BBC Panorama, caught faking child labour footage, returns prestigious TV award

Primark: On the Rack
Two weeks after the BBC admitted that its journalists had partly faked child labour footage in India, the public broadcaster has returned a prestigious television award won by the controversial programme.

BBC had earlier won the Current Affairs Home Prize at the Royal Television Society awards for its show Primark: On The Rack, which was first broadcast on BBC 1 channel in June 2008.

In an internal investigation, the BBC Trust – an independent body which safeguards the values of the publicly funded corporation – found that it ‘more likely than not’ that certain footage in the Panorama programme was not authentic.

The implicated retailer, Primark, criticised the BBC for taking so long to find in its favour when evidence casting doubt on some of the video material has been in the corporation’s possession since before the documentary first aired in 2008.

BBC Panorama claims to be the world’s longest running investigative TV show, and has been on the air for more than 50 years. In that time, it has done some excellent exposures on matters of vital public interest.

Yet hinting a decline in both editorial and ethical standards at the BBC, the reporting team was found to have taken liberties with certain visuals in this particular programme. It investigated Primark’s claims that it can deliver ‘cheap, fast fashion’ without breaking ethical guidelines, and included footage obtained in a Bangalore workshop of three boys carrying out an activity described in the programme as ‘testing the stitching’ on Primark garments.

According to the Daily Mail: “The BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee examined evidence such as the unedited ‘rushes’ of the programme and emails to the production team from the freelance journalist Dan McDougall, who obtained the footage.”

BBC Trustee and Chair of the ESC Alison Hastings said after their investigations: “The BBC’s investigative journalism is rightly held in very high regard, and for more than fifty years Panorama has made a very significant contribution to that. But great investigative journalism must be based on the highest standards of accuracy, and this programme on Primark failed to meet those standards. While it’s important to recognise that the programme did find evidence elsewhere that Primark was contravening its own ethical guidelines, there were still serious failings in the making of the programme. The Trust would like to apologise on behalf of the BBC to Primark and to the audience at home for this rare lapse in quality.”

Read full report here.

Despite all these developments, the BBC Panorama official web page for this programme shows no indication of this turn of events. Accessed on at 01:30 GMT on 30 June 2011, the page says it was “last updated at 13:31 GMT, Wednesday, 18 June 2008 14:31 UK”. No apology, no correction, no link to the BBC Trust’s report.

The programme’s blurb still reads: “Panorama puts Primark’s claims that it can deliver cheap, fast fashion without breaking ethical guidelines to the test. Posing as industry buyers in India, the programme’s reporter Tom Heap and his team find some of India’s poorest people working long, gruelling hours on Primark clothes in slum workshops and refugee camps.”

So who puts the BBC Panorama to test? Are investigative journalists above the ethics of journalism because their work is hazardous, and is ultimately meant to be in the public interest?

Even Homer nods, and the best intended investigative journalists can – and do – make occasional mistakes. The important question is whether this was a bona fide error in judgement, or does it suggest a trend where the BBC’s investigative journalists and producers arrogantly believe that the end justifies the means?

Many documentaries rely on re-enactments for certain scenes, which are usually labelled as such. Does exposing child labour in supply chains give the license for do-gooding journalists to manipulate individuals and images to suit a preconceived notion of a corporation’s complicity? Could they not have resorted to other means – perhaps with less dramatic visuals, but more honest in their sourcing?

Does this rare admission of error on the part of the BBC also raise questions about the integrity of some other hard-hitting and controversial Panorama investigations over the years which have taken on some big-time targets such as the Vatican, the United Nations Peace Keepers or the CIA?

Hard questions indeed for the usually self-righteous Auntie Beeb.

Peter Falk (1927-2011): Goodbye to Columbo from a fan in Colombo

Peter Falk (1927-2011)
Actor Peter Falk, who just died aged 83, was truly an icon of globalised popular culture. With no props besides his rumpled jacket and raspy voice, he held a whole generation spell-bound with intelligent television (and showed why the term need not be an oxymoron).

Columbo’s creators, Richard Levinson and William Link, modeled the character after the crazy-like-a-fox sleuth in the French classic “Les Diaboliques’’ (1955). But it was Peter Falk who brought the character alive and gave it a unique flavour.

It turns out that Falk didn’t originate the role of Lieutenant Columbo of the Los Angeles police. Bert Freed had first played Columbo in a 1960 teleplay. Falk wasn’t even the front-runner for the part when NBC wanted to revive the character in 1968 for a made-for-television movie, “Prescription: Murder.’’ The network had hoped to cast entertainer Bing Crosby for that program.

“An agent called and said that Crosby was scheduled to play golf and couldn’t turn it down to go over and talk’’ to the show’s creators, Falk told The Washington Post in 1990.

