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.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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