The phantom pregnancies and the fake sheikhs

On The Press: Going undercover is no substitute for true investigative journalism

Another television programme made the news last week, although it was barely audible in the Channel 4 cacophony. Panorama was back in Monday prime time, just like those black-and-white days when Richard Dimbleby, founder of the dynasty, was the presenter.

It's odd that in these days of time-shifting this should be such a big deal. The nostalgics tend to forget that when Dimbleby's considerable frame first filled the screen there were just three choices: BBC, ITV and off. No wonder Panorama seemed as heavyweight as its presenter.

Now nothing on television seems heavyweight, mainly because it isn't. Panorama is more serious than most programmes, but even serious ones today have to be accessible and dramatic. That can lead to the investigator becoming more important than the investigation. That is why thinking woman's pin-up Jeremy Vine, still charming a wider audience on Radio 2, tops and tails the show.

Content and the way the programme is constructed have to be different today. Health and education issues are more likely to be addressed than corruption or foreign affairs. We see it in ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald, dealing with such everyday paranoias and consumerist issues as binge drinking, hoody threats and credit card fraud, and scaring elderly viewers. Will Panorama move in this direction?

Methods and presentation can make a current affairs programme seem less serious than it really is. IVF is clearly an important subject, and any doubts about the integrity or standards of doctors providing it are a valid area for inquiry. The relaunched Panorama dealt with this subject under the title "IVF Undercover". Actually, IVF wasn't undercover; it was offered, for rather a lot of money, by the doctor under investigation by Panorama, Mohamed Taranissi. It was Panorama's "reporters" - Katie and Michelle, in their mid-20s and with no fertility problems - who were undercover, masquerading as genuine patients.

That is "default" investigation these days: if in doubt, send in the undercover reporter. Between the News of the World's "fake sheikh" and Panorama's not-so-infertile women is the parade of knives, guns and false passports passing through airports in the pockets of investigative journalists "revealing" security lapses. It is all a bit easy and often seems more stunt than investigation.

The defence is that this is done in the public interest to reveal and right wrongs, and that sometimes it is the only way to gain evidence. That is rarely the case, as the police know well. Investigative journalism - which is no more and no less than reporting tricky stories, usually involving people with something to hide - is about researching, observing, finding the right sources and documents, interviewing and making connections, every bit as much as "going undercover", exciting though that sounds.

This Panorama raised other questions. The regulatory Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) participated in the programme and helped make it. Nothing wrong with that. Investigative journalists seek help from those who know, and they will often be interested parties.

The day the Panorama programme was broadcast, the HFEA obtained a court warrant to examine documents in Dr Taranissi's clinic, and police officers were in attendance when the raid took place. The HFEA said its action was not connected with the Panorama programme. Just a coincidence.

This is not the place to go into the rights and wrongs of this particular case. Panorama lined up experts - from Lord Winston down - to support its case. Dr Taranissi has rejected the criticisms made of him and his IVF clinics. I did not find the programme wholly convincing in either direction. Panorama will produce better than this. It did so on Sunday nights when it battled with end-of-weekend torpor. Jeremy Vine described the primetime return as "the biggest media event of 2007". Not quite.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?