Lights, Camera Action …..or is it?
In the past 8 years, I’ve done more TV stuff than I care to remember and a lot of it as adviser and consultant without even appearing on the screen.
I’ve sat in a range of meetings at the Channel 4 building in Horseferry Rd, BBC Portland Place and various production company offices, observing the genesis of TV programme creation as a curious outside observer.
Watching bright (mainly) young things get enthused about ideas and how to work real-life stories into the focus and flavour of their viewership.
When you first appear on TV you sit around with family and biscuits, trying to get the dog to see if he can recognise you in flat form, while he keeps staring at your pointing finger instead of the TV, and bemoaning how awful you look on screen compared to Nigel Havers.
But it doesn’t take too many appearances for the tinge of excitement to turn to feelings of foreboding.
I’m lucky. I’ve never been stitched up by a programme but I always feel frustrated that it’s not going to get the point across is the way they seemed so keen to do at first contact. They don’t get things wrong. A flurry of anxious late night double-checking phone calls in the days leading up to airing puts paid to that, along with the pressure from the legal teams keen to not have their client’s sued.
But you end up fidgeting in your seat as they miss crucial points, don’t push matters hard enough, gloss over things, underplay more important elements and my particular Bete Noir, begin every discussion about rogue landlords by saying:-
“Most landlords are fine”.
On the 30th May, I took a walk-on part in Victoria Derbyshire talking about illegal evictions by letting agents, while my colleague Roz got the sofa seat in the studio.
MP Kevin Hollinrake, appearing by phone from his Yorkshire mansion, trotted out my favourite, fatuous statement on the programme, causing my wife Frazzy to disarm me before I attacked the TV, and of course, he would say that wouldn’t he? As on his register of declared MPs interests, he is the director of Hunters Property PLC, a very large letting agency.
Not forgetting the omissions
What also disappoints is the stuff they have to leave out.
As the programme gets created you know what they’ve been filming and how developments are going, and endure a process of gradual disillusionment as the producers tell you they can’t now use this or that footage, or certain bits of information because of sub-judice rules, injunctions from landlords or agents, intimidated tenants who got cold feet at the last minute, programme makers who got cold feet at the last minute and perhaps most disappointing of all, news that they don’t think that an important legal point will be interesting to their viewers, or it had to be simplified because of time constraints.
When reality sets in
So where the first production meetings or talks have the inspiring ‘Lets storm the barricades’ vibe, by the time you get to the day before airing you kind of know that its all going to be a bit polite and risk-averse. It’s just another bit of poverty porn TV after all, wedged between Coronation Street and TOWIE. Even the well regarded, hard-hitting stuff.
I’ve done two or three Panoramas and the crew were serious, investigative journalists but cautious lawyers and unwilling talking heads meant that 90% of the really important stuff didn’t make it.
Roz and I once did a Panorama edition about wealthy rogue landlords living off housing benefit with the same team who broke the Panama Papers story and I often wonder, as effective and really important that episode was, how much stuff they couldn’t show which might have done even more damage.
In fact, that’s the one big thing I have learned, most of the really important stuff doesn’t get in.
A celebrity bum lift v hard-hitting reality
I once watched a Channel 4 news expose on a dodgy letting agent I had been working on. The next day I phoned Channel 4 and spoke to the presenter and said that if he told me what stuff he had been forced to leave out for a variety of reasons, I would share what stuff I had. Comparing notes was extremely revealing.
The real, full picture was seriously damning information but by this time, the old adage about today’s news being tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers kicked in. Kim Kardashian had just had her bum lifted again, so who’d be interested?
If you have a look at the Victoria Derbyshire programme, you will also see interviewed alongside Roz, Hasan, a fella who was illegally evicted by his agent.
Contrast the programme coverage with my write up of his full story that I did a few weeks back on this very blog.
That’s what I mean by the stuff that programmes have to leave out.
TV is still a good media for awareness
But whilst I watch TV that I appear in with more trepidation than interest these days I can’t deny its power to get messages out there, even watered down ones. I could present at conferences on rogue landlords every day for a year and not raise awareness of even half the people that one 10 minute slot on Channel 4 news can do.
The sense of disappointment that the real seriousness has been missed always tempered by the knowledge that the drip, drip effect will help spread the word that something seriously wrong is going on in so many hidden corners of the UK’s private rental sector.
A Postive outcome
And I always remind myself of an incident that happened after I did that Nightmare tenants slum landlords series for Channel 5. I got off a train and as I was walking through the barriers a woman grabbed me and told me about her daughter’s serious harassment and how she didn’t know what could be done, but they had watched the series, realised they did have the law on their side.
The council prosecuted the landlord and her daughter was rehoused.
All I’d done is appear on the screen as a comedy council officer in a Hawaiian shirt, trying to make the law sound understandable whilst struggling not to use four-letter words as punctuation, my default mode of communication.
Transformed by the mysterious power of TV from a generally sweary and sarcastic character into a national voice of reason. So that’s how Farage does it!
I’ll carry on doing TV for these abstract reasons but next time you watch a documentary type thing just think ‘Icebergs’.
What you are seeing is only 10% of the real deal, the other 90% is hidden from view.