Can TV ruin your life?: Appearing on television can be glitzy, exciting - or profoundly upsetting. Helen Fielding reports

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The Independent Online
IN THE film Crocodile Dundee, an Aborigine, seeing someone raising a camera towards him, tells them they cannot take his photograph.

'Why not?' he is asked. 'Do you think it will take your soul away?'

'No,' the Aborigine replies. 'You've left the lens cap on.'

For ordinary people all over the world, the threat not just of being photographed, but of being featured on television, is an increasing part of everyday life. During the nightmare time when I worked in TV, I once went to film an unfeasibly remote village in Burkina Faso where well- placed sand dunes gave a pleasing sense of the Sahara creeping southwards - to find two other camera crews already there blocking the view.

At home there are many who cannot see a removal van or cartload of dung approaching the house without imagining that Beadle or Edmonds is up to his tricks, and rushing for the mirror and eyelash comb. When the chance of TV fame comes your way - whether on the news, a documentary or public humiliation show - should you seize it with both hands or run a mile?

The question is so much of the moment that an organisation called Presswise, whose aim is 'to help people cope with television and other media' is currently seeking charitable status and hopes to offer services to the public, including a helpline. 'People can have their lives totally disrupted by this sort of exposure,' says spokesman David Joyce. The same concerns about privacy and fairness run through print journalism too, but as Joyce points out, television is a particularly exposing medium, which brings a peculiar set of circumstances. 'We want to help people make informed choices about whether to participate and to increase their say if they do. Programme makers and the subjects have very different priorities. We want to even the balance.'

He is right about the priorities. I remember working for Nationwide in Bristol during the heyday of the unusual geriatric activities TV fad, when a crew came from London to film an 81-year-old parachute jumper.

'Jump, jump,' they encouraged from the plane, 'we're losing the light.' 'I'm not ready,' he said. 'I can't see where to land.' 'Go for that brown field over there. Jump, jump, the light's going,' they said. So he did, and discovered it wasn't a brown field but a sewage works. The initial mystique of television - its obvious power and the notion of apparently unfathomable technological skills behind it - has created a particular atmosphere which still lives on in the industry: a ridiculous self-importance, the notion of Us and Them - we in the know, and they, the punters, who admire and envy us and long to get in front of our lenses.

But the tendency of the public to do exactly as they're told when the camera is around is on the wane. Too many people now have video cameras and understand the processes, there are too many TV crews at large pestering people on the way to the camcorder club for the mystique to survive. Everyone knows if they've left the lens cap on. More and more people are starting to wonder if the camera will take away their soul.

In March this year, Hamish MacInnes, the leader of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team, resigned over his colleagues' decision to allow the BBC's Inside Story progamme to make a documentary about their work. The team later reversed their decision and he was reinstated.

In a debate on fly-on-the-wall - or as it is sometimes more aptly described 'octopus in the middle of the room' - documentary techniques at last year's Edinburgh Television Festival, Australian housewife Noeline Donaher - who considered herself manipulated and misrepresented in the series Sylvania Waters - created a much-reported furore which was enough to put the fear of God into any documentary director. Those in the business are noticing a class divide in the sort of people willing to take part in filming, a reluctance among the middle and upper classes, fuelled by reactions to films like Fishing Party and The Club about Northwood Golf Club.

Last March on Channel 4's J'Accuse a member of the public, Sabina Forwood, complained about her experience on Dame Edna's Neighbourhood Watch, where she was set up to sit on stage while a camera wandered through her home, ridiculing it. 'What really upset me was the intrusion into my home . . . I wasn't reacting like he (Dame Edna) thought I should. I thought: 'Why should he get away with it?' We don't all enjoy being bullied in public. He asked me if I was enjoying myself, and I told him the truth. He didn't enjoy that at all.'

Sabina was set up without her knowledge for the show, but even when a TV appearance comes through choice, be it through an entertainment programme, a documentary, or TV news coverage, it can become a source of regret in complicated ways.

'I did lots of television interviews, and took part in a documentary after it happened,' a survivor of the Marchioness disaster told me. 'But a few months later I cringed. What I had said was too personal to broadcast to a breathless nation. When something horrific happens you'll talk to anyone who'll listen. I couldn't buy a pint of milk without telling the shopkeeper about it. Speaking to a TV crew seemed the ultimate therapy, and being on TV always somehow seems exciting. It's a very odd scenario. There is the clash between this horrific thing having happened and having a strange sort of fun being on television at the same time. You end up with very confused and guilty feelings.'

