Ian Burrell: Dearth of TV documentaries is turning us into little Englanders


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We live in times of extraordinary global upheaval and yet there are fears that our television industry is turning us into a nation of "Little Englanders", interested only in stories about subjects close to home.

A recently produced report by the London-based International Broadcasting Trust has found that last year the British terrestrial channels screened fewer international factual programmes than at any time since the organisation started monitoring the issue in 1989. "International content is in decline on every terrestrial channel except Channel 4," says the trust's director, Mark Galloway, who describes the trend as "a big worry".

He says: "There's a growing divide between a small group of people who are well informed and the wider population that isn't necessarily interested but would in the past have watched documentaries about what's taking place in other countries."

Leading British film-makers such as Brian Woods, who runs the award-winning production company True Vision, recognise the difficulties. "British television is increasingly UK-focused and it's becoming financially harder and harder to make foreign documentaries," he says.

Up to 2006, True Vision had garnered extraordinary international acclaim, winning a string of Emmys for global films such as The Dying Rooms, Slavery, and The Real Sex Traffic. "Despite the fact that we have a strong track record, those films aren't being made anymore," says Woods. "I cannot think of one example of such a multi-country international polemic. It's a shame British television is no longer able to sustain that kind of film-making in a way that it did even five years ago."

Woods and Galloway see a "ghetto-isation" of foreign documentaries, banished from the big channels to the margins of the programme guide. Oases of global documentaries include Storyville on BBC4 and True Stories on More 4. BBC3 has also won plaudits for commissions such as Women, Weddings, War and Me, in which a 21-year-old British woman returned to her homeland, Afghanistan. The commission won an unprecedented audience response.

Nick Fraser, editor of Storyville, argues that film-makers are obliged to work harder to find funding for their work. "As well as thinking globally about subject matter, they have to think globally about funding," he says. "You can't expect the BBC or Channel 4 alone to pay for a documentary made outside this country."

As part of changes to the BBC in last week's "Delivering Quality First" (DQF) strategy, Storyville will be shown on BBC2 in a slot after Newsnight from February. But other cuts announced in DQF put British-made global documentaries under even greater threat. The main BBC channels are increasingly UK-focused, despite the odd event series on BBC2, such as The Chinese Are Coming and the current A South American Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby. ITV now makes fewer foreign factual programmes than even Channel 5. Only Channel 4 remains committed to the genre through its Unreported World strand and occasional foreign investigations on Dispatches.

According to Galloway, the recent uprisings in North Africa were harder for audiences to understand because the lack of coverage on British television meant that the events were not put in context. "When the Arab Spring story hit the news, people in the UK weren't really aware of the situation in Tunisia, Syria and Yemen because there hadn't been any documentaries about them."

The IBT's report, "Outside the Box", also found a lack of confidence among television commissioners in tackling foreign issues in imaginative ways. Little has changed since 1989 and audiences are "presented with programmes which cover the same regions of the world, in the same topics and through the same formats every year." The result is that audiences become bored with the entire genre. "They feel they already know what it's going to be about."

All of which creates a difficult climate for young British film-makers with global stories to tell. Jess Search, CEO of BritDocs, a foundation set up by Channel 4 to encourage documentary making, believes that the national psyche is part of the problem. "Britain is unusually parochial," she says. "I say that as someone who travels to documentary festivals where you meet commissioners from all over the world. We're an island and there's an inward-looking thing with the British. They like to watch a lot of stories with other British people in them."

She believes films such as Bengali Detective, shot in Calcutta by the young British director Phil Cox and screened at the Sundance Film Festival, can change that parochialism. "There's a role for the media to help people think of themselves as global citizens," says Search. "To me, the point of documentary is you take people to somewhere they wouldn't normally go. If you only take them to Brentford it's a bit unadventurous."