Dismiss Panorama at your peril

In June 2008 Panorama aired its 'Primark: on the rack' episode. This marked the beginning of a three-year battle with the high street retailer over the legitimacy of its claims and the authenticity of a 45-second sequence of footage.

Primark: has been in battle with Panorama since 2008
Primark: has been in battle with Panorama since 2008

The initial programme, accusing the retailer of unethical practices, showed the reputational damage Panorama can unleash.

But recent BBC Trust findings said the programme's footage of Indian children making Primark tops was 'more likely than not' staged. While the ruling offers some assurance that the corporation takes accusations of false reporting seriously, PROs are divided as to whether it has also discredited the reputation of Panorama.

'This admission batters the credibility of what has been a well regarded programme,' says Cathcart Consulting CEO Jackie Elliot. Lewis' head of editorial David Brown agrees: 'Anything that endangers trust in Panorama is bad as it could lead to public scepticism.'

But others, like Lexis' head of corporate, James Thellusson, believe the long-term impact of the fiasco will be minimal. 'Most viewers will forget the detail soon or decide that the value of the programme outweighs the occasional slip,' says Thellusson.

Being featured on an investigative news programme like Panorama is not always undesirable for brands. As Edelman's director of strategy, Stefan Stern, argues: 'It's good to get attention from a prestigious programme. Companies should want to engage. Why wouldn't you co-operate if you have nothing to hide?'

When 'Primark: on the rack' was initially broadcast, the high-street retailer launched a microsite aimed at consumers where it responded to the allegations, because it did not feel it would be represented fairly on the programme. It also presented its response to the BBC Trust's findings on its microsite.

Brown says: 'The recent tactic to undermine the credibility of the footage with a concise, hard-hitting video on a microsite was good.' But he adds that finding out the allegations as early as possible can help in forming a response.

Thellusson argues that starting a dialogue with a programme like Panorama is always a good place to begin: 'Listen first, ask questions second and then try to establish a conversation. It always makes sense to talk. You want to know what is being investigated.' Panorama's editor Tom Giles says he would prefer this approach: 'It's better to have a contribution from the company concerned rather than hearing from a PR spokesman or simply having a written statement from them.'

But Elliot advises the best possible rebuttal is transparency and proof of innocence: 'Proof of innocence using third parties as well as senior management is likely to make it impossible for an investigation to develop legs.'

Average viewers: 3 million per episode (BARB 2011)
Frequency: Weekly
Time: Monday, 8:30pm, BBC1
First show: 11 November 1953
Contact: panorama.reply@ bbc.co.uk



Tom Giles

What makes a good Panorama investigation?

Is there good reason to believe there has been wrongdoing? Is the story in the public interest? Is it a new story or a new angle on an existing story? Is it something that chimes with people's everyday lives or is it significant in its own right? If it meets some or all of these criteria, then it's a good candidate for us to investigate. We get pitches from various places - our producers and reporters, freelancers and independent production companies.

How far in advance do you warn companies they are the subject of an investigation?

We are obliged under the BBC's Editorial Guidelines and by Ofcom to give fair and sufficient time before our proposed broadcast to allow those concerned to respond to allegations we may be planning to put in our finished programme.

Do you think the recent story about Panorama and Primark has damaged the programme's credibility?

It was a very serious finding by the BBC Trust and we have accepted and apologised for it. The BBC Trust did note the 2008 programme obtained clear evidence that work was being outsourced from factories in India in contravention of Primark's own ethical trading principles.

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