Helen Peggs of Victim Support is familiar with many TV related problems. 'In the immediate aftermath of a crime you might feel strange things. You might say on air that you forgive the perpetrator, or express extreme anger, then feel differently, and regret it later. People go into live programme discussions and get whipped into an emotional state, are filmed with their feelings at their most raw and then left hanging.

'When the cameras go away, people feel let down. They say: 'The researchers were only being nice to me because they wanted something from me.' It's very important that a production team finish a relationship, send thank you letters or make some sort of contact after transmission, but that doesn't always happen.'

But people's reasons for participating are not simple. Media coverage seems almost to be viewed now as part of the experience of a disaster or crime, a way of marking the memory of the dead, as integral or cathartic as a funeral ceremony.

David Howden, the chairman of SAMM (Support After Murder and Manslaughter), whose daughter was murdered in Croydon eight years ago, describes an incident which happened 18 months afterwards: 'A woman arrived on my doorstep in a desperate state. Her son had been murdered in the same area recently. When Tessa was killed it was all over the media for days. Tessa was a young woman, nothing much else was happening in the news at the time. But a young bloke being killed is not the same sort of story. The boy's mother said: 'Why was my son only worth two lines in the local paper?' '

Howden explains that television companies are constantly ringing his organisation to ask for bereaved relatives for their programmes. But often 'victims' have no choice about where they are featured. 'Some people have gone on Crime Ltd to avoid being done by Michael Winner,' he says.

One parent who has been much in demand is Pat Green, who believes her son's murderer is still at large. 'To me, speaking about my son on television is a memorial - I don't want him forgotten - and a way of fighting to have his killer brought to justice. My vicar gave me good advice about television. He said: 'Remember you use them, and they use you.' I've had some good experiences. World in Action sent me flowers and a nice letter saying they knew how difficult it had been for me.

'But when they don't follow up or you feel you've been used for entertainment, like a performing animal, it's very upsetting. I wouldn't recommend anyone to go on Kilroy. I went on the week James Bulger was killed. I was led to believe I could get my points across and I then found I couldn't. The programme was all about forgiveness and they wanted me to say I forgave the murderer, which I didn't. I got all worked up, then was cut very short. I don't like the way you're told to clap when Kilroy comes on as if it's entertainment.'

Last autumn the BBC issued new guidelines which covered the ethics of featuring members of the public in programmes. The Independent Television Commission has guidelines, too. But they are difficult to apply precisely in such grey moral areas. As John Murray of the producers' association PACT says: 'How do you ensure that a programme gives a fair picture of someone - two happy quotes, two sad quotes, two angry quotes?'

How can film makers maintain relationships with everyone they work with? And what sort of relationships are they, anyway? I was once befriended by a homeless girl after she was in a film I'd worked on. It turned into a very unbalanced and odd sort of friendship whose unenriching nature she remedied by borrowing 60 quid and never reappearing.

Television has a glitz which promises to rub off, but often fails to, and makes it hard to readjust to normal life. This is a frequent problem in the world of the light entertainment show, the Blind Dates, Blankety Blanks, Generation Games and the like. Zennan Green, an Edinburgh information systems engineering student, was a huge hit on Blind Date last year. 'The whole thing was brilliant,' he told me. 'One minute you're telling your mates you're going on Blind Date, next minute ooof] Planes to London. Big hotels. I got fan mail, people buying me pints. It's such a good experience you want it go on and on. You think 'I'll have more of that, please'.' Zennan graduated this week, but he says: 'Engineering's not really my cup of tea any more. I'd prefer to go into showbusiness. Once bitten, you know. You always hope in the back your mind it'll pick up again. If only someone would think I could be an actor. I suppose it's not realistic, but you never know.'

You never do. Plenty of ordinary people have had their lives changed unrecognisably for the good by TV's awesome power. Unemployed documentary subjects are offered jobs, celebrities like Sheena Easton created from nowhere, murderers tracked down, lost relatives traced, millions of pounds raised in famine relief.

But anyone spotting TV looming on the horizon of their life does well to remember that it's no longer de rigueur to fall over yourself with awed delight. As Pat Green's vicar says: 'You use it, and it uses you.'

It might just be better to leave the lens cap on and your soul intact.

Helen Fielding's novel 'Cause Celeb', about a TV appeal in Africa, is published by Picador on Friday.

(Photographs omitted)