This is sexy TV journalism

A fortnight ago about 200 of Britain’s finest television journalists gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Panorama, the world’s longestrunning current affairs programme and a true broadcasting institution, right up there with Coronation Street, The Archers and soon-to-vanish News at 10.

Watching The Best of Panorama reminded me that there’s nothing wholly original in television journalism; the best ideas seem to come round in cycles.

Current affairs has always strived to keep up with the changing tastes of the television viewer.

Alongside the hallmark political analysis and interviews, Panorama was not above a bit of TV-gimmickry and sensationalism.

In one clip, Richard Dimbleby used a studio projector to illustrate the perils of driving on the right. In another, a cleaning lady gave us her perspective on the British economy. Then there was the notorious April Fool report on the Swiss spaghetti harvest – you wouldn’t get away with that these days – and who can forget the most sensationalist Panorama of all time, the interview with the Princess of Wales? Despite their best efforts, classic current affairs programmes such as Panorama, Dispatches are having a pretty rough time, while the latelamented World in Action has gone.

In the pursuit of higher ratings and younger viewers broadcasters have generally turned away from seriousminded analysis or investigation in favour of a more accessible and entertaining observational approach to reporting on contemporary life.

The new stars of the factual television are the format shows – manipulated observational programmes such as Faking It, The 1900 House or most notably Wife Swap.

Even shows such as The Salon – the hairdressing reality programme – are held up as television’s latest version of social analysis. Channel 4 chief executive Mark Thompson called it a “unique insight into the world of work”.

Ten years ago, journalists ruled the roost in factual programming – today it’s dominated by people with a background in entertainment and popular culture.

There is, however, one particular area of current affairs which seems to consistently hold its own alongside more populist fare. It’s the high-risk but controversial world of undercover investigation.

Undercover television has experienced a renaissance in the past five years or so – a renaissance symbolised by the Radio Times cover shot of a shirtless Donal MacIntyre being kitted up with concealed microphones and a miniature camera.

This is television journalism at its sexiest: it’s got gadgets, it’s got hunky guys in peril and, best of all, it delivers truly sensational scoops and catches villains red-handed. The Secret Policeman on BBC One last month was a case in point. Mark Daly’s excellent exposé of the racist values of a small and hopefully unrepresentative group of police cadets was a terrific piece of television journalism and the audience were gripped by it too.

The programme picked up about five million viewers – 20 per cent of the available audience share. Compare that with Panorama in the same week, which attracted just 2.3 million viewers and a 12 per cent share of the audience.

Undercover filming is already the staple of consumer journalism (House of Horrors, Rat Trap, Britain’s Worst etc) but it is fast becoming the staple of current affairs too. Kenyon Confronts- a kind of Undercover Lite – is now in its third series on BBC One. On Five we decided to take our current affairs undercover this year, which was why we hired MacIntyre to become the face of our topical output. His shows now occupy our 9pm slot, which means we expect them to deliver the same kind of ratings as Hollywood movies.

Undercover television journalism works because it delivers strong journalism in a highly dramatic way. It has all the excitement and thrill of a “caught on camera” show, but with a serious social purpose at heart. It also casts the reporter as a campaigning hero. In short, it’s by far the sexiest way to tackle worthy and potentially dull issues.

The undoubted commercial appeal of undercover TV journalism does come at a price. These shows are not cheap to make. They are time consuming and frequently fail to deliver the goods. They are also beset by ethical and legal problems.

By definition an undercover investigation is designed to expose something nasty or illegal which someone somewhere doesn’t want exposed.

Often, as in the case of The Secret Policemen, secret filming is the only way to get to the truth and for that reason it’s a vital tool in the armoury of the television journalist. But secret filming is also an invasion of someone’s privacy – in effect a form of entrapment justified by public interest.

In any normal current affairs exposé the accused is generally given the opportunity to defend themselves, but that is rarely the case in undercover investigation. The target of secret filming is usually not invited to put their side of the story until after they see themselves on television.

Even the police are kept out of the frame before the programme is broadcast and for a very good reason.

The police can be exceptionally touchy about journalists doing their jobs for them or, worse still, exposing their shortcomings. One arrest or charge can scupper an investigation and keep an embarrassing programme off air for years. That’s why the BBC was reluctant to hand over tapes to the Greater Manchester Police prior to transmission.

In these circumstances, undercover journalists are in effect the judge, jury and executioner and that’s why they have a special responsibility to be scrupulously fair and balanced. This is not easy when the person collecting the evidence is concealing their identity and often appearing to condone the offences he or she is exposing.

Context is crucial in undercover reporting. The temptation to cherry pick the worst behaviour and the most incriminating images is almost irresistible, but it isn’t fair.

How far should the undercover reporter go with leading questions and other forms of deliberate entrapment? How does he or she maintain scrupulous objectivity when they are witnessing illegal, cruel or offensive behaviour at first hand? These are just some of the dilemmas faced by undercover journalists and the producers and lawyers involved in their programmes. Ultimately, the ends have to justify the means, but who decides if the public interest outweighs the infringement of someone’s right not to be secretly filmed? The answer – in the most controversial cases – is the television regulator or a court of law, but mainly it’s the journalists themselves who make the moral judgement and that really is a responsibility. 

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Alison Hastings

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