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    Wednesday, 5 September 2007

    Catch-up (July): trust and deception in broadcasting

    The key issue in the media policy context to have arisen over the summer months has been the impact of revealed deceptions / misrepresentations / falsehoods in programming - exacerbated by the premium rate calls scandals - on public faith and trust in broadcasting and broadcasters. Others have written much important comment on this theme and the following consists largely of links to such consideration (Adrian Monck has been typically incisive, and I understand that he is soon to publish a monograph on the topic, while Polis will be hosting a debate towards the end of this month).

    Before listing useful links to developments on this theme drawn from July, its worth noting that there is a sense of typically ritualistic self-flagellation in some broadcasters' commentary. At least as regards the BBC, it is no doubt important that misdeeds are publically acknowledged, contrition demonstrated, and new leafs obviously turned. However, by being so loudly self-critical, such apologia open the door to outside criticism that is perhaps self-interested and/or over-strenuous. I can't help but call to mind the long-standing relative statistics on public trust in different media and how the traditional distinction between different forms must stick in the craw of print journalists.

    In one of our last posts before our prolonged sojourn, we noted briefly the emerging story of the Queen, the photographer, and the non-existent royal tantrum. This event kicked off the whole shebang; for some basic elucidation, see here, here, here and here. Subsequently, it emerged that RDF had shown the correct footage to the palace, while providing the doctored version to everyone else, including foreign customers. Both the BBC and ITV froze future commissioning from RDF (1,2), with predictable consequences for the company's share price (1,2). Stephen Lambert of RDF admitted personal responsibility (1,2) after initial mootings indicated either that the footage was not for airing or comment (when it palpably was) or laid the blame on the much-erring 'junior researcher'.

    The fiasco prompted the BBC to launch a more general review of the extent of deception in its programming (1,2) and an ethics training programme - Safegarding Trust - for staff (1), amid fears that there existed a systemic, perhaps necessary culture of trickery and misrepresentation (1,2,3). The BBC Trust issued a statement in which it criticised the editorial failings at the BBC and indicated that on receipt of the Director-General's final report in the autumn it would consider if any additional and separate measures are necessary. For his part the Director-General, Mark Thompson, sent an email to all staff lambasting breaches (several staff were suspended on this account) and also published a statement announcing the creation of an editorial standards board. For some commentators, the series of events raised important 'boundary' issues for regulators (1).

    Through the BBC review, and by other means, a number of other instances of deception across British TV quickly came to light, augmenting the general sense that broadcasting in toto was more about manipulation than representation, more art than science. Notable among the other instances were the allegation that survivalist Bear Grylls stayed in hotels (1,2) and faked a grizzly encounter (1) during the making of his Ch4 series; 'f*****g action man', Gordon Ramsay, misrepresented a fish used in his Ch4 cooking programme as having been speared by himself when they had been caught by a guide (1,2), and 'live' footage from Ch5 series Killer Shark Live was found to have been pre-recorded (1).

    It is difficult not to agree that such instances are hardly worth writing home about. Where there may be more of an issue, of course, is in cases where either the monarchy (?) or news and politics - serious issues - are involved. One such instance of manipulation in these areas was uncovered in July when the Treasury complained that a Newsnight piece on attempts to secure an interview with Gordon Brown had mis-sequenced footage (1,2) to imply that a press office official had sought deliberately and disproportionately to frustrate efforts (although the BBC maintained that only the chronology and not the meaning of the piece was distorted, an apology was subsequently offered). Another instance which was just emerging as the month drew to a close concerned the 'dying moments' of a man suffering from Alzheimer's depicted in a documentary by Paul Watson (1,2,3).

    Of course, the existence of such a culture of deception was contested, both as regards the BBC specifically and with respect to TV more generally. For some, any such fraud as had occurred was 'a long way from Conrad Black', while for others it resulted from 'a mixture of hubris and hysteria among young television programme makers'. Most commentators preferred a severely critical take (Rod Liddle, Michael Grade, Ray Snoddy).

    Two general strands of commentary also resulted from the deception rows. First, the impact of the disclosures on trust in broadcasters, and the BBC in particular, and secondly, discussion of the future for the BBC. As regards levels of trust in and credibility of broadcasting, a survey conducted by ICM for the Guardian indicated, unsurprisingly, that trust in the BBC had diminished. This point was emphasised by many commentators (1). BBC executives were reportedly given one year to rectify matters (1).

    On the latter theme, there was much reiteration of the importance of the BBC (Simon Jenkins,Greg Dyke et al), albeit with some desire for it to return to its 'core mission' (Alice Thomson). Howard Davies (incidentally, Director of the LSE) considered that the trust problems highlighted weaknesses in the governance arrangements created for the BBC. This view was subject to predictable criticism (1,2).

    And the most important lesson of the whole piece?... lemmings, according to Marina Hyde, don't commit mass copy-cat suicides (!!) - the impression that they do was created in 1958 by a Disney documentary called White Wilderness, after filmmakers herded them off a precipice to enliven what was panning out as a rather dull study. Other lowpoints in the recent history of fakery were also pointed out in the Guardian.

    1 comment:

    Andrew Scott said...

    For a report on Polis' Trust in TV event, see Charlie Beckett's blog.

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