Truth, Lies and Videotape – drawing the line between acceptable artifice and unacceptable deception.

"Fake news" as a thing only surfaced a couple of years back. Of course, we’re all against fake news and "alternative facts". But before we get too complacent, let me tell you a shocking fact: we in factual programming have been making things up right from the start. And I am not talking here about the technical business of having to compress an on-the-day real world story into bite sized chunks for the News machine.

What this lecture will address is something far more problematic: deliberate falsification. We all know that a lot of television content involves what we call ‘artifice’: that is, a constructed product based on the ingenuity, skill and art of the programme maker. The central question of this talk arises from this unexceptional observation: where is the line between acceptable artifice and unacceptable deception? New production techniques and technical advances is making where to draw this line ever more contentious.

At the heart of all this, lies a simple word: Trust. In factual programming, Trust is the foundation of the contract between the viewer and the producer – that what they see is independent, impartial and honest.

But since so much of what we do is artifice, where the line between artifice and deception is drawn is the crucial test of that contract, of how trustworthy is that programme? But film-making is a creative business and that means it's not possible to prescribe exactly where that line should be drawn in all cases. Decisions are always made in the moment based on the specific circumstances of each production.

This lecture will tackle the issues involved when thinking about how to maintain the pact with the audience and construct a film that conforms to the programme makers’ great purpose: articulated by the BBC’s first Director General, Lord Reith: to inform, educate and entertain. 

I will explore the dilemmas and predicaments that arise through a series of examples – from my own work, from clips used by the BBC Academy in their training modules, to some notorious examples when the programme makers got it very badly wrong. The examples will be drawn from the whole gamut of factual output – from natural history programmes, to factual entertainment documentaries to current affairs and factual dramas, contemporary and historical. [This lends itself to some interaction with the audience, inviting them to draw the line and discussing what is or is not acceptable deception.]

By the end of the lecture, I hope to have thrown some light on the principles underpinning how we in the media distinguish artifice from deception and offered a few insights into the kind of thinking involved in making those sorts of judgments.