At ITV, the fish rots from the head

Truth is no longer a priority when documentaries are produced as mass entertainment, says Henry Porter
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SHOW Michael Green a company balance sheet and in a synaptic flicker he will present you with all kinds of profit opportunities and as yet unexplored savings and disposals. Show him a television programme, more particularly an award-winning documentary that is alleged to be a fake from beginning to end, and Mr Green reacts with a less certain touch.

This is what is at the heart of the affair of The Connection, a documentary about heroin smuggling from Colombia to Britain which was exposed this week by the Guardian as having five important falsehoods at its core. While everyone accepts that Michael Green had no direct knowledge of the alleged fraud, he is, as the chairman of Carlton TV, ultimately responsible for broadcasting the lie.

To be candid - and why not, for Mr Green has had more or less everything his own way in his 50-odd years on the planet? - he has not, and never will be, the country's greatest upholder of standards. He is merely a good businessman and appears unable to grasp that as leader of the Carlton cartel he provides the journalistic culture that makes such a fraud possible. Ever since Carlton's capture of the London weekday television franchise, Mr Green has had problems in this area and these have been stretched further with his purchase of Central and Westcountry.

It is not just that he is a run-of-the-mill populist impresario; it's that he seems unable to understand the difference between quality and crap - or "quap", as the jeweller Gerald Ratner once described one of his own products. This is a pity since this rather elusive and reputedly charming operator now runs three ITV regions, serving 38 per cent of the population, and is also about to milk the digital revolution.

It is not merely fair comment, it is imperative to point out that Mr Green's explosion into the ITV regions has been accompanied by very little improvement in broadcasting standards and memorably bland programming. No doubt his PR people will seek to defend his record by reminding us of the tremendous success of this or that drama (Soldier, Soldier, Kavanagh QC or Peak Practice), but we know in our hearts that these programmes are going through the motions; that basically they are the product of a soulless combine, headed by a man who has eyes only for the operating profit, which, incidentally, last year reached pounds 150m in his television enterprises alone.

And so this ethic, this bottom-line prioritising, this wretched creative and aspirational downsizing, affects the morale and ambition of every ordinary television executive in Carlton's employ. That's the reason why ITV is becoming less adventurous. If the humble television executive, or filmmaker, dislikes Carlton TV, there are fewer places for him or her to go. Sky TV is run on exactly the same, if not harsher, principles and the other ITV regions are hardly centres of excellence. Meanwhile the BBC, still a considerable institution that values truth above entertainment, must increasingly rely on contributions from outside. Channel 4 always has done.

The problem with this process is that the people producing work for a television company have no commitment to its institutional values. The same effect would be achieved by filling a newspaper entirely with the work of freelance writers, who, because they are paid a flat fee, always aim to complete a particular project with the minimum outlay of time and money. Similarly, freelance producers always have their own profit and loss accounts running at the back of their minds, which is why new technology comes in so handy. A lot of Marc de Beaufort's film was made with a small portable camera. If a film crew had been trailing round the world with him, he would never have been able to pull off such a fraud.

The independent producer is concerned not just with the project in hand, but marketing his or her ideas for the next one, and to a relatively small number of commissioning editors. These airtime barons are very powerful, although they have little to do but sift through the proposals of hundreds of independent producers, whose creativity and boldness naturally tends to be trimmed in the desire to receive a commission. They talk up the sensational aspects of the project and downplay anything that appears too solid or worthy.

The pressure on the commissioning editor is of a different sort, for he or she is entirely concerned with pleasing the programme controller in terms of budget and likely audience share. The result is that the commissioning editor and independent producer collaborate - for very different reasons - to drive the quality of the programme downwards. And that is what appears to have happened in the affair of The Connection.

One can easily imagine how Marc de Beaufort, the film's smooth-looking producer, went into sell his idea of the Colombian "mule" swallowing large quantities of heroin and importing it into Britain. One can also readily see Roger James, then head of documentaries at Carlton TV, seizing hold of the idea and thinking of the string of awards that would come Carlton's way - indeed it went on to win eight. Mark de Beaufort was interviewed on CBS's Sixty Minutes and his film was bought by the US cable firm Home Box Office.

With so much at stake, the last thing anyone at Carlton was going to do was to test the veracity of de Beaufort's claims, or to look at the film closely and so notice a similar background in two segments which were said to have been filmed at different times and locations. No, what they had was a sensational piece of journalism which would win acclaim and pull its weight in the ratings (3.7 million people were estimated to have watched the programme). In other words, it would perform very well as a piece of entertainment and once that becomes the criterion, editorial values are thrown out of the window.

If anyone wondered about the sorts of values current in ITV they had only to hear the chief executive of Border TV, Paul Corley, discuss The Connection on Radio 4 last Friday. Mr Corley, once an executive at Carlton, appeared altogether rather less alarmed by the fraud than you might expect, but he made an interesting point: documentaries are now regarded as a legitimate part of television's entertainment repertoire. Where once the documentary was considered the inviolate cousin of news, it is now sometimes regarded as having greater pulling power than either drama or light entertainment. With pressures such as this and men such as Michael Green setting the tone at the top, it is hardly surprising that Carlton's Colombian mule was filmed swallowing peppermint, not heroin.

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