The heavy-breathers find a voice

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
About halfway through Inside Story's gripping film about nuisance calls (BBC1), a cynical thought occurred to me. It was shortly after a shamefaced obscene caller, tracked down by one of British Telecom's investigation teams, had confessed that his vice began with sex chat-lines. Doesn't British Telecom rent out sex-lines, I thought? And doesn't it make quite a lot of money out of them, considerably more, perhaps, than the pounds 15m it spends on catching heavy-breathers? I rang its press office to check and was put right by Olga Hubicka. After all, BT is obliged to offer telephone services and it seems to have been doing its best to curb the handset pornographers - you can now only access British sex-lines if you register for a PIN code (there are currently 14,000 registered users) and the industry has shrunk considerably from its masturbatory heyday. But something about Ms Hubicka's reassuring tones were familiar, strongly reminiscent of the more corporate moments in the film I had just seen. This was hardly surprising because the narrator of "Telephone Terror" turned out to be Olga Hubicka, press and broadcasting officer for British Telecom. I blinked a little at this discovery, but on reflection the scandal is a fairly minor one. It seems to me to be a bad idea to compromise your editorial independence so lightly but Hubicka has an excellent broadcasting voice (you hear it also on BT's recorded advice line about nuisance calls).

You couldn't, either, argue that this was exactly the film BT would have wanted to make - on the contrary, it provided a perfect example of the difference between "good television" and a good information film. Of the cases in "Telephone Terror" almost all were obscene calls - the one exception being a nasty piece of work tormenting her boyfriend's ex-wife. In other words the documentary left you with the impression that the overwhelming majority of such calls are sexual in nature and male in origin. The truth is rather different - only about 15 per cent of malicious calls are obscene, about a third of them are made by women and the great majority are silent. But silent calls, for understandable reasons, do not make very arresting television.

Certainly not as arresting as a young woman picking up the phone and hearing a man whispering: "I get money by licking men's feet... licking men's feet in front of their girlfriends." "Have you got a juicy fanny?" asked another furtive voice, ringing a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. "Oh...hi," said the woman who'd picked up the phone, as routinely as if she had just been asked about that week's menu specials. You saw these things because Inside Story had attached video cameras to the phones in question, so they could stare at the victim as the calls came in. This undeniably voyeuristic device delivered the film's greatest coup - the story of Kym Ogilvie, a woman who had been receiving increasingly menacing obscene calls.

She had been assured that it is very rare for nuisance callers to act out their threats but she fell on the wrong side of the statistical divide. She was first attacked in her garden and then abducted while on a routine shopping expedition. Her persecutor bound, gagged and sexually assaulted her. On screen you saw her frantic partner, talking to the police and, at last, receiving a call from the bemused farmer to whom she had staggered for help. It was television which froze you in your seat - a raw depiction of the terror such crimes cause. It was also, in the grim way of these things, an astonishing stroke of luck for the film-makers. On the soundtrack Hubicka's comforting tones insisted on the extreme rarity of such cases but that was just words - the distant burble of facts. The unforgettable pictures, and the structure of the programme, told quite another story - that this is how such calls conclude.