FORD, HEWLETT & THOMPSON ON TV DOCUMENTARIES:YOU'RE HAVING A LAUGH!
Overleaf is an article Broadcast magazine (Lisa Campbell, Deputy Editor) suggested we write following Notes from the Borderland (NFB) magazine's intervention at the Royal Television Society awards 24/02/05. Despite contacting us in the first place, Broadcast instead ran a fawning profile of increasingly ludicrous Donal Macintyre.
Since we wrote the piece, the state of documentary journalism has hardly improved. Indeed, the fact this festival's keynote Q & A session is 'produced' by Simon Ford underlines perfectly the extent to which genuine non-state compromised documentaries are out of fashion. No matter that there have been cosmetic changes to BBC Governance (one thing ex-Panorama Editor Steve Hewlett got right), the key problem of poor output quality continues. Simon Ford is a symptom of that. Ford's ouevre includes: police nark Donal Macintyre's second lamentable 'Investigates' series (2002); 'Fighting the War' (2003) using footage from crews embedded (entombed) with British forces in Iraq; and 'Secret Policeman', all critically examined in NFB issue 6. So, the incestuous Spectacle 'The DG & The Doc' has one ex-Panorama Editor Hewlett interviewing another ex-Panorama Editor, BBC Director General Mark Thompson. How unfortunate if one of Thompson's examples of good TV journalism is Ford's 'Secret Agent', the programme systematically demolished in NFB 6. Even more unfortunate if Ford has recruited Jason Gwynne to show delegates local mosques after a pub visit.
Steve Hewlett's finest hour came as Editor of Martin Bashir's Panorama interview with Princess Diana, broadcast 20/11/95 and attracting Panorama's highest ever audience of 22.8 million. The programme became infamous when news leaked out about the backroom skullduggery involved in making the programme. Bashir ordered Matthew Wiessler (Panorama graphics artist) to forge bank statements implying a plot to bump off Diana. Andrew Morton wrote that she did "the interview because she was terrified of the implications of those bank statements. She genuinely thought her life was in danger." ('Diana in Pursuit of Love' 2004). Interesting ethics, especially as a case could be made that this very interview hastened Diana's end. Forger Bashir referred all queries to Editor Hewlett, who defended Bashir. Hewlett told three concerned BBC veterans (Killick, Mangold & Dean) seeking an explanation, "I don't see why it's any of your fucking business" (Richard Lindley 'Panorama' 2002). Maybe he had a point-forgeries were crucial to Panorama's 1993 & 1994 programmes on ex-football manager Terry Venables, leading to writs flying around like BBC redundancy notices. Nonetheless, given his role covering up for Bashir, should chairing a session on the state of TV documentaries really be Hewlett's "fucking business"?
Current Director General Mark 'Gnasher' Thompson recently claimed that "BBC journalism (is) currently going through a golden period' and 'investigative journalism (is) alive and well post Hutton"(LSE lecture 14/4/2005). News to us mate! In the most recent Panorama (9/10/05) 'Blair v Blair' an otherwise interesting analysis of new anti-Terrorism laws was turned into pantomime with actors pretending to be the nation's favourite yuppie couple given a facile, unnatural script - more 'Sunset Beach' than Peter Kosminsky. Crass populist personalisation of politics, not much bettered by 'A Right Royal Shambles' (2/10/05) about Charles & Camilla. What next for Panorama and the hysterical Vivian White? Ceaucescu v Ceaucescu? or Peter v Jordan (presented by Natasha Kaplinsky)? Steve Hewlett should be wary interviewing the DG-in 1988 Gnasher, then an editor on BBC Nine O'Clock News, hungrily went for fellow journalist Anthony Massey - "he just bit me in the arm for no reason". 9.30 am is a bit early for munchies-had he just seen Kate Moss? One for the Animal Hospital!
Undeterred by us taking apart his (2003) True Spies' documentaries in NFB issue 5, Peter Taylor returned to the fray with the 'New Al Qaeda' (2005). A right horlicks too--revealing (shock!) the internet extends to Iraq, and running a trial by TV of jailed Babar Ahmed, including intrusive and dishonest interviews with the man's family. No surprise--Taylor's head is so far up the secret state's intestine it nearly pokes out the top end...
No SIDF would be complete without the perennial preening figure of Roger Graef, affectionately known as 'Graef of the Yard'. At the start of his career somewhat critical of the police, more recently avuncular journocop Graef has been glamourising the hardly photogenic British Transport Police in the Rail Cops comedy series.
We would welcome a radical restructuring and re-orientation of current affairs and TV documentaries, so as to build a genuine non-state compromised sector. Possible with the current license fee arrangement? Maybe not....
To trace the roots and some branches of the real problem afflicting TV documentary, avail yourself of the NFB Broadcast Journalism pack (£10.00) including:
* NFB 3 critiquing pseudo-investigative journalist Donal Macintyre
* NFB 5 featuring Peter Taylor's True Spies and Macintyre update
* NFB 6 on Secret Agent where we enunciate/explain the new concept (pioneered by NFB) of SPIJ, State-compromised Pseudo-Investigative Journalism (media students take note).
