The Media Column: How I found myself in a party political broadcast for the BNP

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The Independent Online

"Tell your parents to set the video, you're on television," said a friend at Five. "Really, what programme?" I inquired, trying to sound as if this might be one of a number of appearances my agent had arranged for me this month. The response - "The party political broadcast for the British National Party" - was not quite what I had been expecting.

Terrific. After years of writing about the dangers posed by right-wing extremists, contributing to their publicity material ahead of Thursday's elections was not something about which I was happy.

My presence on their broadcast was, at least, not a physical one: it was merely my by-line that was in front of camera, one of a series of cuttings deemed useful to the party's propaganda.

The piece in question was a report on Channel 4's decision to drop a documentary on a problem with Asian gangs in Bradford "grooming" underage white girls for sex and drug abuse.

After receiving a letter from the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, Colin Cramphorn, who thought the timing of the programme created a risk of public disorder, Channel 4 decided to pull it from the schedule.

The Independent's headline, "Channel 4 drops show on 'abuse' of young white girls" (above right), was more sensitive than others, such as The Guardian's "Asian child sex film pulled over election fears" and, especially, the Daily Mirror's "Asian perverts show axed in race riots fear".

But it all suited the BNP, which branded the rescheduling as "politically correct censorship". It then submitted to Five an election broadcast that the channel deemed "likely to stir up racial hatred".

When the film was rejected, the BNP gleefully edited it to a ridiculous degree, littering it with what Five described as "bleeps and 'wind' sound effects" in an attempt to suggest more censorship.

In a statement, Five said it was obliged to show the film. "Having viewed the new version Five has reached the conclusion that, though largely incomprehensible, it does not breach the Programme Code."

What had begun as an attempt at responsible broadcasting had delivered a propaganda coup for the BNP, to which myself and other well-meaning journalists had inadvertently contributed.

The biggest loser in all this was the Asian population. Sunny Hundal, editor of Asians in Media, the online magazine, watched with horror as events unfolded.

"This was an example of good intentions that went horribly wrong. It shows why many Muslims and Asians in general have an uneasy relationship with the British media, which rightly demonises Abu Hamza, but lets Nick Griffin off lightly," Hundal told me. "I'm not for excessive censorship even when it comes to the BNP nor am I afraid of airing dirty laundry within the Asian community."

REX FEATURES, arguably Britain's best-known photographic press agency, is celebrating its 50th anniversary at a time when the controversy around the veracity of pictures has never been greater.

The capacity to enhance or alter images using computer technology and the cynicism of a public that has become accustomed to seeing doctored pictures on the internet have created credibility problems for photographers and camera operators alike.

We have had the doctoring of images of the Madrid bombings (on taste grounds) and, of course, the Mirror scandal.

When Rex was founded by Frank and Elizabeth Selby (with pictures stored in the front room of the family house), images were already being subtly improved.

Their son Mike, Rex's editorial director, says: "Nobody would argue if you removed a television aerial from somebody's head. It doesn't add or take anything away [from the picture]. Touching up with a brush for publication has been in the business for 150 years."

But as his brother John points out, "if you did any cleaning up it would be stated."

Rex has been subjected to attempts to "pass off" images. Mike well recalls a paparazzo trying to sell an image of an apparently pregnant Kim Basinger shopping in California. He says: "We thought: 'Great, there's money in this.' But when we looked at the rest of the film, she didn't have a bump."

The photographer's explanation was that doctoring techniques had become common in America.

According to John, the increased opportunity for altering images has coincided with a fall in standards among those who edit pictures for Britain's print media. "The digital revolution has meant a dive in quality. Editors don't worry so much about the quality of pictures any more," he says. "You look at more and more TV grabs being used. Nowadays, no one seems to care."