Victim `mugged' again by TV crime show

Do police action shows violate privacy? Ros Wynne-Jones investigates
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When the police arrived after Yvonne had been mugged at knifepoint, she was in shock. She knows this because she has played the scene and the minutes leading up to it - when a large man held a knife to her throat and then moved it downwards to cut her handbag from her arm - over and over in her mind since the attack.

Other people, friends and strangers, also know she was in shock because they saw her white face and the police breaking into her flat, SAS-style, on prime time television. When she rang 999, a camera crew came too.

Yvonne, a freelance editor from west London, says the LWT cameraman, who she initially thought was a policeman videotaping her evidence, failed to identify himself to her and the police later promised her the footage would end up on the cutting room floor.

She says she didn't think anything more of it, but when she went to get new keys cut for her flat three weeks later the key-cutter instantly recognised her from the television. "Sorry to hear about your break-in," he said. "My wife thought you were cool as a cucumber after being held up at knifepoint." Acquaintances rang her later that evening to commiserate over an ordeal she had shared only with close friends.

"It was like being violated twice," she says of her unwilling appearance on Crime Month. "It was gratuitous and thoughtless. How did they have the right to film me at my own home and then use it against my will?"

Philip Leach, the legal adviser at the civil liberties pressure group Liberty, says the camera crew were perfectly within their rights. "They do not need your permission or to disguise your identity because of the absence of privacy laws in this country," he says. "They may have been trespassing, but she probably implied consent because she thought they were a police crew." As the public thirst for real-life police action continues to spawn fly-on-the-wall footage from ambulance- chasing film crews, closed circuit TV and police cameras, Liberty is concerned at an increasing number of complaints from people who have had similar experiences to Yvonne's. Their lawyers are handling two cases, one where a member of the public watched themselves on TV being resuscitated after a suicide attempt, the other where the complainant appeared in a police drama as part of footage recorded during the arrest of their partner.

The pressure group is also backing a case in the High Court where a man who was filmed attempting to cut his wrists is alleging that his privacy was unlawfully invaded. The security camera that filmed him saved his life because police officers came to his rescue, but he ended up reliving the lowest point of his life on ITV, BBC and in the local press.

Dr Sonia Livingstone, a lecturer in social anthropology at the London School of Economics who is researching the representation of crime in the press, television and film, says programmes like Crime Month are attractive to audiences because they are participatory. "People we have interviewed say they like them because they may be able to help the police and play a role," she says. "In a society where there are no longer many ways to participate, programmes like this can make them feel part of something." Yvonne's 50 seconds of fame appeared in a 15-minute "special operations" section of Crime Month, made by LWT, which follows different police departments carrying out their duties.

A spokeswoman for LWT said their film crew and reporter had identified themselves to Yvonne. "Following strict guidelines, our reporter made himself known to her and explained he was from LWT," she says. "At no stage did she ask [the crew] to leave and, in fact, invited everyone in to her flat. We did not hear from her in the period leading up to transmission. We regret any anxiety the report may have caused her. Had she expressed her concerns the report would have been re-edited."

Yvonne says she was in shock following the mugging and had no idea what was going on. She feels the onus should have been on the TV company to contact her for her permission rather than for her to have to track down the television company and ask them not to show it. "In any case, I felt reassured that having asked the cameraman who he was and realised they were a commercial rather than a police crew, the police had told me the film wouldn't be used."

She was also concerned that the man who mugged her, who had her address from her handbag, might see the footage and return. "I was shocked and disgusted by what happened and my main concern is that it shouldn't happen to anyone else," she says.

Mr Leach says her case clearly underlines the need for a privacy law in Britain. "It would obviously need to be balanced by a public interest defence," he says. "But I cannot see how it is in the public interest for footage like this to be seen."