We remain willing to take on antagonists in open debate. If Simon Ford & the motley crew involved in police sourced 'Secret Agent' want to defend themselves in public, we will happily oblige. After all, having recently debated with ex-MI5 agent David Shayler (DVD available either this weekend or via www.borderland.co.uk), wannabe spooks will be even less of a problem. La Lotta Continua. 14/10/05
THE ARTICLE BROADCAST MAGAZINE ASKED FOR BUT WOULDN'T DARE PRINTA CRITIQUE OF CONTEMPORARY TV DOCUMENTARIES BY DR LARRY 0'HARA
Since inception (1997), Notes From the Borderland (NFB) magazine has been concerned about dire so-called 'investigative journalism' on screen and in print. Certainly, excellent work is produced-Anna Halls The Edge of the City' and (to a lesser extent) Adam Curtis' 'The Power of Nightmares' lit up a poor 2004. We do not hanker after a halcyon golden age (remembering the sometimes disgraceful 'World in Action'), but contend that especially since Death on Rock (1988) there has been a growing tendency for programme makers to compromise their independence by working too closely with state agencies in particular. The Royal Television Society (RTS) honouring Panorama on Hutton was fair enough, but the much publicised BBC:government spat over Gilligan/Kelly is not the whole story. Parallel to headline confrontations, at the operational level of day to day programme-making seedy compromises and shabby 'investigations' abound, including (from the Panorama stable) the truly pathetic Rageh Omar special on 'knife culture'. Less evidence (and style) than a John Scarlett dossier. While Crimewatch is no problem (WYSIWYG) one milestone in the degeneration of TV journalism was the lamentable Macintyre Undercover series, extensively analysed in NFB issues 3 4 & 5. A classic example of what we now call 'SPIJ'--State-compromised Pseudo-Investigative Journalism, a baser form of spin. Scandalously, in the football hooligan programme Macintyre went to great lengths to pretend information acquired from the Police Football Intelligence Unit was obtained independently. Predictably, neither Macintyre nor his entourage have responded to our criticisms. That Macintyre is now reduced to acting as a Channel 5 police game show host doesn't excuse his earlier activities, which secured a 1999 RTS nomination. While Macintyre is marginal, not so Peter Taylor, RTS award winner 2002, and nominated this year. The 2003 BBC Report stated "Taylor's dogged pursuit of truth in the secret world of True Spies helped him to gain the RTS award for TV journalist of the Year". Only dogged up to a point-as our NFB 5 dissection showed, a crucial but fatally flawed series, pulling factual punches and accepting secret state disinformation unchallenged. Taylor's team lacked the ability-or perhaps inclination~to undertake independent research we showed can be done.
When it came to our attention that Simon Ford/Karen Wightman were behind the 2004 BBC 'Secret Agent' programme infiltrating the British National Party, we took a close look at them, resulting in the (very) recent NFB 6 analysing Ford's oeuvre in the round, including Secret Agent. As anti-BNP propaganda Secret Agent was so woeful it inspired BNP Leader Nick Griffin to stand in Keighley (heavily featured) in the forthcoming General Election. An own-goal of Steven Gerard proportions. The revamped BBC Producer Guidelines Secret Agent was touted as applying do nothing to encourage genuinely independent and rigorous non-state compromised investigative journalism, and are thus irrelevant at best. A central premise of Secret Agent's story-line was, we argue, fundamentally dishonest. The screened confession by one racist to participation in an assault during the 2001 Bradford Riots was fantasy, a fact already known to the police (who questioned him) programme consultants (who wrote about the assault in 2001) and even the courts (who jailed somebody else for it). Our central point is that what makes good TV from a Southern metropolitan perspective is not necessarily received the same way up North.
SPIJ is a problem (to abbreviate our NFB 6 critique which gives examples) because (1) Complex & new issues are not covered until very late-e.g. Fathers 4 Justice (2) Secret state agencies are not properly held to account (3) Useful material is often covered in a drab derivative way-such as the awful Panorama (27/2) on Scottish football (4) Staple use of agent provocateur techniques is counter-productive (5) Too often, substituting infiltration for investigation oversimplifies and trivialises complex issues (6) Prioritising a search for criminality debases and demeans potentially interesting stories, and can reduce journalists (literally in the Ford/Wightman case) to what we call 'Journo-Cops'. (7) By passing off state-compromised (or even sponsored) research as 'investigative journalism' the meaning, and even possibility, of the latter is corroded. NFB iconoclastically uses stark phrases and images (Journo-cop) to kick-start a complacent media into self-examination.
It is unfair to simplistically blame just those working in the industry for product deficiencies-any pitch has to conform to the overall Zeitgeist, the creation of which is also the responsibility of players such as government, global corporations, print media and the burgeoning academic 'media community'. It is a sorry comment on TV journalism that there is little sustained critical reflective work undertaken. Instead, we get endless awards, self-promotional advertising, fawning uncritical profiles and the like. Various 'viewer participation' programmes are tokenistic and heavily circumscribed. The ever-expanding media sections of newspapers (especially the Guardian and Independent) are too often full of industry PR, and reluctant to even gently nibble the corporate hand that feeds them.
NFB is grateful to Broadcast for allowing us to sketch our perspective, even if we cannot here fully substantiate it given length constraints. Let debate (battle) commence! Notes From the Borderland can be contacted/obtained via www.borderland.co.uk copyright Larry O'Hara 2005 Notes from the Borderland, BM4769, London WC1N 3XX