Media: The camera hardly ever lies

Fly-on-the-wall documentary makers have been accused of faking it. But viewers can still have faith in what they see on the screen, says Channel 4's David Lloyd
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The Independent Culture
TO SOME observers, 1998 has been the year of the great television fraud, the year when viewers finally discovered that the documentary makers they had trusted for years had been faking it for the camera, and deceiving their audience.

From jobbing building workers to learner drivers, the real people shown doing real things were actually `reconstructing' events for the camera - or even making them up. Not only did the camera lie, it lied an awful lot of the time.

The worst example of this has been The Connection, the ITV documentary slammed in last week's independent report from Carlton Television, which found that many of its revelations about the Columbian drugs trade were made up.

So can viewers believe what they see any more? As far as current affairs programmes and serious documentaries are concerned, the answer is an unqualified yes.

My experience in over 12 years of commissioning literally hundreds of programme makers is that they are people who set out to tell the truth. Most journalists - whether working in print, for a large broadcast news organisation like the BBC or ITN, or as independent producers - want to find things out, then tell their audience what they have discovered. In television they also have to satisfy the exacting requirements of the Independent Television Commission Programme Code.

I have never known a programme maker try to make a film in which he or she did not honestly believe.

So what to say to those who assert that The Connection is just the tip of the iceberg, that there is a whole industry of people over-pitching their ideas in order to get commissioned and then having to make things up in order to deliver the programme they first promised?

Firstly, there is little evidence of such cases. Programmes which have `faked it' represent a tiny fraction of the serious factual output of British television. Even the allegations that Inside Castro's Cuba, the second film by Marc de Beaufort, producer of The Connection, involved fakery were found by the Carlton report to be without foundation.

Secondly, the rules laid out in the ITC Programme Code and the procedures used by commissioning staff, certainly at Channel 4, are thorough and rigorous enough to detect any deliberate falsity.

As for over-pitching, it has always been with us. In my years as a programme editor at the BBC, I recall journalists talking up the importance of their story in a bid to get it on screen. When you sat down with them you realised maybe 25 per cent was hyped. But by then you were talking about what was really important in their project.

Over-pitching may get some commissioners' door opened, but it will not get a proposal made once it has been subjected to proper scrutiny.

Perhaps the biggest irony of The Connection affair is that the person apparently to blame for most of the fakery in that documentary was the inexperienced researcher Adriana Quintana - and her alleged reason for doing this was "to help her hoped-for career in television".

Well, it didn't. And I don't believe in the long run that it ever would.

David Lloyd is head of news and current affairs at Channel 4

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