When Maureen and Castro are not who they seem

Viewers have the right to know whether what they see is fact or fiction, real or reconstructed
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE RECENT decision by the American television network, ABC, to shelve a new film by Oliver Stone about the crash of a TWA airliner off Long Island, which killed all 230 passengers, raises again the question in relation to TV documentaries: what is truth? Mr Stone believes that the cause was a rogue missile fired by the US Navy even though an extensive FBI investigation found no evidence to support this theory. In explanation of its decision, ABC said it had become increasingly uncomfortable about the confusion the film might generate between entertainment and news.

At least ABC acted promptly. Carlton Television boasted that it had secured a one to-one interview with Fidel Castro, a world exclusive; its press release claimed that "a British film crew has gained rare access to Cuba's charismatic leader". After the broadcast it was discovered that there had been no interview; instead archive footage had been cleverly cut together with contemporary material.

Channel 4 was caught earlier this year when a Cutting Edge documentary about cowboy builders was found to be contrived. Channel 4's response was that "there was an element of reconstructed truth of sorts, but there is not a documentary around which does not have an element of that in it". By the way, did we all know that?

Likewise the BBC has confessed that parts of its popular Driving School documentary, which made a star of Maureen Rees, were acted. The BBC spokesman said: "Some of it was faked. It was a light-hearted documentary. But the integrity was still there." Again I ask: did we poor viewers guess that must have happened, or were we fooled?

Of course there is always some artifice in television reporting. I have redone my answers to interviews; I have rehearsed in front of the cameras my walking into the High Court when The Independent was involved in a newsworthy legal action. The strictest producers will allow themselves to redo only routine and insignificant action. A more generous allowance is to say, as some do, that we can get people to act out what would have happened anyway. You can see that there is no clear limit.

In fact Driving School was so popular that it became the first example of a new genre, the observational documentary or, perhaps more aptly, the docu-soap. It was discovered that viewers like the ordinary, the mundane. They appreciate seeing their own lives on screen.

On Saturday evening, for instance, BBC 1 screened another episode of Airport, a docu-soap about Heathrow, and last night on ITV in the London region one could have watched two examples - Park Life, a documentary series about Battersea Park, and Dog Squad, a series following the work of police dogs. Such programmes attract big audiences and they have begun to replace traditional soap operas and situation comedies.

They have also implanted the wish to appear on TV. Some people will do anything to get in front of a camera. They may want to tell their story, they may find something therapeutic in taking part, they may crave the excitement and flattery of having the cameras around. And they may fake their lives. A Channel 4 team was nearly duped by a man and woman who falsely acted out a father/daughter relationship for a documentary which was to feature three fathers and daughters filmed over a number of months. When the woman was asked why she engaged in the deceit, she explained that she wanted to be famous.

Documentaries of this type are entertainment; they don't pretend to be news, or to be an explanation of what lies behind the headlines. Nonetheless they still implicitly claim to be "true". Unfortunately a number of developments have pushed truth down the list of a documentary film-maker's priorities.

There is intense competition between production companies to get commissions. Inevitably they sometimes find that they have promised more they can deliver. Then the temptation to fake can be powerful.

At the same time, the ameliorating influence of the BBC, with its high standards and good traditions, has become attenuated as the number of channels and production companies proliferates. Moreover there is famine in the midst of plenty. Budgets are pared down, so that some internal checks and balances have vanished and less time is spent in planning for filming and evaluating afterwards what has been achieved.

It is clear that the public needs better protection. Television companies sometimes perpetrate frauds on the viewers. Three types of response are useful. It may sound worthy and dull, but the place to start is school. Young people must be trained to judge the reliability of the messages which bombard them, whether by way of print, radio, television and the Internet, whether fact or fiction, whether advertising or not.

Second, disclosure also has a role to play. Already some reconstructed scenes in documentaries are marked as such. Consumer advice could be provided before programmes are screened. We might learn whether real people were asked to act out incidents which had already occurred, or whether actors were used, or whether, for instance, scenes in a wild life documentary were actually shot in natural conditions or in a zoo.

In addition, television companies should also use their websites to post information about the making of their documentaries. After the programme has been shown, if not before, a complete list of contrivances should be published. Having to provide the details would itself be a deterrent to taking too many liberties.

Third, the BBC itself has elaborate guidelines for producers which are being adjusted to reflect the new concerns. Commercial broadcasters, too, should do this. Moreover executives of bodies which find themselves the subject of a TV documentary can take some precautions.

Do not agree to anything until you have seen the terms of the commission between the team making the film and the broadcasting company. Know from the start what is the objective. Production companies notoriously promise the world to commissioning editors but appear modest, reasonable and circumspect when talking to the participants.

I applaud the attitude of the ABC TV network in the United States. Viewers have the right to know whether what they see is real or reconstructed, fact or fiction, some approximation to the truth or not.