TELEVISION / Sharks in suits

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS a dark and stormy night in Antwerp. A light rain was shattering the reflected neon in the puddles and a hidden camera was on the prowl. Inside Story (BBC 1) was on the game, the picture swinging and bumping with the shaky veracity of covert filming as the reporters went inside a local sex club to pursue an investigation into the international trade in women.

Inside, the shoulder-bag's-eye- view gave you the impression that you were floating in a dirty aquarium - spangled dancers frugged desultorily on a low stage, as aimless and repetitive as tropical fish and, every now and then, a shark in a suit cruised by, casting a long shadow over the camera. There was a sufficient air of menace to make you wonder uneasily how well the camera was hidden. Then lips, filling the screen, glossed and nervous, started to tell their stories of recruitment and abuse.

The scam was a simple one - women from Dominica, Poland and the Phillipines were flown in on the promise of jobs as waitresses and dancers. They were given false papers and visas and, once they started working, found out very quickly that 'going upstairs' did not mean promotion. They were expected to sleep with the clients, a service forced by a combination of physical threats, dodgy contracts and simple starvation. The crowbar of economic imbalance and sexual power exerted a leverage which few girls could resist. Those wielding it didn't mind if they left marks.

Inside Story told this story well, researching the connections between traders in Dominica, Cyprus, Greece and Holland, tracking down witnesses to police corruption and facing off against the head of the ring, a slabby, battered individual called Robert Van Engelande. Van Engelande looked as if he had been incompetently sculpted from luncheon meat, a fact which didn't help his impersonation of an honest businessman beset by hysterical women and unscrupulous rivals busy inventing falsehoods.

What flawed the piece was the air of moral shock which has become associated with the investigative genre but which can make films seem ingenuous rather than high-minded, particularly if the expose is almost as old as the oldest profession. At one point the programme detailed the way in which a Dutch employee at the clubs had had to buy out his wife's contract. 'Incredibly', said the voice-over, 'it is practice in the trade to sell women in this way.'

Incredibly it is practice to sell footballers and business executives in this way too and while the bar-girl business might be disgusting and depressing it is unfortunately all too believable. Far from stoking up your indignation, as it was meant to do, the word just made you think that the programme makers should get out of the house a bit more often.

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