Matthew Parris

Dishonesty in television may arise from lofty principle: but it still bears the devil’s fingerprint

A columnist should rejoice, I suppose, when an issue he has spotted early and returned to often suddenly catches fire, becoming the hot topic of the season. I started writing about dishonesty in television about ten years ago, wrote often about it for the Times, and made a programme for BBC Radio 5 Live with precisely this focus.

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My concern was born of direct personal experience. There was something rotten in the business of television programme-making, and it was endemic in the ethos of the small screen rather than (as TV bosses often prefer to insist) the influence of ‘a few bad apples’.

I have written about this now more times than I can remember, and come at it from many angles: repeating (because it has never quite caught the public imagination and I keep hoping that with one more heave it will) the same argument. My argument is that Beelzebub has achieved something more cunning than subverting a few editors and producers into immoral practices driven by ignoble motives. He has persuaded them that what they are doing is good, but for reasons that the ignorant — which is most people — will never understand. This the Evil One has done through the importation into their professional world of a subtly altered moral code. The God of Truth has been replaced by the God of Essential Truth: truer, and at a deeper level, than that boring, plonking, pedestrian old thing, the literal truth.

The insidious nature of the doctrine of Essential Truth first dawned on me more than two decades ago when making (as a Tory MP) a TV documentary about living on the dole for a week in Newcastle. After five days of this my production team persuaded me (I leapt at the proposal) that as we’d recorded all the footage we needed, as my experience had been true, as my change of heart had been true and my distress true, and as the documentary was essentially true, couldn’t we all go home before the seven days were (literally) up?

Well, why not? Did that alter the underlying truth of the experiment? Not a jot. I don’t think any of us felt at the time that we had done anything importantly dishonest; and we’d produced a documentary that said some importantly honest things. But going home early wasn’t the right thing to do, was it?

I repeat this story now because it illustrates why — powerful though his address last week to a television festival in Edinburgh was — I don’t believe Jeremy Paxman’s aim was true; nor that Mark Thompson, writing in the Guardian last week as Director-General of the BBC, faced the problem square-on. Jeremy Paxman berated ‘ratings-chasing’ and a consequent failure of moral drive. Mark Thompson wants programme-makers to attend seminars reminding people of the long-standing ethical purposes of the Corporation.

I’m afraid the problem is deeper, yet simpler, than this. It need have little to do with ratings-chasing or the vulgarity of a programme, for it afflicts the high-minded and low-minded alike. You can make an honest quiz show of the most fatuous kind, and a dishonest nature documentary of a splendidly improving sort (nature documentaries are in fact particularly mendaciously put together).

Nor is the answer a course in corporate ethics. I don’t think Sir David Attenborough needs such a course. When Beelzebub told Sir David that the sound (unrecorded during a long-lens camera-shot) of reindeer hooves in the snow can be reproduced by means of a pestle and mortar and some custard powder, he used an argument calculated to impress a presenter whose personal honesty is unquestioned.

This isn’t about personal morality; it’s about professional rules. True to the highest standards of the public-service ethos of the BBC, you can use licence-payers’ money to send a crew (costly, this) to a distant place in which an appalling massacre has happened which the viewers damn well ought to care about even it they don’t, in hopes both of educating them and bringing the news. But when the crew get there, and see children’s bodies strewn around, and notice also a partially dismembered teddy bear, is it ethical:

(1) To show a shot of the whole scene, including, but incidentally, the soft toy?

(2) To move the camera so that the soft toy is framed poignantly in the foreground, children’s bodies behind?
(3) To move the soft toy into a convenient position for the shot you want?
(4) To bring your own soft toy on the grounds that some of the dead children will undoubtedly have owned teddies, and these teddies will be among the casualties, even if no example can be located on the day in question?

These are not (with great respect to Mr Paxman and Mr Thompson) dilemmas that a heightened consciousness of the publicservice ethos of a broadcaster solves for us. Here’s how to solve them. Let the producer ask himself whether he would mind including a strap across the bottom of the picture, deconstructing it for the viewers’ benefit. Thus for (1) the strap would say ‘corpses plus soft toy as first seen by BBC crew’; for (2) it would say ‘camera angle from behind soft toy selected’; for (3) it would say ‘soft toy moved to construct picture’; and for (4) ‘soft toy supplied by BBC’. I submit that most producers would agree that (1) and (2), though spurious, gave them no problems; (3) or (4) would embarrass them. Problem solved.

I’m not suggesting the actual use of such straps; but the use of an imaginary strap as a mental test. If the producer bridles at the thought of telling the viewer that sequences have been changed, teddies moved, custard-noises used for snow, five days represented as seven, quiz-programme employee passed off as a member of the public phoning in, or whatever, then that’s a fairly good guide to the inappropriateness of the practice. If the documentary-maker would not mind a permanent strap reading ‘literal truth manipulated in order to convey essential truth’, then fine. Otherwise, get thee behind me, Beelzebub.

Far from arising from personal immorality, the dishonest construction of TV programmes often arises from a certain moral loftiness among professional broadcasters, not a million miles from the good, old-fashioned broadcasting notion that the public do not always know what’s best for them, and do not need to know how things are put together, so long as the broadcaster’s purposes are pure. More recently, this attitude has met and meshed with the rather metropolitan attitude that media-savvy modern viewers are not fools, know where TV’s coming from, and do not expect the literal truth. Thus television becomes like the movies — where no cinema-goer supposes (does he?) that Main Street, Hicksville, is anything other than a series of stage-flats propped up from behind by poles. Meshed together these two attitudes merge into the idea that television is movie-making with a public-service purpose. Or that is what Satan would have you believe.

Fine. So enquire of Satan whether he would mind if we spelled this out on the annual licence-fee demand. He would answer that on balance he’d rather we did not. In his answer, we have ours.

Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.