Fairness and secret filming

Text by Matthew Chapman

Using a hidden camera is not always fair towards the interviewee – especially if he or she has done nothing wrong.

There are a great many ingenious devices at the disposal of investigative journalists around the world and quite a few of them are currently being used by the journalists of Investigation 360. With a weekly documentary often focusing on corruption the team often need secret ways to capture the bad deeds of their targets. Secret cameras can be hidden in almost anything nowadays from pens to glasses but by far the most popular item is a mobile phone.

More clever devices often break down and are extremely hard to repair so journalists at 360 often leave the office with their mobile phones ready to secretly record their targets. Watch any episode of 360 and you will soon pick out what interviews and sequences are filmed secretly and which are filmed with the full permission of those taking part. Often you will notice that the interviewee is not actually looking anywhere near the lens or the camera appears to be pointing up at the subject.

This is not just happening on 360 on Jamuna TV, this is common practice on all the investigative TV programmes in the country. Even perfectly normal interviews are done using a secret camera or the camera operator has sneakily filmed the interview without telling the subject. Most broadcasters, including the BBC in the UK, have quite complex guidelines around when and how a person can be interviewed without their knowledge. Most usually it is because the interviewee has done something which is illegal or has acted badly and has already refused a request for an interview.

In Bangladesh quite a few very ordinary people each week are only finding out that they have been interviewed for a national TV station when they turn on the television one evening to find their faces and words being beamed around the country.

I took this up with my colleagues at Investigation 360 and the most common reply was that people would refuse to do an interview if they were asked to film one. My reply was that journalists did not have a right to an interview, especially if the interviewee had done nothing wrong. It was our problem as TV makers to work around all the people who did not wish to record an interview. They had a right to privacy and fair dealing. Journalists in most countries are not held in high esteem and one of the few ways we can increase trust in our profession is by dealing fairly with people.

Perhaps one of the best comebacks I received was that all their rivals were doing the exact same thing. How would their programme look if it appeared to be the only that was not capable of getting a number of key interviews on a particular subject? Here I was on trickier ground in my argument. Was I in any position to dictate that a Bangladeshi TV station should be following the guidelines of a broadcaster like the BBC which operated in a very different broadcasting environment thousands of miles away? I also felt uneasy about waltzing into this TV station, dictating terms to them which would put them at a disadvantage to their competitors and then waltzing out of the country again feeling very holy about myself.

I tried instead to impress on the journalists that I talked to that there were alternative ways of illustrating programmes or getting information over to the viewer when key interviews failed to deliver. I also tried to persuade them that viewers were on the whole more likely to trust your programme when they felt you had treated people fairly and evenly.

There is still a major role for secret and sneaky devices in Bangladeshi television but I hope at least journalists will think twice before putting on their secret camera glasses again.