SPIJ: DEFINED & DECONSTRUCTED

INTRODUCTION

The article below is extracted (p.27-29) from a much longer article 'The Secret Agent--BBC Journo-Cops on the Case' from Notes From the Borderland issue 6 2005 p.11-39. This was a searing critique/deconstruction of the 2005 BBC/Searchlight documentary centred around an infiltration of the British National Party in Yorkshire, by reporter Jason Gwynne & asset Andy Sykes. While NFB had criticised state-friendly journalism before, this show saw a new low in journalistic standards, and catastrophically played right into the BNP's hands, encouraging them so much it precipitated party leader Nick Griffin into standing in Bradford (where the documentary was based) at the 2005 General Election. The ensuing court cases arising from this shoddy documentary also played into the BNP's hands, further consolidating their support base locally and nationally. Nonetheless, the show had one useful effect--it precipitated NFB into codifying exactly what makes us uneasy about much modern journalism, pretending to be investigative but in reality anything but. The BBC did not come well out of all this: something underlined by our intervention at the October 2005 Sheffield Documentary festival, where activists memorably reduced BBC Director General Mark Thompson to a quivering jelly, and media blabbermouth Steve Hewlett to a floundering goldfish (see NFB 7 p.10). One thing producing the grandees stunned silence was the hard-hitting leaflet NFB handed out that day, featured elsewhere in this site section. Just how bad the 'Secret Agent' was came out even more when we acquired the original programme 'pitch', reproduced & analysed in NFB 7 (p.34-36). Over and above interest in the specific documentary, the piece below is important methodologically, and we trust readers will recognise, and apply, the paradigm of SPIJ widely. If you like what you read, visit our shop (click on box above) to get the whole article, either as hard copy magazine or PDF download.

SPIJ DEFINED AND DECONSTRUCTED

...'Secret Agent' exemplifies SPIJ: State compromised Pseudo-Investigative Journalism. It fitted well into broader agendas, yet on the surface looked a stand alone independent investigation. Not for one minute would I claim newspaper immunity from SPIJ-Mazher Mahmood (News of the World) has made a career out of following closely the agendas of various secret state agencies in terms of stories covered and entrapment techniques used. His News of the World colleague Neville Thurlbeck is a registered police informant, something which doesn't seem to have hampered his career [120]. In an earlier era, both Colin Wallace and Chapman Pincher ran dodgy stories almost exclusively in print rather than other media. Today, the Sunday Times, Observer and other Sunday titles are prime SPIJ repositories, probably related to journalists wanting stories of apparent depth and novelty more than immediacy, because they cannot compete with daily papers. Furthermore, whatever Crimewatch's inadequacies, its allegiance and provenance is undisguised. It is elsewhere, where this is unclear or deliberately concealed, that concerns us here. At issue is not particular programme's intrinsic interest or worthiness, but how journalistic independence may have been compromised to make them. Past NFB's are littered with instances, drawn (for example) from Panorama & World In Action (RIP) as well as the lamentable Macintyre Undercover. Rather than recapitulate them, some new ones. Take, for example, programmes that function as indirect means for the state to bring recalcitrant outposts or quasi-autonomous sectors into line. In this genre, 'gaps' in existing surveillance and monitoring procedures are 'exposed' in order to justify more resources spent on the same, and/or heighten everybody's paranoia about the 'terrorist threat'. Not just perennial infiltration of Royal Palaces by newspaper journalists, but BBC1's 'Whistleblower' investigation into lax security at Manchester airport springs to mind here [121].

