Alarm at proposals to curb TV exposes 4/54pt set over four linyes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Television journalists are under threat from a draconian privacy code that will jeopardise the future of investigative journalism on television, it was claimed yesterday.

The Broadcasting Standards Commission - which came into being on 1 April out of a merger of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council - is charged by law with creating a code of practice that covers privacy issues such as secret filming.

The BSC has circulated a draft code of practice to broadcasters that has alarmed the producers of programmes such as those that feature in the Channel 4 Dispatches series.

The proposed code asks that there is always an "overwhelming public interest" before deception or secret filming is allowed. It also states that those interviewed by journalists should have the right to withdraw their interviews after giving them, and that if a story moves on they should be informed and allowed to change their statements.

"If you started trying to apply this code to print journalists, half the stories in newspapers would be against the code," said Bernard Clark, executive producer of Clark Television, which made the Dispatches programme about Sotheby's alleged art smuggling. "The code would make proper decent investigative journalism extremely difficult," he added.

Channel 4 is also known to be concerned about the code and is making a private submission to the BSC about its worries. Central Television, maker of The Cook Report, has responded to the code in a joint submission with ITN.

Journalists are also concerned that the wording of the code will give companies and individuals under investigation a string of legal technicalities that could be used to prevent the broadcast of investigative documentaries.

"The whole code is a lawyer's charter," said Mr Clark. "It's woolly and indistinct."

The 1996 Broadcasting Act, which created the BSC, dictates that the Independent Television Commission would "reflect" the new code - due to be published later this year - in its own regulations.

Under current ITC regulations, broadcasters have to prove to their director of programming that they have "proof of wrongdoing" before they can secretly film.

Stephen Whittle, director of the BSC, said that the new code seen by The Independent was an early draft. "The point of sending out a consultation document is precisely in order to test the water and get some measure of the debate. The code will be a challenge. Broadcasters are having a harder test applied to them than press journalists." The idea was to try to reconcile public distrust of journalists with the need to protect a free flow of information.

Dispatches has been the target of press condemnation for secret filming after it was revealed last month that William Buttimer, an executive with security firm Compass Safety International, killed himself after being secretly filmed for an expose of the sale of weapons for torture. The programme was also accused of entrapment by Sotheby's after it filmed an employee encouraging an undercover reporter to smuggle a work of art out of Italy.