The ethics of the edit suite 

15 July 2007

Treasury makes complaint to BBC about Gordon Brown film

Hot on the heels of the Queen/RDF storm in a teacup, Newsnight is apparently in trouble with the Treasury over a piece made by independent film-maker Jamie Campbell in which a couple of clips were transposed, apparently to exaggerate the refusal of Treasury press officers to co-operate. The complaint has been made by the press officer’s manager at the Treasury.

According to the Observer article cited above, this wasn’t simply an example of reshuffling clips to tell the story: it was, in fact, re-ordering the shots to create an incorrect impression, which is rather more serious. According to the Observer, “Campbell gives the impression that the Treasury deliberately targeted him for questioning by police knowing he was making a film for Newsnight. The press officer is shown blocking Campbell from filming Brown as he arrived for an event at Lancaster House on 5 June.” It goes on, “A few moments later the film moves to another evening where Campbell is hoping to film Brown after attending a CBI dinner. Campbell says on the film: ‘But the same Treasury official catches sight of me and makes a phone call. By strange coincidence, within seconds I am being hauled aside and searched by police under the counter-terrorism act.'” The Treasury is upset because the latter event actually took place on 15 May, three weeks earlier.

The article was evidently originally about new guidelines for reality TV programmes, and discusses the fact that BBC Director General Mark Thompson has announced an amnesty for production ‘errors’ committed since January 2005 – assuming the producers own up.

Thompson sent an email to staff on the subject, which Media Guardian reprints here. “Even before the most recent issue involving the Queen,” Thompson writes, “I had asked the directors of vision, journalism and audio & music to work with their senior editorial and creative teams to identify any further issues or incidents of serious intentional or unintentional deception of the audience.”

He goes on, “I am writing to you today to ask you to help and support this process in any way you can. If you know of any further incident, please let us know.” He concludes, “nothing matters more for us than honesty, accuracy and fair dealing with the audience. We must now put our house in order. We cannot allow even a small number of lapses, whether intentional or as a result of sloppiness, to undermine our reputation and the confidence of the public.” DELETE—This is not a simple issue. On the one hand there is the fact that editing video together is a matter of telling the story in the most effective way, and it may well be that maintaining strict chronological order is not the point. However, when it’s a news report or documentary particularly (I mean, let’s forget “reality” shows – we already know they’re fake and the genre should basically cease to be as soon as possible), producers have to remember that they are dealing with real people and real events, and not just raw video material to do with what they will as they tell the story.

In addition, independent production companies in particular find themselves under a great deal of pressure to draw attention to their programme offerings – either when selling to potential buyers like the BBC, or simply winning ratings battles when they finally go on-air – encouraging them to “sex up” the storytelling to make it more attractive to buyers and viewers alike. And that may mean more sensational. Another argument for the BBC making more of its factual programming in-house.

It’s all the more difficult in a commercial TV environment where common practice makes documentary producers feel (unnecessarily, in my view) obliged to summarise the story so far after every break and the actual running time available for new material in each segment is thus even more limited than it might otherwise be.

I have friends who have been in trainee positions at TV production companies where they have been under extreme pressure on very long shifts, up against stringent deadlines, and they have not necessarily received enough training to make editing decisions accurately, especially when they are treading on potentially difficult ethical ground. In a rapidly-expanding industry, the time has to be taken to train staff properly, and teach them the basic ethics of the edit suite.

I don’t for a moment believe that in every instance clips, even in a documentary or news programme, have to be shown in the order in which they actually happened – pray that we do not come to that! There is such a thing as storytelling, and this applies to factual as well as other areas of programme-making. There is also a place for reconstructions of events (as long as you tell the viewer). But the underlying requirement in factual is that the truth is told – albeit from the programme-maker’s point of view.

As Michael Grade put it in a related Observer story, “We are in an age today where there has been a huge influx of young talent into the industry as it expands,” he is quoted as saying. “They have not been trained properly; they don’t understand that you do not lie to audiences at any time, in any show – whether it’s news or whether it’s a quiz show.”

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Richard G Elen Contact More by me