Revelation after revelation of how journalists pursuit a story have come out in the past couple of weeks to shock us all, as Lord Leveson appears to leave no stone unturned. But the lessons that can be learnt are not merely for broadcast or print journalists. How far can you go as a filmmaker? How do you deal with ethical dilemmas when faced with a great documentary opportunity?
At a time when every aspect of journalism is under the lens, Channel 4 decided to examine its own medium on Monday evening by hosting an evening of debate titled ‘Investigating the Investigators: Ethical Dilemmas in TV Journalism’ .
The event , which was held at BAFTA, saw a panel of independent media experts alongside some Channel 4 faces talk through some tough scenarios.
The panel included the broadcaster’s own commissioning editor Siobhan Sinnerton, independent producer Steve Boulton, October Films producer Karen Edwards, News of the World feature writer Jules Stenson and a media lawyer was on hand to give advice.
Why are ethics important for documentary film makers?
While some of the scenarios and issues of the debate might not be applicable directly to your documentary or your way of investigating stories, there are certainly issues you need to think about before you even start making your film.
For one, setting out a clear approach, both for yourself and your team, will help when you suddenly find yourself in tempting/difficult/mad situations. Secondly, it is easier for you to draw a line under what you think you can and can’t do when you are not already filming.
Subjects such as paying for sources, using private investigators and using sensitive, unapproved footage are all issues many documentary filmmakers are confronted with.
What would you do?
Channel 4 news presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy kicked-off the debate, providing the panel with an amusing if rather bizarre scenario involving a pharmaceuticals company, corrupt politician, sex scandal, drug dealing son and various twists and turns.
Although the story was deliberately farcical, it brought to light a number of tricky ethical questions to be faced in all types of journalism, not only in broadcast. The dubious government minister was secretly recorded, had his phone hacked and his son’s room searched by a roving reporter – unsurprisingly, all to the general disapproval of the panel.
Then the discussion turned towards the use of private investigators. While the attitude was somewhat unfavourable towards them, Jules Stenson said that investigative journalism is a messy business and that “criminals don’t live on Acacia Lane”. Sinnerton (who used to be the series producer of Unreported World) simply said that private investigators acting within the law do the job of a good journalist.
Would you pay your sources?
An issue which came up in Monday’s debate and will always remain a hot topic, is the question of whether or not to pay your sources. Debate amongst the panel raged on this issue, and Krishnan posed the question: does cash undermine the story and jeopardize integrity?
Another big question was whether or not it was ethical to secretly record conversations for film. Not a problem for Stenson, although the “in the public interest” vs “of interest to the public” came up again and again. Producer Steve Boulton decried the practice of fishing expeditions as against people’s rights to privacy, a particularly pertinent topic considering the current Leveson enquiry.
Overall, the desire for fairness and proper practice was strongly upheld, giving hope that TV investigative journalism in general can continue to avoid the recent mire of improper practice that has permeated the British print media.
Now it is up to you to set out the rules you can work and live with.