April 2000
Tricks of the trade or deception?

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 audience.
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 remarks..
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?

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