Carlton Television fakes a documentary about the drugs trade, presenting as the real thing dramatic sequences which were “stunted up” by the programme-makers. Truth is sacrificed on the altar of sensationalism, commercial pressures result in a descent into “tabloid television” and a scramble for ratings. Factual television as a whole is discredited, and we all go to hell in a handcart. Or so The Guardian would have us believe.
The paper’s powerful attack on Carlton’s 1996 documentary, The Connection, has indeed provoked a brisk debate about the ethics of television producers who stage scenes, manipulate events and, in extreme cases, pass off reconstructions as fly-on-the-wall reality.
Marc de Beaufort, The Connection’s producer, stands accused of doing just that. His film purported to reveal from the inside a new heroin smuggling route from Colombia into Britain. Among its more dramatic sequences was an interview with a masked man we were told was number three in the Cali drugs cartel, filmed at a secret location to which the film crew had been taken blindfold.
According to The Guardian, the man was a retired bank cashier and the interview had been filmed in the producer’s hotel bedroom.
Other sequences showed a “mule” swallowing scores of packages of heroin, then flying to Britain within 24 hours as the crew secretly filmed him from an adjoining aircraft seat. On arrival, we were told, he passed undetected through Heathrow.
The Guardian said only eight packages had actually been swallowed and the mule, far from flying instantly to London, had instead been filmed boarding a domestic flight. He’d subsequently flown to Britain six months later, on a ticket bought by de Beaufort and, far from entering the country undetected, had been stopped and deported to Miami.
The case is not a simple one. De Beaufort and his executive producer, Roger James, are standing by the integrity of the film. De Beaufort flatly denies some of The Guardian’s charges and says he’s convinced the people he spoke to were genuine drug dealers: that they denied it when approached by The Guardian is scarcely surprising, he says (though equally one wonders why they agreed to be filmed in the first place by him).
James and de Beaufort have attacked The Guardian’s accuracy. The Guardian quotes the “mule” and the “loader” who fed him the packages of heroin as saying he swallowed only eight. The film-makers’ rushes (which I have seen but The Guardian’s journalists didn’t) show him swallowing many more.
Nonetheless, de Beaufort does admit to having stitched together two different journeys to look like one. His reason was partly to avoid the documentary crew being implicated itself in any actual heroin smuggling; partly to make his film more dramatic and watchable.
Factual programme-makers routinely stage scenes. Politicians walk stiffly up the stairs at 4 Millbank or leaf through papers at their desks and no-one bats an eyelid. But if The Guardian’s charges against Carlton hold water, the company did far more than that, and should not have presented as reality scenes which were, in fact, reconstructions.
If they did, they risked discrediting not only factual programmes but everything else on television, including the commercials. We are all credulous, and inclined to believe the evidence of our own eyes, which is why television is so powerful. But giving viewers the impression they routinely have the wool pulled over their eyes is not the way to build up their trust in what they see and hear.
Much was made in some quarters of the fact that The Guardian’s story appeared the day after the Independent Television Commission’s review praising Carlton. The review was critical of ITV’s factual programming, arguing that too much of it was preoccupied with crime, the emergency services and the paranormal.
It also criticised the network for relying too heavily on drama (notably on Sunday nights) and for a shortage of entertainment programmes.
Since drama does such good business for ITV, the network rather bridled at being told off for giving viewers what they evidently want. But ITV’s weakness in entertainment, especially comedy, is acknowledged on all sides. Quite when and how we can expect an improvement is less clear. For one thing, the network’s new(ish) director of programmes, David Liddiment, is still working his way through a pile of programmes commissioned by his predecessor, Marcus Plantin. Production lead times mean it will be this autumn before we see the first real signs of Liddiment’s input.
Then there is the problem of where to schedule comedy. The network’s main comedy slot is at 8.30pm – too early for the kind of “adult” comedies like Men Behaving Badly or Ab Fab which have proved successful for the BBC.
One of the great benefits of moving News at Ten would be to free a slot at 10pm, well after the 9 o’clock watershed, which could be used for comedies aimed at grown-ups. It might also provide a home earlier in the evening for factual programmes like Carlton’s controversial documentary. One of the flaws in the argument that the Connection represents a ratings-driven tabloid approach to factual television is that the programme originally went out in a late-night slot, where it attracted fewer than 4 million viewers.