’Can you believe anything you see on television?’ asked the Daily
Mail, after Channel 4 joined Carlton Television in admitting that it had
shown a faked documentary. It’s a devastating question, involving trust
and probity, which has to be answered. Television is far more than an
entertainment medium in our lives: many more turn to the screen now than
newspapers for information.
The issue will not be batted lightly away: the Guardian’s initial
actions in opening up the issue infuriated the broadcasters. Nor will
Channel 4’s tactic of ’naming and shaming’ dodgy producers be enough to
save its skin.
There are thought to be more embarrassing fakes rattling around the
Something a bit wild, a bit rotten is going on when lowly researchers
are whistleblowers on programmes waved through compliance procedures by
highly paid TV lawyers. And this despite the existence of established
guidelines and codes calling for reconstructions to be labelled.
The networks now have to convince the public that they’re serious
professionals who can be trusted. But they are going to have a Sisyphean
task to reclaim the high ground which has never been questioned in quite
so basic a manner before.
It goes well beyond rewriting codes. It means a new respect for
audiences, and truth. Everyone who feeds television ideas or simply
watches its output, is part of this process.
Here’s one simple test. Would you willingly allow yourself to be filmed
breaking the law in a serious way, ie trafficking hard drugs? Would you
want millions of people to see you making an assignation with an
underage rent boy? Common sense suggests not.
Yet these are the very transactions we were supposed to believe film
makers can land for prime time viewing - revelations which, handily, win
programme awards. In contrast, any PRO deciding to allow the cameras in
for fly-on-the-wall series negotiates strict rules to ensure the client
is seen in the best light.
Both broadcasters and audiences need to get real. Expect less. Only this
way can the terrible collusion end. The collusion of programme makers
desperate for commissions and promising the earth to commissioners
craving hits to justify their judgment. It’s this division of
broadcasting into segments which has broken the web of
I’m not totally gloomy. UK television, however pressured, is
I hope we will now go through a corrective period.
There are ways of showing wrongs, such as the exploitation of rent
The genre of documentary drama can be revived. Films like Shoot to Kill
and Hillsborough have had real value. It’s the obvious way of getting at
truths not readily accessible to cameras. Truly inventive television can
surely clean up its act.