At times, and without any ethical discussion, so-called investigative documentaries function as secret state information outlets, enmeshed in spook agendas while retaining a crucial, and misleading, semblance of independence. Ireland is an area where this is commonplace-and there is little doubt one trigger for this was the fallout from Thames TV's (1988) 'Death on the Rock' documentary. Even Brian McNair's anodyne standard text-book admits that later IBA abolition and Thames TV losing their franchise "was not entirely unconnected with the 'Death on the Rock' affair" [122], After that, the BBC and other broadcasters were scared of covering Ireland in a way directly challenging government policy. While one BBC Panorama programme by Tom Mangold dealing with the same Gibraltar shootings as 'Death on the Rock' did get made, it was relegated to a later slot [123]. Subsequently, few BBC programmes have been as daring, despite claims otherwise. Peter Taylor has carved out a niche as chronicler of the "Troubles' in a manner that clearly does not annoy the spooks-evidenced most recently by the extensive access to secret state files for his BBC 1 Brighton Bomb 20th anniversary programme 14/9/04. Aside from Peter Taylor, Panorama programmes fronted by John Ware stand out here. First was the Omagh bombing special (9/2/2000), which made shameless and uncritical use of spook material (including phone tap results inadmissible in court). Then there are Ware's later Panorama documentaries on Patrick Finucane's murder (19/6/02 & 23/6/02). In one patently contrived scene, in which filming is supposedly covert, or at least made to look that way, Ken Barrett was shown confessing his involvement while sitting in a car with John Ware. Immediately after transmission, he was arrested and charged. Not the whole story, or even half of it. Though Barrett received a nominal 22 years jail for confessing, under the Good Friday agreement he will probably be free within months, something that only the utterly naive would imagine he did not anticipate when speaking to Ware, indeed without this foreknowledge (and cash payment) it is unlikely he would have spoken on camera [124], David Leppard, writing just prior to Barrett's trial in the Sunday Times (29/8/04), chose not to name Ware, but we need not be squeamish. Finucane's killing (and the Omagh bomb) were disgraceful events, but nonetheless the role of TV documentaries in relation to these matters has not been to get at truth so much as to do this while conforming to the agendas of various state factions, particularly those engaged in fratricidal interagency rivalry. This war within the secret state largely determines the extent (and limits) of what gets exposed and when. Undeniably, truth surfaces on occasions, but when the time is right-for spooks, not justice, except by accident. In a future NFB, I hope to prove that in relation to differing interpretations over the years of Pat Finucane's death with reference to the work of John Ware and Peter Taylor (featured heavily in NFB 5).

It would be too easy to let journalists off the hook by listing the powerful constraints circumscribing their independence and integrity. If they cannot stand up to power, and for what is right, fair enough--but then please do not present yourselves as though you are, something Taylor (or indeed the deeply flawed Liam Clarke) never fail to do. Also, many journalists need no prompting to sell their souls, and did so even before 'Death on the Rock', as the 1970s disinformation campaigns orchestrated by Colin Wallace in Northern Ireland (that he later came clean about) amply showed.

We have a SPIJ continuum, whereby SPIJ is more or less obvious. The more obvious, the less it is SPIJ, merely police/state PR, along the lines of 'Police, Camera, Action' or police-friendly dramas like The Bill/MI5-friendly Spooks. One hypothesis is that ever anxious to neutralise and recuperate genuine investigative reporters, they are steered towards scoops by sections of the state, to the annoyance of those always following the party line. Over time, they may come to 'expect' such favours, thus their critical antennae wither away-could this explain the careers of David Rose & Martin Bright? Another hypothesis is the SPIJ quotient in journalists output varies over time, especially given personnel changes on TV production teams. Andrew Bell, for example, was on World In Action, but now graces Panorama with his 'unique expertise' in this area. A third possibility is that some journalists are dodgy from start to finish. Ken Hyder or Mark Macaskill spring to mind here, as does David Shayler, apparently a journalist before he joined MI5 (officially anyway), and then there is Yvonne Ridley, whose adherence to ethical and independent investigative journalism rings as true as her conversion to Islam. Each hypothesis probably has something going for it, depending on those involved.

SPIJ is not quite the same as state-sponsored investigative journalism, the term 'compromised' is more nuanced and apprehends reality better for encompassing variation--for example levels of compromise, and whether such arises from individual personnel, story ideas, funding constraints or at the commissioning level. While much has been implicit anyway, it is worth restating just why SPIJ is a problem:

1) Some important issues of fundamental concern to ordinary people don't get covered. If they do not fit state agendas, or do offend political correctness they are far more likely to be excluded from consideration and hence screening. Off the top of my head, nation-wide council policies of rehousing problem tenants (including drug dealers) by paying other local authorities over the odds to take them is a widespread scandal that has never featured critically in any serious investigation I'm aware of. Nor has the reality of councils off-loading their housing responsibilities to Housing trusts. Then there is the whole range of social policy issues arising from the utterly unaccountable and outrageous activities of some social workers and family courts. Bob Geldof's October 2004 Channel Four programmes skirled round such matters, and dozens of other investigative documentaries should be made. But probably won't. Especially not any comparing the obsequious silence concerning the Blair's 'family problems' in 2004 with the way other families 'at risk' are treated by Social Services. The rise of 'Fathers 4 Justice' proves a general point-nobody viewing the politically correct documentary output of major UK TV channels could have anticipated the development of F4J. While it is palpable New Labour lying over Iraq has been covered, scandals such as Donnygate and numerous Labour corruption examples, not least those involving Blair's inner circle and property purchases, have never received the attention they should. Past Tory sleaze (and their ongoing Archer problem) have rightly been high-lighted: but it seems New Labour are not going to get equivalent coverage. The fall of David Blunkett in December 2004 is exceptional in this respect, and he could well be forgiven for thinking initially he could brazen it out, given the precedents.

