BBC tackles documentary `cheating'

Click to follow
THE BBC is reviewing its rules on the production of documentaries after a series of embarrassing revelations which questioned the truth behind high-profile television investigations.

A senior management group, chaired by Phil Harding, the BBC's controller of editorial policy, and including representatives from the BBC's six factual departments, is examining the corporation's Producers' Guidelines. According to insiders, the group is looking to see if there are lessons to be learnt from recent scandals.

Of most concern is the use of "reconstruction" within a documentary, where producers re-stage events that they believe to have taken place.

Recent revelations about the use of this technique have called into question whether viewers can believe what they see on screen.

Channel 4's documentary Rogue Males was revealed to have constructed and reconstructed events for dramatic effect. This was swiftly followed by an acknowledgement from the BBC that its popular series The Driving School featured some "reconstructed" material. Perhaps most seriously, last week Carlton came under fire for allegedly manufacturing evidence in an award-winning documentary about drug smuggling, The Connection.

The BBC's Producers' Guidelines, which are issued to both in-house and external producers, state that "reconstructions should be identified clearly so that no one is misled. Repeated labelling may be necessary to achieve this".

But the BBC's factual programme producers, who are spread across several departments throughout the country, are understood to feel that interpretation of the guidelines varies across the BBC.

An insider said: "The BBC has to decide whether the guidelines themselves need to be rewritten or clarified, or whether it's a case of reiterating firmly to producers what the rules are. It's all about consistency: if you talk to all the factual departments, you get a different sense from each of what is acceptable."

The BBC is not alone in considering the need for tighter guidelines. Documentary producers agree that across the industry, the "fine line" dividing acceptable reconstruction of a verifiable event and "faking it" is being examined.

A senior industry figure said: "It doesn't matter if the programme is a `docu-soap' or an investigation ... If an event is reconstructed, then the viewer must somehow be made aware of that." A respected documentary producer added: "It is crucial that the credibility of documentaries isn't undermined."

After an investigation into the production of Rogue Males, Channel 4 issued an apology to viewers for misleading them and restated to staff that all reconstructions must be identified.

Steve Hewlett, Channel 4's head of factual programmes and features, said yesterday: "Television has a relationship with its audience that is based on trust ... It is incumbent on all programme makers to nurture and maintain that relationship."