UK Daily Telegraph: Television documentaries must not be manipulated

From: Andrew Johnson

Date: 2008-08-04 20:06:06… Television documentaries must not be manipulated by the state Last Updated: 12:01am BST 03/08/2008  Have your say      Read comments Our revelation that the Government has been funding television documentary series, and monitoring the content before it is broadcast, will come as a shock to many viewers. Certainly, it raises serious questions about the extraordinary readiness of Labour politicians effectively to hijack “documentaries” for use as a propaganda tool. It also highlights the worrying eagerness of television companies to be thus used in exchange for a handsome injection of cash and access. The money for this duplicitous exercise, of course, flows direct from the pockets of the unwitting British taxpayer. advertisement Perhaps the most extreme example uncovered is the ITV documentary series Beat: Life On The Street, which dealt with the experience of police community support officers. Two series have already been broadcast, largely funded by the Home Office at a cost of £400,000 each. During the editing process of the second series the programmes were scrutinised by the Home Office, which suggested changes to language and terminology. News: Inquiry into television shows funded by ministers The sole reference to the Government department’s role was a flash of its logo on an advertisement broadcast before each programme warning viewers of mobile phone theft. In terms of the Home Office’s short-term goals, it worked wonderfully. The effectiveness of community support officers had been widely questioned, but this show took the very best officers – as the programme-maker has since admitted – and portrayed them in a favourable light. Better still, the programme was a ratings hit, to the extent that a third series will be screened next year. The department’s behaviour, however, appears to have broken a number of Ofcom guidelines on “advertiser-funded” programmes. The Home Office was not only directly involved in monitoring the programme’s content, contrary to the rules, but also seemingly failed to render transparent its relationship with the programme-makers. As Ofcom announced an investigation, however, a spokeswoman for the Government’s Central Office of Information (COI) defended the practice thus: “COI aims to help Government departments communicate their services for citizens, achieving maximum communication effectiveness and value for money.” Even if we leave to one side the decidedly Stalinist ring to that statement, it is clear that it refuses point-blank to engage with the issues at stake. It is all very well for a Government department to communicate its “services for citizens”. The question is whether it is ethical to do so by using taxpayers’ money to fund television programmes that foster every appearance of being independently created. At least six additional television shows have been Government-funded in recent years, at a total cost of £2 million. This is not the first time that the Government has overstepped the line between honest persuasion and manipulation. In the run-up to the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, a strategy document was leaked from Tom Kelly, then director of communications in the Northern Ireland Office and later a Downing Street press spokesman. Although the Government was ostensibly neutral, Mr Kelly’s memo advocated commissioning opinion polls and actively suppressing those that were not “helpful to our cause” of a “yes” vote. He also recommended that the Government encourage opinion polling by newspapers and current affairs programmes “where we believe the results are likely to be supportive”. It is, of course, the job of an independent media to resist overt attempts at government control, in particular if they are accompanied by a hefty cash hand-out. But in their headlong rush for high ratings, ample profits and the Holy Grail of “good telly”, television companies are frequently willing to treat their viewers as hapless dupes, as became evident in the recent viewer phone-in scandals. The audience response to television documentaries is based on trust, and trust is once again what has been damaged. The British public will surely be entitled to conclude, with some bitterness, that the most recent revelations discredit our Government and our broadcasters alike.  Have your say       Are you interested in what’s really going on in the world, behind the facade? Then…www.checktheevidence… happened on 9/11?    

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