“He did love golf,’’ Mr. Falk said. “I play, too, but I went over and talked to them.’’

‘Just One More Thing’: Remembering Peter Falk, TV’s ‘Columbo’

Columbo could elicit an inadvertent confession from a suspect by prefacing his question with a seemingly harmless, “Just one more thing” – the phrase that became synonymous with his character and the title of the actor’s 2006 memoir.

Falk once described the character he played for 30 years in these words: “He’s unique — if he were up for auction, he would be described as ‘one of a kind, a human with the brain of Sherlock Holmes who dresses like the homeless.’ ’’

Arthur C Clarke once complained, good-naturedly, that Falk was the reason why most Americans couldn’t correctly spell the capital of Sri Lanka. (I have my own theories on geographically challenged Americans, but those can wait.)

Growing up in suburban Colombo in the 1980s, when we had just two (state-owned) TV channels and limited international fare, Columbo gave me hours of stimulating, enriching entertainment. So this is one ardent fan saying Thank You and Goodbye from…Colombo.

Was There Life Before Google (BG)? Sure, but try finding it!

Like many things, is Google a mixed blessing?

I now divide my life into two distinctive eras: Before Google (BG) and After Google (AG). The monumental ‘dividing event’ occurred somewhere in 1999 <em>Anno Domini (AD), when the now ubiquitous online phenomenon entered my life.

It was a good friend, photojournalist and new media activist Shahidul Alam, who first told me about this new kind of search engine with a funny-sounding name. Google. At that time, it was just a noun.

I was already weary of the simple, simplistic and yellow-page like listings offered by Yahoo, and welcomed this refreshing change. I immediately switched — and haven’t looked at another search engine in the past dozen years. And I also liked its cheerful, multi-coloured logo.

Things weren’t so slick or quick at the beginning, and even Google was learning by doing. We were still in the dial-up era, when 56 kbps Internet access speeds were still mostly an aspiration. Besides, there was far less content online, and far fewer ways to access and process it.

Where Google stood apart, from every other service, was in its better targeted search results. The research of any given quest was still in our hands, but narrowing down was helpful.

We’ve come a long way, and eons in Internet terms, since those early and murky days. With my always on, reasonably fast broadband connection, I now Google effortlessly many times day and night: I know I’m leaving a steady datastream of everything I look for, and that it can be traced, analysed and interpreted by anyone who can force Google to part with this back-end data (usually governments). But that’s the price I pay for Google’s versatile services.

I touched on this when I talked about ’21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers’ last month at Sri Lanka Press Institute on World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2011. Here’s my PowerPoint:

A few weeks ago I tweeted “Was there life before Google?” My own tongue-in-cheek answer was: Sure, but I can’t easily locate anything from that period!

Not everyone appreciates Tweeted humour. I received a range of replies online and offline, mostly negative. Some cyber-skeptics faulted me for ‘deifying an American corporation like Google that is out take over the world’ (they haven’t heard the news!).

Others, school teachers and librarians among them, told me that Google has plenty to answer for. They lamented that many people have now forgotten the art and science of looking for a specific piece of information and imagery using well-organised information sources that combine physical and computer-based services. Professional information managers view Google as a superficial, hit-or-miss, much diluted version of their noble craft. Cyber take-away to be consumed on the run, as opposed to a gourmet meal to be partaken and enjoyed at leisure.

Sounds familiar?
I’m old enough to have used libraries diligently and regularly for several years of my working life. I still do, when I can’t easily locate something online — especially historical content that remains under-represented or non-existent on the web. For me, it’s not a question of either/or.

In fact, my frustration is that enough content from the pre-Internet period (much of history) is not yet available online in properly searchable ways. That includes my own personal archive. I’ve been producing journalistic output in the media for 25 years in print, radio and television outlets. The electronic media output is completely lost, and practically everything I wrote before 2000 AD (or Year 1 of my personal AG) is also not online. And my output in Sinhala, including my current Sunday column in the Ravaya newspaper, is not available online.

No, I don’t idolise Google as a global deity. But I thank Google a few times every day. Increasingly often, that includes times when I want to locate a specific reference to something I myself have written and published. This is what happens after writing several thousand pieces on a wide range of subjects and topics.

I envy those who can still recall precise details of their own vast bibliographies. As for me, I routinely turn to my usually reliable and well-informed friend Google. She rarely lets me down.

PS: One facility I stubbornly refuse to use is GMail. Google’s idea of a web-based email service never appealed to me, a Digital Immigrant who is not fully convinced about storing all my correspondence ‘in the cloud’. What really puts me off is how fleeting, erratic and often utterly incomprehensible GMail users are in their replies. There are a few honourable exceptions, but most GMailers I know are a confused and confusing bunch. I love you, Google, but when it comes to email, thanks but I’ll continue to operate my own accounts, branded on my own domain name.

