionable acts by television editors. By Duncan Campbell
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THE EASTER end-of-term reports for broadcasters and independent documentary producers were not at all pleasant.

Two weeks ago The Guardian team which exposed the fakery in Carlton TV's documentary on drugs smuggling, The Connection, published new allegations. They claimed that the narrators of "Guns on the Street", a 1996 Channel 4 documentary in the Undercover Britain series, had used unacknowledged false names, and masqueraded as ordinary Mancunians concerned about illegal arms dealing - all the while concealing that one of them was a convicted armed robber.

The Guardian accompanied its long report with a judgment that "the independent TV sector is especially attractive to those who have a financial incentive to hype and even fabricate material - our investigation raises questions for factual television, whose methods, quality-control systems and employment practices are already under scrutiny".

A week later, commercial TV's regulator, the Independent Television Commission, weighed in. Referring to the pounds 2 million fine imposed on Carlton for The Connection, ITC chairman Sir Robin Biggam warned broadcasters: "Changing practices within the industry, especially the way in which casual workers are increasingly used for certain tasks, are no excuse for an absence of editorial rigour".

The jury for "Guns on the street" is out while Channel 4 investigate and the ITC deliberate. But did The Guardian's good investigative work really need leavening with selfrighteous and ill-considered cant? Newspaper writers and editors are hardly well placed to cast the first stone.

Does anyone in any media - print or broadcast - really believe that the independent or freelance sector of newspaper journalism lacks attractions for those who fall prey to "a financial incentive to hype and even fabricate material"?

If you compare daily newspaper journalism with its pressures to get material out six or seven days a week, with the long, intense and intimate scrutiny that every factual independent documentary gets in its journey, it will be apparent who, generally, has the greater time and resources to check their facts.

I have to declare an interest. My independent production company has made a string of documentaries for Channel 4, including four in the Undercover Britain series. As an independent producer whose pay cheque only arrives if a broadcaster has commissioned a programme, I am also in the category of "casuals", the nature of whose employment the ITC seems to view as intrinsically flawed.

I very much wish it were not so. Nor is this diagnosis recognisable. "Changing practices" or "casuals" in the television industry are not new. They started 15 years ago, driven by deregulation and then by the rash of down-sizing and mergers. The on-staff factual departments of Britain's major commercial broadcasters are a shadow of what they once were. Many have just vanished, their former staff "casualised".

The future is more horrifying. The proliferation of digital channels will reduce the resources available for factual production, while competitive pressures will further drive commissioning editors to seek more sensational, "different" approaches.

Channel 4's Undercover Britain arose within this trend. Its key components were the use of small concealed cameras which could take the viewer into otherwise unreachable situations of serious public concern, with a remarkable degree of verisimilitude.

The commissioning editors, Peter Moore and Alan Hayling, laid down at the outset a rule that the key narrators - the "video diarists" - should be non-journalists who had personally engaged with the topics they were to portray.

This added an unnecessary layer of complexity. And viewed in retrospect, it raises questions. For our first programme, which concerned false remedies offered to seriously ill patients, the selected "diarist" was a friend ill with Aids. He died two years later. He was happy about the stresses of production, but not all of those close to him felt the same.

Although I have no reason to fear accusations of fakery, I still reflect on different and worrying issues, which are the product of the same pressures as those which make producers fake scenes. Because on three occasions, two involving Undercover Britain, I or those working with me have been involved in serious violent incidents.

No one demanded that we do these things. But the demand for strong pictures is an intrinsic and singular need of television. The pressure was on, not to fake, but to see it all absolutely for real.

If the ITC genuinely wants a long-term remedy to the ills it perceives, it should put its own house in order first, and look to the government for support. Only a determined regulator can re-introduce the unfashionable public service broadcasting standards which might help commissioning editors limit the combined pressures of the ratings barons and the bottom-line bean counters, and change the legislative framework within which factual production has become "casualised", and news and current affairs slip ever further into the abyss.