…faked TV shows?

While faked cookery shows and phone-ins cause controversy, the degradation of truth and objectivity on the news channels attracts little comment.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Nathalie Rothschild wants to know why everyone has a hissy fit over faked cookery shows and phone-ins, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the degradation of truth and objectivity on the news channels.

When it comes to entertainment programmes, ‘fake TV’ is surely an oxymoron. The idea that TV should always be true-to-life, and transparent about its processes of script-writing, direction and editing, defeats the purpose of entertainment. After all, viewers tune in to shows like Born Survivor and Gordon Ramsay’s F Word for some fun and escapism, not for The Truth or for lessons in TV production.

And yet, over the past month, a series of revelations that these and other popular shows have been ‘faked’ has caused a media storm. Production companies have written remorseful letters; media regulators have dished out huge fines against TV fakers; and broadcasters have issued on-air apologies for misleading the public. At the same time as this stink has unfolded, serious news reporting and investigative documentaries continue to become increasingly sensationalist and emotion-driven – and this story has tended to be overlooked.

We need to get our priorities straight: a bit of faking it on entertainment shows is no bad thing, but the transformation of news and serious journalism into ‘infotainment’ and moral posturing is something worth having a hissy fit over.

The integrity of the BBC, RDF Media, Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel has been questioned after each admitted to ‘faulty editing’ and ‘faking scenes’ in recent weeks. A clip showing Queen Elizabeth II walking into a photo shoot with celebrity photographer Annie Leibowitz was re-edited to give the impression that she was actually storming out in a huff. Bear Grylls – star of the Man vs Wild survival show – stayed in a motel in Hawaii when he was meant to be struggling to survive alone on a desert island. Foulmouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay didn’t really spear a sea bass off the Devon coast before grilling it with saffron and fennel over an open fire. The ‘winner’ of a phone-in competition on the children’s programme Blue Peter was actually plucked from the audience by a member of the production staff. And the BBC has admitted using fake phone-in winners on a number of other shows, including charity-fests Children in Need and Comic Relief.

David Frank, head of RDF Media, which produced the BBC documentary A Year with the Queen, has apologised for misrepresenting Her Majesty. The footage in question appeared in a promotional trailer shown only to journalists; it is not included in the actual documentary. The hoo-hah over one touched-up clip is bizarre. After all, one could argue that the whole documentary – which is intended to show the royal family’s real and caring side to the British public – was a work of fakery, just like that documentary in the Seventies which attempted to show the Windsors as an ordinary everyday family.

The US Discovery Channel has promised to ensure that Man vs Wild (which is called Born Survivor on Channel 4 in the UK) is ‘100 per cent transparent’ in the future, and that ‘all elements of the filming will be explained upfront to our viewers’. So as Grylls makes his way back to civilisation after stranding himself in wilderness spots across the world, will he have to tell the viewers what techniques the cameraman used as well as teaching us his bizarre and revolting survival methods (which include eating sheep’s eyeballs and skinning deer)?

As for the Blue Peter phone-in scandal – nearly 40,000 viewers called the premium-rate line, and then the telephone system failed. The researcher who selected a child from the audience and fed her the correct answer, so that she could pose as the winner, surely only showed she can think on her feet. Can we really say Blue Peter conned its viewers? The fact is that all those who phoned in only had a 1 in 40,000 chance of winning anyway, so the chances of them losing out were pretty high from the outset.

Entertainment is supposed to be a little bit fake; that is its nature. The real problem occurs when creative liberties are taken in serious TV programming, such as news coverage. The move over the past decade towards emotionalised, victim-oriented stories in the news has come at the cost of rigid investigative journalism and clear-eyed reporting. When a photo of two polar bears seemingly stranded on an ice floe appeared on the front covers of newspapers around the world a few months ago, it was presented as a snapshot of the dangers of global warming. As spiked revealed, facts about who took the photo, and what it really showed, were widely misrepresented, as the story was presented as an emotional admonishment of humans’ destruction of the planet – see The bear necessities of climate change by Rob Lyons.

Earlier this year, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) launched a police-assisted raid on Dr Mohamed Taranissi’s IVF clinics in London, in tandem with a BBC Panorama programme in which undercover journalists posed as infertile women. Again, spiked revealed how this piece of policing TV was concocted in a less than upfront and honest fashion – see Behind the IVF ‘trial by television’ by Tony Gilland. When regulators cooperate with journalists in order to conduct ‘trials by television’, it is absolutely valid, even paramount, to raise concerns about the possibility of this being ‘faked TV’ and to interrogate the impact it might have on open debate and the future of investigative journalism. Yet many of the commentators who have been outraged by the misrepresentation of the Queen or Ramsay’s dodgy fishing trip overlooked the HFEA/Panorama witch-hunt of Dr Taranissi.

TV entertainment is not real, and nor should it be. Whether or not celebrity chefs, survival freaks and royals catch fish, sleep in jungles or walk off in a huff is pretty irrelevant, so long as the show we end up watching is entertaining. But when sensationalism, emotionalism and a disregard for analysis and facts replace serious and objective news reporting, then, yes, we should loudly demand less phoniness from TV producers.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Read on: Who’s Afraid of…?

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