I couldn’t give a fake if TV dresses up the truth

"Television is, for the most part, escapism, not journalism" says David Butcher


As a man of a certain age, I’m programmed to get angry about stuff. Some evolutionary side-effect kicks in at 40-ish and makes great swathes of human activity quite annoying to blokes. Women too, probably, but men are angrier to start with.


But I’ve got a deficiency here. Try as I might, I cannot get my manly boxers in a twist about “TV fakery” scandals. The best I can do, after a while, is to get angry with people who insist on getting angry about TV fakery – usually other middle-aged men.

It could be that my relevant neural pathways are down, but it simply doesn’t raise my pulse rate when, say, a brilliant natural history show like Earthflight (Thursday BBC1) uses captive- bred snowgeese to illustrate the (factually accu-rate) migration of wild snowgeese. Those polar bear cubs in the Dutch zoo they used on Frozen Planet? The ones that made the front page of the Mirror? Not bovvered.

I’m not completely numb on this. I draw the line at, say, presenters asking viewers to enter competitions they have no chance of winning – that’s flat wrong because it’s not sleight of hand, it’s not razzle-dazzle in the cause of entertainment, it’s fraud. (Although, how soon we forget: Ant and Dec shows repeatedly conned viewers about competitions in the mid-noughties and nobody holds it against them.)

But here we have a long and wiggly spectrum, and everyone draws the line in a different place. So try asking yourself which TV tricks bother you and which don’t. If, say, during a news interview there’s a cutaway to the reporter nodding that is used to conceal a join between two soundbites from different parts of the interview – is that fair? It happens all the time, of course, and it’s down to the integrity of the reporter (don’t laugh) to preserve the intention faithfully. A slippery slope if ever there was one.

Suppose the panellists on a satirical quiz like Have I Got News for You see the questions and clips at a dress rehearsal, to prepare their off-the-cuff witticisms, is that a terrible deception? If an apparently snappy half-hour comedy show takes three hours of arduous studio tweaking to record (as they generally do) is that honest?

Does anyone mind that the Sunday-night Strictly results show is recorded on the same night as the Saturday show?

Most people are, I think, pretty comfortable with a bit of smoke and mirrors on dramas and comedies. They don’t mind if a thriller films its Libyan terrorist camp at a sandpit in Leighton Buzzard (I’m looking at you, Waking the Dead). Nor will they care if chat shows are rehearsed in advance, with writers sitting in for guests to see what “ad libs” they can spark for the host.

But what about documentaries? A series like One Born Every Minute (Wed C4) uses dozens of cameras and blends the results to create the narrative it wants. A series like Coppers (Mon

C4) may have just one camera filming a scene, so it will edit in reaction shots that aren’t, strictly speaking, the right ones. Problem?

Then again, on a series like The Apprentice, the producers work hard (and with demonic skill) to make the candidates look foolish. Someone suggests a slightly dim idea to his team and they cut to silence and tumbleweed shots of people just sitting, with plinky-plonk background music to drive the joke home. That silence didn’t happen – they edited it in.

Dodgy, deceptive, yes, and a bit unfair. But, sorry, still fine by me. What matters is that the end product makes us laugh or distracts us from reality long enough to forget the miserable weather and the looming tax return and the curtain rail that needs fixing.

Television is, for the most part, escapism, not journalism. It has to act responsibly, but in the end it’s a magic lantern not a log book. And that’s not worth getting cross about.


This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 17 January