Television: The fly, as seen by the wall

Television cameras filmed the `Independent on Sunday' at a busy time. Simon O'Hagan recalls what they saw - and what they didn't
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The Independent Culture
Cutting Edge: Independent Rosie

Channel 4, 9pm tonight

A lot of us had been avoiding the cameras as best we could when someone came up with a useful tip: if they start filming you, just stare straight back at the lens. It messes up the shot completely.

Now you know what to do if you're ever unwittingly caught up in a fly- on-the-wall documentary. The trouble is that television's love of the docusoap genre means there can't now be many people left who haven't been subjected to the camera-behind-the-pot-plant treatment. In recent years, the flies-on-the-wall have turned into a swarm, observing such diverse species as wheelclampers, estate agents, learner drivers, traffic wardens, civil servants, customs officers and the staff of the Adelphi Hotel.

On this basis, people in newspapers have fewer rights than most to complain when television decides that life in a newsroom might make exciting viewing. There's no denying that the workings of the media have considerable popular appeal. And given that the core of our business, like television's, involves finding out about other people's lives and then sharing our discoveries with the world, such intrusions are nothing more than a case of the writer bit.

That may explain why so many of us braced ourselves when a crew from Channel 4's Cutting Edge series arrived in the offices of the Independent at the beginning of the year to make a film that was primarily focusing on the then editor of the paper, Rosie Boycott, but which - potentially - could ensnare anybody who strayed across her path while the cameras were rolling.

The makers of the programme - which goes out tonight at 9pm - knew a good story when they saw one. But they ended with a far better one than they or anybody could have anticipated.

Rosie Boycott had a colourful background to which alcohol, glossy magazines and a spell in jail in Thailand had all contributed. She'd become editor of the Independent on Sunday in late 1996 - the first woman ever to edit a national broadsheet - and created a stir with a campaign for the decriminalisation of cannabis. Then she was appointed to the editorship of the Independent while remaining editor of its Sunday sister.

Within a few weeks of filming, though, events had moved on. The man Boycott replaced at the daily paper, Andrew Marr, returned to co-edit it with her under new owners. Then Boycott left to edit the Express. A great deal happened very quickly: the usual word for such times is "turbulent".

Has the programme got the full story? Of course not. This is television we're talking about. Most of the life of the office was conducted beyond the range of the cameras. A number of key protagonists do not appear, and the members of staff who do are, by definition, self-selecting. But it is well made, and, as entertainment, benefits from having a central figure who enjoys the camera's attention and returns the compliment with shows of mischievousness and emotion. Somewhat grating are the narration's chummy references merely to "Rosie" - and they don't do Boycott any favours either - but an edge is provided by one notably dissenting voice.

Independent Rosie is not the first documentary made about newspaper life. Some of us were at the Times in 1985, the year of its bicentenary, when Thames TV came and paid homage. The Sunday Sport was given the treatment by the BBC a couple of years ago, and good fun it was too. But this must be the first in which the main subject starts the programme editing one paper and ends it editing another. In that respect it certainly does catch something of the highly volatile spirit of modern-day journalism.