Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Witch Hunt?

I have a confession to make.

In 1992, whilst doing the evening show on Christmas Eve on Radio City in Liverpool, I put a caller to air claiming it was Santa Claus. It wasn't. It was my Brother in Law... Phil, doing a rather bad impression of an old man with a white beard, carrying lots of presents.

If I was at the BBC right now, I might well have a taxi on its way to take me home... forever!

The "fake callers" scandal goes on.. and on... and on! Today, another incident has come to light! According to the BBC...

"A pre-recorded section of Radio 1's Jo Whiley Show on April 20, 2006 featured a phone competition in which a member of BBC staff posed as a caller from the audience. The incident came to light following the recent publication of further editorial breaches. A number of staff members have been disciplined. We would like to make clear that Jo Whiley was unaware that the caller was not a genuine member of the public. The BBC Trust's Editorial Standards Committee has been informed of this today."

Oh dear. How many more of these are going to rear their heads? I'm sure there are quite a few producers / production assistants who are having sleepless nights at the moment. Fess up and do the right thing, and you might get the "Leona McCambridge" treatment!

She was the unfortunate producer who was at the centre of one of the original "fake caller" scandal on BBC 6Music, having admitted to using production staff to pose as a caller. 6Music Director of Programmes, Ric Blaxill, fell on his sword shortly after Leona was given her marching orders.

So where does this leave us? Is the relationship between a radio station and a listener irrevocably damaged... regardless of station? Does it affect the whole industry in the UK?

One of the real issues is the fine line between creating "radio theatre" and conning the audience. It's probably OK to say "I'm opening the golden envelope now..." when you haven't got an envelope in the studio, let alone a gold one! But asking people to call in without a hope in hell of getting on the air, coz the show's pre-recorded is probably pushing it.

So where is the line?

If you record a session on a Friday, and go on the air on Saturday morning and say... "we've got Band X live in the studio to play us some songs" and present them 'as live'... is that conning the audience? Having the band there live is infinitely more preferable than saying "we recorded this yesterday". But is it conning the audience?

But where does this end? If you record a call and edit it a bit before putting it on air.... is that also unfair?

Personally, I think a degree of theatre is OK. When you're actively involved in deception (i.e. call now to win) knowing that the audience are being taken for a ride, then you probably need to ask yourself 'why?'.

It's fair to say that these "smoke and mirror" tactics have been going on for as long as radio itself, not only in the BBC, but in commercial radio too. Because of the BBC's status and responsibility, it's having to air it's dirty laundry in public... but I'm sure the editorial guidelines within most commercial groups are being tightened up as we speak.

I bumped into Jenny Abramsky (BBC Audio and Music supremo) at a radio conference in Oslo recently and we talked about the current spate of BBC confessions. I admit to feeling rather bad for her at the moment, as she's no doubt going to face some awkward questions about the editorial integrity of the networks, and it's not really her fault!

So what's the solution? I believe this current witch-hunt within the BBC is counter productive. It continues to undermine the trust between listener and broadcaster. We know that quite a but of this stuff has gone on... do we need every instance to be trawled over? I think enough is enough. Let's call time on this. You can be sure that the BBC is having to be 'whiter than white' from now on and I'm certain lessons have been learnt.

And the commercial sector can be glad that the spotlight has not shone in its direction with the same ferocity.

Most radio stations, BBC or commercial, have probably not been involved seriously dodgy practises... but you can bet that any producer will think twice about calling a mate to help out on a pre-record now!

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