2) Secret state agencies are not properly held to account, many damaging stories never reach commissioning stage: for instance the ways in which the secret state has long subverted and disrupted those opposing the EU, extensively covered in NFB 4. Even more pertinent, the 1999 situation whereby Nazi nail-bomber David Copeland acted under license from both MI5 and Special Branch, for which no-one has been brought to book, yet. Every now and then something slips through, like the murder of Hilda Murrell, but even there nobody has yet been brought to book. More characteristically, sensitive stories (such as the state interest in the Welsh 1980s Meibion Glyndwr arson campaign) get on screen only in ways that make various state factions look good, and in a bitty fragmented manner. In relation to Meibion Glyndwr this point will be fully explored in NFB as soon as practicable. The appearance of secret state accountability via the media substitutes for the substance. How about, for example, undercover infiltration of local Special Branch operations, family courts, the Cabinet, an MI5 cell or indeed the deliberations of national newspaper editors? Thought not....

3) Even when useful and relevant material is covered, it is often not done so in a way that engages with ordinary people, or is indeed properly researched. Too often (and we're moving into Jon Ronson/Louis Theroux territory here) the subject matter is merely a back drop for subjective musings by tedious presenters. A series classically combining both these weaknesses was BBC2's 'Drugland' offering January 2005. A visit to Manchester by Sarah O'Connell merely resulted in footage of addicts getting stoned, plus anodyne references to the 'supply chain' and vapid talking head clips from local police. How much more interesting if O'Connell had explored the contention in Peter Walsh' 'Gang War' that Manchester police themselves introduced crack to the area. O'Connell's show was trumped by the hilarious next instalment when the 'undercover camera crew' visited Ibiza, without local police protection, and got seen off by street-wise Scousers [125]. Without state guidance, many so-called investigative journalists lack originality or even competence, never mind detailed local knowledge. Hence there is often considerable dissonance between local reality and state-limited journalism, a criticism pertinent to 'Secret Agent', as will be seen.

4) The staple use of agent provocateur techniques, especially against political 'outsiders', may well rebound on those routinely using them to secure stories determined in advance rather than undertake genuine investigation. This has often been so with programmes/media offensives directed against the animal liberation movement for example. Viewers are often cleverer than shoddy programmes take them for, in terms of spotting set-ups.

5) Substituting infiltration for genuine investigation, rather than having the two go hand in hand (if needs be), means story-lines are determined (or at least circumscribed) in advance, rather than arising from an iterative interaction between scrutineer, subject and evidence. Stories not readily amenable to infiltration, such as complex causal processes and phenomena are either excluded or debased. To my knowledge (and not just due to predominantly Europhile TV channels) there have been virtually no rigorous programmes on the EU's proposals for ever more state control of citizenry. Regarding infiltration, once a decision is made to commit resources/personnel to such an operation, everything becomes skewed to finding (or manufacturing) evidence of criminality, even if petty and unrelated to the supposed investigative focus. A Channel Four 'Dispatches' programme on the Post Office-Third Class Post'-transmitted 29/4/04 exemplifies this. Six months later C4 admitted that a Royal Mail casual employee filmed boasting about stealing a credit card from the post had obtained it elsewhere, and tried to sell it off (not on) Royal Mail premises as implied. Furthermore, a widely-used photo advertising the programme showing a Royal Mail casual worker stealing money from a birthday card was in fact a 'mock-up' (i.e. fake), and no such activities were ever filmed [126], Similarly, a BBC 'Whistleblower' programme, screened 4/11/04 seems to have had similar failings—in the words of respected rail commentator Christian Wolmar "because the BBC invested six months of effort, with three undercover reporters, it had to produce a film. But their pickings were thin indeed: various employees who behaved badly such as passing off stolen credit cards and getting drunk, and a few stories that might have made the inside pages of regional newspapers" [127].

6) The high priority given by SPIJ to uncovering criminality as opposed to less sensational and more complex stories inevitably means there is a tendency for journalists to rely not just on the methods and information police can supply, but also those of more straightforward gangsters. In case that sounds too dramatic, consider the career of James Raven, an undercover reporter who will not be receiving any awards imminently. Raven worked for 'Macintyre Undercover' and (fittingly) 'Crooked Britain' as well as Channel Four's 'Sleepers' on a £40,000 per year salary, it seems likely he was hired not despite a prison sentence for violence, but because of it. Indeed, he even has a tattoo stating 'psychopath' on his body, a characteristic displayed fully when (in a drug debt dispute) he led a gang who tortured a drug-dealer to death in front of his family, leaving him with 123 different injuries [128]. Raven is most likely the tip of an ice-berg that conventional media will avoid no matter how large it is.

