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

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