Policing London: How eight BBC journalists spent a year embedded with the Met Police

For a year from September 2013, the BBC had a team of journalists embedded with the Metropolitan Police. Four teams of two (self-shooting producers and assistant producers) shadowed different parts of the force over this period. The filming has culminated in a five-part series, broadcast on Monday nights at 9pm on BBC One.

According to the BBC, with three episodes down and two to go, interest in the programme has increased weekly, with the latest attracting 3.7m viewers.

Here, Press Gazette asks executive producers Aysha Rafaele, head of documentary production, and Fergus O’Brien about how the documentary series came about, what they were and weren't allowed to film and what it was like working with the Met Police.

Why was the Met Police interested in working on this documentary series?

Rafaele: If you’re an institution like that… and you’ve got a commissioner like Sir Bernard who’s making a public declaration of transparency, you’re probably thinking to yourself…  actually, what would happen if we were to open our doors and we were a bit more transparent and people could see what we do? Not to control the impression of what we do, but if we just let people in.

I think it was a risk on their part, I absolutely do think it was a risk, because they don’t know us from Adam. They don’t know what kind of films we might make, they don’t know what we might find, because the thing about policing is most of the situations you can’t actually control – it goes from a state of calm to madness in seconds.

So they wouldn’t necessarily have known that we would do something where their officers might actually be revealed to be incredibly dedicated to their work – they wouldn’t have known that.

Did you have many access issues with the Met?

Rafaele: It’s quite complicated when you do secret, undercover stuff that’s operationally sensitive. So I would say the biggest driver in what we didn’t have access to was: ‘Well, how can we give you our operational stuff because if you really embed with counter-terrorism in a meaningful way then everyone will know what we’re doing, and, actually, no – great that you’re doing the Met, but not for us, thank you.’

What sort of areas have you been interested in for the series?

Rafaele: [We tired] to follow stuff where you will have unfolding actuality that happens in real time over a period of time that you can then, as a viewer, be watching and engaging…

A lot of what they do is long-term investigations that are going to take an incredibly long time – there’s nothing to see, there’s someone sitting at a computer screen, or making a few phone calls.

Journalistically, I would find it fascinating if I read a big article about this particular unit. In terms of observational film making, it would be just like watching paint dry.

Over the last couple of years, around £34m has been spent by the Met Police on investigating journalists under operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta, etc. Was there any interest in this?

Rafaele: From my understanding of that, I think a lot of that is to do with what has actually ended up in the courts. So it would have to be the court that gave us access… So in fact I do remember there was a moment whilst we were filming – it might even have been Rebekah herself – something was taking place and I remember thinking: yeah, it would be great if we could follow this but it’s actually got nothing to do with the police work now – it’s got beyond, it’s actually to do with the criminal justice system.

And if I’m being honest – is this a bad thing to say? – journalists being investigated is fascinating for journalists, and for the majority of the population I think they would think [care about]: my house being burgled, my son getting killed, those things…and I think we might have been criticised if we were overly thinking about management and about press and media.

And what about the Met’s press office and dealings with the media?

Rafaele: They were very supportive. I’ve got to say about the press office there, I think that’s actually one of the most challenging jobs to have – it’s a difficult institution because the of the level of media scrutiny that it comes under, because of the level of expectation from the public.

And did the Met or the Met’s press office have the chance to approve your programming?

Rafaele: No, because we have a clear contract at the BBC we have with all institutions – never waver from it, because that’s our editorial policy – and it says clearly, and this is the conversation we had with management board, which is: BBC retains editorial control. It’s as simple as that. You can’t tell us, we’ve filmed something and you don’t like it, or my bum looks big in this kind of thing. You can’t do things like that. Or: ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to say that, I meant to say that.’ You can’t do that.

What we get is what we get. But we offer what we call viewings for factual accuracy – and that’s actually standard practice in telly, and especially with institutions.

O’Brien: It’s really helpful to us because they’re really complicated cases, so it’s really useful to us in legal terms to have them cast their eye over it.

How much of your filming has been discarded for legal reasons?

Rafaele: Yes, we have filmed things that we cannot show and they’ll always be because of either the person that we’ve filmed couldn’t give informed consent ordidn’t want to give informed consent.

O’Brien: Obviously if they’ve committed a crime and they’re convicted for that crime then we don’t need their consent. And that’s fine as long as they don’t get released and then reoffend. There were always legal things.

Rafaele: Big stories, in fact, that we had to abandon. Even the programme on Monday there’s a story in it that we really would like to have been able to air, but we can’t for legal reasons…  so it’s never to do with the Met, actually, it’s always to do with – we have a very robust legal system in this country and the BBC has quite rigorous standards, so however much we desire to do something, we can’t.

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