7) By passing off state-compromised (or even sponsored) research as 'investigative journalism' the meaning, and certainly possibility, of the latter is corroded. There is a world of difference between following up leads and slavishly conforming to state agendas without informing viewers of that fact. The programmes that cause us concern are not peripheral, chosen to suit our own critical agenda-they are lauded in the industry. Thus, the Royal Television Society (hereafter RTS) declared Donal Macintyre 'Presenter of the Year' for 1999. The BBC Report for 1999-2000 boasted that "Macintyre Undercover extended the frontiers of investigative journalism". Though in true Orwellian style, the recent apologia by then Director General Greg Dyke [129] has no mention of Macintyre. Not too surprising — Dyke probably sussed Macintyre and passed him to Channel Five with minimum fuss before the BBC's reputation became even more tarnished. If Macintyre is now almost a non-person at the BBC, Peter Taylor certainly isn't: his deeply flawed 'True Spies' meant he was RTS 'Journalist of the Year' 2002. Others whose stars still ascend include former Macintyre producers Simon Ford and Karen Wightman.

SECRET AGENT IN SPIJ CONTEXT

Secret Agent producer Simon Ford is no shrinking violet, often seizing the opportunity to defend (or attempt to) the 'integrity' of his output [130]. An opportunity we at NFB offer him too. Ford has fingers (tentacles?) in many production pies, some simultaneously. Therefore a critique is necessary, and overdue. It is neither possible nor necessary to cover Ford's whole 'opus', the focus is on relevant items. Of prime importance is Ford producing the second 'Macintyre Investigates' series, screened April/May 2002. A later episode—on abandoned babies—(30/3/04) was directed by close associate Karen Wightman. Bearing in mind Gwynne's recording equipment malfunctioned at crucial moments, consider this analysis from last NFB of the fact Macintyre's technology too was non-operational at a crucial moment when he was waiting in a Brixton housing estate at night for a contact to return. "A disjointed soundtrack means we cannot determine whether Macintyre was (or was not) urging the man to procure illegal substances and/or sexual partners, far more likely scenarios than waiting around for a phone" [131]. Is this happening twice on Ford programmes mere coincidence-or a dishonest methodology? You decide...Then there is Ford's crucial involvement as Executive Producer of the June/July 2003 series 'Fighting the War' using footage from nine film crews 'embedded' with British forces in Iraq. 'Secret Agent' producer Karen Wightman (along with Neil Grant) was another Director/Producer on this series too. It is not just that for 'embedded' read 'entombed' integrity-wise, Ford (or Wightman) would never have been considered for such a sensitive role if the secret state did not consider them 'one of us'-he would have had to undergo 'positive (security) vetting' for a start [132]. While Ford did show a different story than the official one concerning the death of a Royal Marine by 'friendly fire', this no more makes him a radical than the military sources who supplied the scoop. Ford is no sentimentalist--he justified screening an allegation Sky News reporter James Furlong had faked a news report on the grounds it.....

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FOOTNOTES TO THE ABOVE EXTRACT

120) registered number 281, codename 'George' (Press Gazette 28/7/00 p. 13)
121) transmitted 7/9/04, see also Sunday Times 5/9/04 (Michelle Cox)
122) Brian McNair 'News and Journalism in the UK' (Routledge 2003) p.87
123) Richard Lindley 'Panorama' Politicos 2002 p.344-5
124) see BBC News On-Line 16/9/04
125) programmes transmitted 5/1/05 & 6/1/05 respectively, Executive Producer Fiona Stourton.
126) Joint Statement issued 5/11/04 (clever timing) by Channel Four/Hardcash Productions/Royal Mail. Also Daily Telegraph 6/11/04 (Tom Leonard).
127) (London) Evening Standard 5/11/04. See also feature article that day by Patrick Sawyer.
128) (Liverpool) Daily Post (Carl Butler), The Guardian (Mark Oliver), Daily Telegraph (Nigel Bunyan)-all 19/8/04
129) 'Inside Story' (Harper Collins/2004)
130) for example see Ford's input into Media Guardian 27/10/03 (Oliver Plunkett) & Daily Telegraph 22/7/04 (Patrick Stoddart).
131) Micky Droy NFB issue 5 2003 p.49
132) 'Fighting the War' BBC Press Release 30/5/03

 

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About NFB Magazine

Welcome to Britain's premier parapolitical investigative magazine Notes from the Borderland (NFB). We have been producing the magazine since 1997 but some published material before then.

Our political perspective is Left/Green, but we welcome truth-tellers, whatever their affiliation. Research interests include the secret state (MI5/MI6/Special Branch, now SO15) & their assets, including those in the media. We are resolutely anti-fascist, and to that end investigate the far right and state infiltration of various milieus. In a shallow age where many TV programmes and print/internet stories are spoon-fed to servile journalists/bloggers by shadowy interests, NFB stands out as genuine investigative research. 

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