from where I stand

'I was branded a racist in front of more than a million people'
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Last week I watched a television programme in which my friend John, a gay man with Aids, was made to look a dangerous monster. John knew all along there was a good chance he would be stitched up, but he thought he could play the programme-makers at their own game: he believed his arguments would shine through. More fool him. The essential difference between the programme-makers and John is that they had an edit suite and he didn't.

I know the score. I have just won a case at the Broadcasting Complaints Commission after being branded a racist in front of more than a million people. I could have saved everyone, including myself, a lot of time and money if I had listened to my instinct and refused to co-operate with the people who set me up. As it was, a mixture of politeness and vanity kept me from tossing the film crew out of my office, and I earned myself a year's worth of anguish.

Last summer, Channel 4's lesbian and gay programme Out was putting together a feature about an alleged rise in anti-gay violence in south London, and I was approached to take part. As both a local resident and news editor of the paper Capital Gay, in which I had reported a rise in violent attacks, I was happy to contribute.

The issue was controversial. Never mind that chart-topping ragga musicians were calling for gay men to be killed and an unprecedented number of queer-bashings had been logged after the 1991 Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival in Brixton. As the problem focused on parts of the black community, some people were saying it was racist to express concern. It became clear the programme director, a white woman who did not live in Brixton, was of this opinion. I should have stopped the cameras right then.

Like John, I should have known this was a classic television "investigation" - facts are not allowed to get in the way of the progamme-makers' preconceived conclusions and any inconvenient contribution, however eloquent, would end up on the cutting-room floor.

In this case, the finished result was even worse than I had imagined. Despite what I had been told, homophobia turned out not to be the programme's subject. The item was about racism in the gay press. Four black gay men took turns to argue that Capital Gay had embellished reports of homophobia in Brixton purely for racist reasons, while I was the paper's official defender. No attempt was made to establish whether there were special circumstances to justify this reporting; all the concrete examples I had cited had been edited out.

Capital Gay immediately protested to the commissioning editor, who took a month to write back and tell us the "investigation" had been perfectly fair. So we went to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

It took a full eight months before our complaint received its oral hearing, but it was worth the wait.

Channel 4 admitted I had not been told the true subject of the programme. This had changed in the making, they said, and someone had forgotten to tell me. Oops. The director told the commission that Capital Gay had fallen prey to racist influences in its reporting. She had not bothered to check the facts on the ground, she said, because her programme was, all of a sudden, an "opinion piece". Some "investigation".

The commissioners had more respect than Channel 4 for evidence and objectivity. They examined a year's copies of Capital Gay, and found no trace of racial prejudice. Indeed, they were "struck by the positive coverage of ethnic minority issues generally". They agreed that the programme-makers had secured my co-operation under false pretences and had wrongly branded me a racist.

It feels as if it has been a long, uphill struggle. Many complaints to the commission do not get past its initial eligibility hurdle, so we can count ourselves lucky that we won so conclusively. But victory does not mean much in practical terms. By going to the commission, I have lost my right to sue. Channel 4 has not even been required to apologise: transmitting the adjudication (screened tomorrow night during Over the Rainbow) does not imply acceptance of it. All I have is the satisfaction of holding the television "investigators" to account.

I am now dogmatic in the advice I give to anyone who is considering taking part in TV; unless it's live, don't touch it. They can twist your words as much as they want - and they probably will. To those for whom it is too late, like my friend John, I am delighted to provide the address of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.