Tricks or deception?
Following on last
month's comment about the need for reliable information this
month's comment is on an issue we would like to sound-off about personally.
It's the question of when tricks of the trade become deception of the
There seems to be a regular habit now by many broadcasters,
who for various reasons cannot obtain the" real thing", to substitute
an artificial creation but not make this clear to the audience. The issue
is linked to attitudes to openness as with the Australian cash-for-comment
enquiry (See RNW April 3
and March 29 ) but also,
we would suggest, to one where it's considered allowable to hoodwink the
audiencewith the real sin to be caught at it. This it seems to us, can
in a very short time destriy trust which has taken years to build and
is more akin toe asset-striping than good broadcasting. It may not matter
that much in some areas but where news and current affairs are concerned
or where drama purports to represent something akin to the whole truth,
it's a serious matter. And it's even worse in those countreis that consider
themselves to be bastions of freedom and democracy. After all, how many
people anywhere would take serious the recent "vote" by Iraqi
journalists naming president Hussein's son, Uday, the "Journalist
of the Century?" But what of the situation when a major Western broadcaster
puts out programmes, soundbites or pictures which are not what they seem
to be and are portrayed as? Then, to paraphrase, it becomes "Experience
you can't trust!"
What we do do!
So what is done wrong? And how far is
there anything new? The second is easlier to answer. New digital technology
makes manipulation of both audio and pictures frighteningly easy compared
to the situation only a few years ago. People can be moved in still
picturesc (done by reputable British broadsheet newspapers), backgrounds
can be changed or incidents faked in television (done by major US networks).
interviews can be totally invented (done by one British tabloid whose
then editor now heads a major UK radio company) and so on.
In one sense this would seem to make the habit of giving the impression
that a show is "live" when in fact it is pre-taped seem a
minor infringement. To us it's part and parcel of the problem and shame
on the BBC which according to a recent report by UK Times Radio correspondent
Peter Barnard seems to think it's fine. The idea is that the show is
called "as live" on the basis that there's no editing done
-- except it would seem apart from cutting out errors, libels, bad language
and so on(and what else?) The approach to honesty is like
being a little describing someone as being partly virgin or something
as partly unique.
What we should do.
We would suggest here that the first requirement is an
honesty of approach. If you're putting out docu-dama with a Hollywood
approach to reality, call it drama and be more straightforward about
how loosely it is based on fact. If you're putting out a programme as
being live, do it live! If you're pretaping and not editing, it should
have a live feel anyway if the production's good and there should be
no major drawbacks in putting it out as taped (how about, "taped
live before an audience at..." for example).
To us most of the examples so far are so obvious to those serious about
ethics as to be no-brainers. But what about those techniques which in
print are perfectly acceptable such as summarising accurately the content
of someone's remarkswhereas in radio we prefer to broadcast the actual
Well if a radio reporter summarises well, it's good reporting. If, however,
the editing room floor is littered with subjunctive clauses and other
content which would totally change the impression of a major politician,
then it's dishonest (Honest confession here -this writer once had
a significant argument over refusing to do just that kind of editing
of comments by a British cabinet minister; the minister's content was
fine but it took him 200 words to say what a reporter could put down
fairly in about 40.)
What is acceptable?
On the other hand, what about comments by people where the genuine actuality
might hold them up unfairly to scorn. If someone has a speech impediment,
does everything have to be left in, even if it gets in the way of a
fair understanding of what the person involved has to say? (Another
honest confession here. I took out about 30 "ums" and "Ers"
in a soundbite from a British boxer, leaving only around ten in the
45 seconds or so broadcast. I thought it was fair. The man didn't come
over as a model of clarity but as someone who had something to say but
was a bit stumbling about it. The meaning was the same and so, I would
content, was the impression since in a face-to-face situation, gestures
and so on had removed some of the impact of the hesitations). From
that you'll gather we think there is room for different reactions in
different cases. It's the principle that matters and to us that should
be to be as fair, honest and open as you can be. Many broadcasters don't
even seem to think about the deeper issues and many presenters and reporters
are far too concerned with boosting their careers through hype and controversy
to worry about the long term effects if that also means being unfair
or dishonest. Any comments from you?