‘Amazing Grace’ movie: Story of William Wilberforce, the Model Campaigner

One man, one resolve -- and history is changed!
“When people speak of great men, they think of men like Napoleon – men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men. But contrast the reception they will receive when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and in power, a man who’s achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. And yet his dreams will be haunted by the oppressions of war. William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow and remember: the slave trade is no more.”

Those words are uttered by the character Lord Charles Fox in the British House of Commons towards the end of the 2006 movie Amazing Grace. They sum up the singular accomplishment of William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833), British politician, philanthropist and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade.

The movie, based on his true story, is not just a well-made period drama. It also offers dramatic insights into one of the most successful – and consequential – social justice campaigns in history. It reminds us that a determined man or woman can, indeed, make a difference in our complex world.

Inspired by a recent visit to Yorkshire, where Wilberforce hailed from, I’ve just watched the movie — and am amazed to find how many such striking parallels there are to evidence-based policy change and law reform in a very different world of ours more than two centuries later.

But first, here’s the storyline from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb):

“In 1797, William Wilberforce, the great crusader for the British abolition of slavery, is taking a vacation for his health even while he is sicker at heart for his frustrated cause. However, meeting the charming Barbara Spooner, Wilberforce finds a soulmate to share the story of his struggle. With few allies such as his mentor, John Newton, a slave ship captain turned repentant priest who penned the great hymn, “Amazing Grace,” Prime William Pitt, and Olaudah Equiano, the erudite former slave turned author, Wilberforce fruitlessly fights both public indifference and moneyed opposition determined to keep their exploitation safe. Nevertheless, Wilberforce finds the inspiration in newfound love to rejuvenate the fight with new ideas that would lead to a great victory for social justice.”

A detailed plot synopsis on IMDB

Wikipedia has a good summary of how Wilberforce and his few determined friends sustained a campaign against this inhuman yet highly lucrative trade.

Wilberforce was every bit the resolute campaigner: used every trick in the book, and then some. He diligently amassed incriminating evidence about the mass-scale abuse of human rights taking place in far-away Africa and on the high seas transporting captured African slaves. He wrote and spoke extensively using facts and figures as well as appeals to human emotions. He collected eye witness testimonials, and gathered over 300,000 signatures in a petition from ordinary people calling for abolition of slavery — which countered the political argument that people didn’t care.

William Wilberforce by Karl Anton Hickel, circa 1794
Wilberforce must have been among the first to realise the power of collective consumer action. On his urging, conscientious consumers in Britain boycotted sugar grown in the Caribbean with slave labour. One of the most sucessful campaigns the Abolition Movement was responsible for was the Sugar Boycott. According to one source: “In 1791 the society distributed leaflets encouraging the public, and especially women, not to buy or use sugar produced in the West Indies by slaves. As a result about 300,000 people boycotted sugar and sales began to drop. In an effort to increase sales, some shops stocked only sugar imported from India, which had not been produced by slaves, and goods were labelled to show this.”

He also worked on and with influential religious and political connections. He surrounded himself with a few trustworthy friends who stay the course despite multiple setbacks, ridicule and character assassination. He was passionate to the point of being obsessive. Yet he also knew when to speak and when to make a tactical retreat. His timing was impeccable as were his patience and commitment.

He wasn’t successful with every social justice campaign he took up. First elected to Parliament in 1780, he campaigned unsuccessfully for penal and electoral reform. It was in 1787, at the encouragement of William Pitt the Younger — his long-long friend and Prime Minister — that he took up the cause of abolition at Westminster. But his humanitarian and ethical arguments had to meet the economic interests of those who had made vast fortunes from the slave trade or the use of slave labour. Many of his fellow Parliamentarians had deep vested interests that wanted to see the status quo continue. Others were in the pay of slave traders.

It was not until 1807 — full 20 years after Wilberforce first started his campaign — that the Abolition Bill was finally passed. Just before that, Wilberforce wrote his famous ‘Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Addressed to the Freeholders and Other Inhabitants of Yorkshire’, justifying his preoccupation with abolition against claims that he was neglecting their local interests at Westminster, and setting out all his arguments against the slave trade.

Then, as now, elected people’s representatives have to perform this difficult balancing act — between their constituency’s immediate, everyday needs and the greater good or national interest. Which is why all progressive legislators and social justice campaigners should watch Amazing Grace, and read the Wilberforce biography.

Times have indeed changed, but their challenges have not.

Wikipedia entry on Amazing Grace movie

Watch the trailer for Amazing Grace: