Magazine article The Spectator

Dishonesty in Television May Arise from Lofty Principle: But It Still Bears the Devil's Fingerprint

Magazine article The Spectator

Dishonesty in Television May Arise from Lofty Principle: But It Still Bears the Devil's Fingerprint

Article excerpt

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.

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 The God of Truth has been replaced by the God of Essential Truth: truer, and at a deeper level, than that boring, plonking, pedestrian old thing, the literal truth.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 DirectorGeneral of the BBC, faced the problem square-on. Jeremy Paxman berated 'ratingschasing' and a consequent failure of moral drive. Mark Thompson wants programmemakers 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. …

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