BRIAN WINSTON discusses the conflict.

The story that began with the Guardian newspaper’s exposé of Carlton Television’s faked documentary The Connection, about a Colombian drug smuggler, will not go away. Every week in Britain there seems to be another scandal about documentary “fakery”.

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In February ’98, a documentary about rogue builders was exposed as having a number of faked scenes, including one where two men were supposedly filmed stealing building supplies.

In August, a film crew was accused of making children in the care of a local council beg on the street and, in the case of one 15 year-old girl, solicit as a prostitute.

In September, a programme about fathers and daughters was pulled at the last moment when it was revealed that one of the ‘fathers’ was actually the young woman’s boyfriend.

In December ’98, after a lengthy quasi-judicial inquiry, Carlton was eventually fined £2 million by the regulator, the Independent Television Commission (ITC), for breaking its legally binding programme code by having people ‘act’ the roles of drug traffickers, pretending to have smuggled heroin (actually just sweets) into Britain.

By the turn of the year, the papers were no longer interested in only documentaries. A popular BBC daytime confessional talk show was revealed to have used “faked guests” hired through an agency.

In February ’99, men in a scene from a documentary transmitted in 1997, who were shown picking-up rent-boys in Glasgow, were revealed to have been members of the production team. The Commission fined Channel 4 £150,000 for this unlabelled ‘reconstruction’.

In March ’99, two programmes were in trouble for employing criminals on production teams. In one, a freelance reporter accused an antique dealer of selling stolen goods; but the dealer was working undercover for the police who were actually investigating the reporter, a man with a criminal record for theft. The second ‘scandal’ involved a researcher on a programme about illegal guns transmitted no less than three years earlier. He too was revealed as having a criminal record, and many scenes in the film were shown to have been set up.

The moral panic in the newspapers shows no sign of abating. The coverage, though, is also fast descending into farce. Now the journalists are breast beating about the ethics of using tamed wild-life for close-ups in nature films!

The broadcasters’ response to this veritable witch hunt (conducted, do not forget, by one of the least ethical presses in the free world) has been extraordinarily muted. Of course, nobody can condone misrepresentation and mendacity, but the profession has made little attempt to explain the everyday interventions of the documentary filming process

One reason for this is that the broadcasters have been picked off one by one. Moreover, the industry is unwilling to confront the underlying reasons why so many documentarists are playing fast and loose with reality.  Most television documentaries are made by small independent production companies which are really nothing more than a disguise for a casualised, insecure workforce. To get a commission from a broadcaster often entails promising more than can be delivered. Failing to deliver is widely seen as a one-way ticket out of the industry. With these pressures it becomes easy to see why programme makers are firstly prepared to promise what they cannot be sure of filming and secondly to fake it when they fail.

But while it is easy to see why the broadcasters do not feel able to defend themselves, the scale of the attack begins to raise other issues. There is the question of freedom of expression.

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