TUE STEEN MÜLLER raises the question of whether it is a matter of censorship or editorial sovereignty.
Thanks to Italian television it’s possible to rewrite one more version of the classic story about television executives who refuse to broadcast programmes that are controversial in one way or another. Their official explanations are always along the lines that the programmes in question are outdated and will not give the channel adequate ratings. Normally the respective production companies give in and don’t make a fuss. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” is an old rule most of us know from experience!
This version of the story is about a Rome-based Italian company, D.N.A. International, that actually did fight back when it was opposed by the RAI3 channel.
In 1996, RAI3 commissioned D.N.A. to produce “La Sindrome del Golfo (The Gulf War Syndrome)”, to be directed by Alberto D’Onofrio and produced by Alessandra Ugolini. They filmed the documentary with a small crew on several locations in the U.S. They interviewed many people who suffer from the so-called syndrome of the war as well as experts who doubt that the illness of the soldiers and their frequency of highly-deformed children have anything to do with chemical and biological contamination, with the use of vaccines on the soldiers or with exposure to the uranium ammunition used in Iraq.
The documentary is shocking to watch. It is very hard to watch children with indescribable deformities. The programme gives a voice to the families involved, it’s full of indignation and it intends to stimulate a debate. This is not a new issue in the media: The BBC has covered it, and newspapers around the world have given space to debates. It would therefore be unfair to conclude that this Italian programme is hiding an alternative viewpoint generated by listening to the victims.
RAI did not want to show the film. After repeatedly postponing the decision to air the programme for a couple of years, The RAI executives finally argued that it was no longer topical.
Yet when the Americans started bombing Iraq again in December 1998, D.N.A. International approached RAI, the rightholder of the programme, and pointed out that this was a unique chance to make an obvious editorial link. No result.
The next chapter of the story could be entitled “Never Give Up”. The director went to the press with the story and launched a campaign to get the programme aired. Again and again the producers and other media observers attacked RAI for being afraid of broadcasting critical and controversial programmes – and again and again the RAI executives replied that they had the editorial right to judge what should be aired as they had paid for the programme themselves.
The press coverage had an astonishing, mobilising effect. People wanted to see the programme, and the director, with the acceptance of RAI, toured Italy showing “The Gulf War Syndrome” at universities and cultural centres, even in public squares. Until now the programme has been screened 100 times with an audience of about 200 each time, and producer Alessandra Ugolini says it is still being shown.
In April, RAI3’s director, Francesco Pinto, phoned director Alberto d’Onofrio and told him they would air the programme. In May, as this article is going to press, nothing has happened yet. The reason now given is that the war in Europe has first priority. In discussions of the issue, Italian producers state that it is dangerous to fight the RAI. Some even say it could be detrimental to the slight progress achieved by Italian documentarists in getting the channel interested in commissioning or buying documentaries.
They are wrong, of course. This version of a global fear expressed by television executives, on behalf of the audience, underscores the importance of what Belgian RTBF commissioning editor, Hugues Le Paige, writes in his POV in this issue of DOX. He stresses the obligations of public service channels to broadcast critical and significant programmes. Viewers deserve to be treated like intelligent people.
In this case at hand, if RAI doesn’t want to show the programme, it should give the rights to the production company for airing it on channels in other countries.
Meanwhile, “The Gulf War Syndrome”is being shown all over Italy. The discussions after the screenings deal with war…