Why I'm proud to be a tabloid journalist
Monday 26 August 1996
I was accused of twisting facts, of perverting truth, of sloppy journalism. They were very serious charges. Indeed, it was an extremely damaging attack. And the accusations came not from a critic, under the heading of a television review. They were written by a professional colleague in the BBC, Panorama reporter John Ware.
Why is this significant? Because both Mr Ware and I in our television journalism must follow a code of practice established by the Director General of the BBC. They are the "Producer Guidelines". One crucial element in them, to ensure both accuracy and fairness, is the principle that anyone who is the subject of criticism must be contacted before the programme, and given enough time to provide a proper reply.
I have been described, by Mr Ware and others, as a tabloid journalist. If this means I make populist, accessible, programmes, it is a label I am proud to wear. I have made mistakes - alas - but what journalist has not. But I have never perverted the truth, nor have I twisted the facts. "Tabloid" does not mean unethical. Indeed, because these programmes have such a high profile and attract such large audiences, the journalism must be especially rigorous and thorough. That is why yesterday's accusations shocked and hurt me, especially coming from such a source.
Mr Ware is a distinguished reporter. But I too have been honoured - with the Dimbleby Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the Special Judge's Award for Journalism from the Royal Television Society. These awards have been gained during my 30 years of working on "tabloid" popular factual programmes, some of which have exposed difficult and sensitive subjects, such as child abuse, mental illness, the ethics of transplantation. In the light of the attack made against me, let me lay out the methods and principles guiding that work.
Programmes such as That's Life and the Rantzen Report obtain their material from viewers' letters. They gain their strength and validity from detailed and exhaustive research by the production team.
The first part of any investigation consists of a thorough examination of the viewer's story - how well-founded is the complaint? Could it be a misunderstanding, or a simple and excusable mistake, or simply one person's grudge? In which case there is no story, no programme, the investigation ceases at this point. It would clearly be unfair to pursue it.
If, however, there appears to be good factual grounds for the complaints, we then look further and wider - which of course entails considerably more research. Are there others in the same predicament? What view do experts take - do they support or destroy the viewer's case? Having tested the strength of the original case as carefully as possible, we then contact the other side. Is there a reasonable explanation they can offer? If so, do we drop the story even at this very late stage? Very often the answer is, yes we drop it, no matter how much time and energy has already been expended on the investigation. To broadcast would clearly be unfair. In other cases we broadcast, including the other side's response, and leaving our audience to decide the merits of the case. If the other side refuse to put their point of view, we are left with no choice but to broadcast, with the information that we had requested a response, but been denied one.
Every programme Mr Ware attacks went through this process. Everyone was invited to appear in the studio to state their case. Everything they told us was taken into account in preparing the story.
When they refused to appear, but made a statement, we reported it. They knew the nature of the programme, and the purpose of it. We followed the BBC's guidelines for fairness and balance to the letter, not just because we have to, but because they are right, they are good practice and they protect the journalists and the journalists broadcasting on the BBC. The BBC's reputation is always at stake - so, it seems, is mine. I am, as I have said, well accustomed to being attacked. But to be attacked without being given any chance at all to defend myself, my production team, the participants in the programme, or the programme itself seems to me a perversion of the truth, a twisting of the facts. Finally, if we do in spite of all our precautions, make a mistake, we publish a correction, and put the story straight.
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