U.K. TV fakery tests trust of viewers

Confessions of fraud spark self-examination

LONDON — British webheads have been caught red-handed cheating their audiences in numerous rigged telephone phone-in quizzes — and that’s just the tip of the U.K. TV fakery iceberg.

  • One of the BBC’s most trusted public affairs TV shows, “Newsnight,” admitted editing footage of Prime Minister Gordon Brown during his days as Britain’s finance minister to alter the sequence’s chronology.

  • Endemol divulged that scenes from “Killer Shark Live” were pre-recorded.

  • Veteran documentarian Paul Watson had to clarify that footage for ITV’s “Malcolm & Barbara: Love’s Farewell” that appeared to show an Alzheimer’s victim’s dying moments was actually shot days earlier.

  • A Channel 4 program of foul-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay on an English beach cooking a fish he had just caught from the ocean was revealed to be fraudulent: He hadn’t speared that particular fish.

  • Most notoriously, a sequence featuring Queen Elizabeth II and celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz for the RDF Media documentary “A Year With the Queen,” commissioned by the BBC, sparked a crisis for both producer and pubcaster when it was revealed that one part showing the monarch apparently storming out of the photo shoot was in fact her entering and commenting on her expectations.

“The question of viewer trust is the most serious issue we face today,” Five CEO Jane Lighting says. “Our viewers, brand and reputation are the most valuable assets we have.”

Lighting should know. Her company, owned by pan-European media giant RTL Group, was fined $600,000 by U.K. regulator Ofcom for faking winners in quizshow “Brainteaser.”

But wait — there’s more. For the first time, the BBC was fined for, of all things, rigging a competition in flagship TV children’s show “Blue Peter.”

And the managing director of GMTV, Paul Corley, resigned last month following allegations that phone-in quizzes aired by the station — one-quarter owned by Disney — had swindled audiences out of an estimated $80 million.

Some British webheads, like ITV topper Michael Grade, blame the apparent willingness to deceive audiences on poorly trained, inexperienced staff and an independent production sector full of undermotivated employees toiling in grim conditions.

Others claim the problem stems from an obsession with ratings that starts the moment an idea is sold.

Then there is the determination to create money-spinning international formats like RDF’s “Wife Swap” — so-called “structured reality” shows, a term used by RDF’s chief creative officer Stephen Lambert, who owned up to his company’s docu-doctoring in the case of the queen.

“The pressure to sex up a program comes from above,” claims a factual-entertainment producer. “They (the bosses) expect a level of entertaining and exciting storytelling, and in order to achieve this, one has to manufacture the facts.

“This has always happened. I could blow the lid on literally tens of incidents of deception.”

TV fakery scandals are almost as old as the medium itself. Remember the Robert Redford-helmed film “Quiz Show,” based on the 1957 Charles Van Doren gameshow scandal?

“Everything in television is artifice,” says Brit TV producer David Cox, former head of current affairs at ITV station LWT. “Audiences believe the camera cannot lie because they believe the evidence of their own eyes. … But we all know that the camera can lie and the editing process allows you to say anything you like.

“The problem is where the line is drawn between legitimate editing in search of the greater truth and deliberately setting out to deceive viewers.”

This dilemma is exercising minds at all stages of the production process in U.K. TV.

On a positive note, the controversy over phone-in quizzes should help clean up a sector now trying to make itself more transparent and rigorously policed via new procedures.

But will that put an end to incidents like the one involving footage of the queen, never actually transmitted in whole but used as a program teaser in BBC1’s fall press launch and to sell the show overseas?

“There is quite a history to misleading editing,” asserts Stewart Purvis, a former head of Independent Television News and now professor of television journalism at London’s City U. “Natural history programmakers have been doing it for years. You’ll see footage of a lion chasing a deer, but the two animals were in fact filmed on different continents. … Lions can’t complain to regulators, but the queen can.”

Purvis adds that factual entertainment producers “have never been forced to justify themselves before,” despite suspicions about what they do.

“It’s interesting that so far they haven’t defended themselves very effectively,” he says.

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