Church representatives also had a request: that Ms Robinson relay the particular allegations made concerning Mr. Hubbard by Ms Robinson’s “sources” so they could be proven, with documentation, as the lies they are. In that spirit, Church officials were even prepared to assist in the show’s preparation, providing material from the vast biographical archives documenting Mr. Hubbard’s life and interviews of those who knew him.
The producers, and later Channel 4, refused. They were not going to let facts get in the way.
Nevertheless, documentary evidence was provided to Berthon and Channel 4 executives, illustrating that statements made to the “Secret Lives” crew were proven lies made to forward the extortion plans of several of their sources. Evidence supplied to them also included actual facts about Mr. Hubbard, his life and accomplishments. Although most widely known as an author, whose books have sold more than 120 million copies, Mr. Hubbard was an accomplished professional in 29 fields as diverse as aviation, horticulture, cinematography, drug rehabilitation, music and administration. His humanitarian breakthroughs have provided solutions to the social ills of drugs, failing education and crime. His most well-known humanitarian endeavours, embodied in Dianetics and Scientology, are considered by millions in more than 130 countries to be the spiritual cornerstone of their lives.
All told, the producers and Channel 4 were provided in excess of a foot of documentary evidence. Still, the Church’s letters remained unanswered, and when Church representatives travelled 7,000 miles to meet with Channel 4 officials in person, they would not even come to their office reception to talk.
With others, they were not so secretive. While refusing to allow the Church any opportunity to respond to the lies they planned to broadcast, they gave a special preview to reporter friends so they could hype the show beforehand.
In an effort to generate publicity for their programme they also “leaked” a letter written by long-time Scientologist John Travolta. What wasn’t reported was what he said: “I have firsthand experience about what is possible through Scientology. ... I know
How can they get away with such dishonesty? For one thing, only the living can bring claims for libel. Thus shows like “Secret Lives” target the deceased—and thereby lie with apparent impunity. There are media watchdogs, but, as in the world of newspapers, the chances of achieving any meaningful result from regulatory bodies in the broadcast media world are slight.
|One of the prime sources for “Secret Lives": Gerry Armstrong (shown here as he posed for a California newspaper’s cover page), on the run from U.S. law enforcement and his civil debts which exceed some $300,000. He has bragged of his talent for lying and fabrication.|
Having been denied any right of reply on Channel 4, Church representatives decided to place paid advertisements describing how the “Secret Lives” show had been constructed, and responding to some of the specific false allegations it repeated.
Yet even newspapers which enjoy some reputation for “responsible” journalism refused to run the advertisement: The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer, The Evening Standard. All were unwilling to question the ethical standards of another media colleague. To such publishers, “freedom of the press” obviously refers only to their freedom. They would not even permit an opposing view or another side if paid.
The Final Judgement
The final comment on Berthon and Robinson’s unethical journalism came from the viewing audience. According to overnight viewership figures it was the poorest rating “Secret Lives” episode ever. Statistics show the programme started with only 2.9 percent of British viewing adults tuned to Channel 4. By 9:30 p.m., nearly half a million of them had decided to find something better to do.
But even this was not the last word. The following day, Channel 4 tried one last desperate move. Apparently hoping to salvage some value from their ratings disaster, representatives of the station contacted international celebrities well known as members of the Church of Scientology, to “invite” them to appear on Channel 4’s “Right to Reply” programme to respond to the lies broadcast on “Secret Lives.” They did not contact anyone from the Church of Scientology. Rather than an honest willingness to provide a right of reply, it was a cheap effort to exploit popular public figures for the benefit of Channel 4.
Media Reform Vital
Berthon and Robinson’s methods in producing Channel 4’s latest “Secret Lives” episode serve to illustrate one of the primary problems of media ethics: The rules and codes supposed to govern conduct do little good because they are, to many in the industry, public relations concessions—a show of “self-regulation.” Too many newsmen see themselves as a special privileged class, divinely exempt from rules meant for lesser mortals.
Having witnessed media abuses for too many years now, from hounding royalty to the girl who attempted suicide after being set up in a Channel 4 documentary, the public's outrage over the state of ethics in the media world has finally hit critical mass.
In an eerily prescient Times commentary in August, Simon Jenkins observed that “Today’s journalist is a Rambo with a Nikon 300mm lens at his hip. ... Pictures are doctored, quotes fabricated....” Yet despite the “obscene hounding,” tabloid targets like the Princess of Wales could hope for little help from the media’s regulatory bodies: “We might as well sue the Ganges for flooding,” wrote Jenkins. “Nobody cares about the ethics.”
Two weeks later, reeling with the tragedy of the Princess’s fatal accident, many people began to care a great deal about the ethics.
In a rare moment of industry self-perception, Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore said, “We journalists have a blind spot—we do not seem to understand what people are thinking and saying about us. Even when Lord Spencer stands up in Westminster Abbey and says it to two billion people, we still find it difficult to understand.”
“The message is very simple,” said Moore. “People think newspapers, particularly London-based tabloid newspapers, are dishonest, intrusive and cruel.”
The debate about media misbehaviour has raged ever since. But the direction it has taken illustrates that the media is hardly alone in not understanding—or, perhaps, ignoring—what people are thinking and saying.
As Moore correctly perceived, people are upset by media dishonesty, intrusiveness and cruelty. Many polls conducted over recent years have said the same thing. Yet two out of three of these concerns are almost never mentioned. Public outrage has been distilled—wrongly—into a catfight between politicians and industry representatives over the issue of privacy.
Why has privacy been made the focal issue, despite evidence that the other two factors—dishonesty and cruelty—are actually of greater public concern? The answer, unfortunately, has as much to do with politicians as it does with the media.
Rupert Murdoch may be among the least popular spokesmen on the subject of media reform. Yet he touched upon the truth when he said “Privacy laws are for the protection of people who are already privileged; they are not for the ordinary man and woman.”
Politicians, it would seem from history, sometimes do have reason to worry about their own privacy.
In defending against privacy laws, the media’s main argument changes little. As Peter Cole noted in the Daily Mirror several years ago, “the press has a crucial democratic role to play as thorn-in-the-side of the powerful.” Media laws could thwart this function.
As for the actual effectiveness of self-regulation to date, Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, says “The one thing I can say for certain about the PCC is it is quick and it is cheap.” How much better it would be if he could say journalism is again a respected profession.
Although much of the public debate is about press reform, standards within the broadcasting industry are at times even worse—as evidenced by Channel 4’s complicity in broadcasting Berthon and Robinson’s hopelessly flawed collection of selectively edited lies about the life of
In its final report before combining with the Broadcasting Standards Council in July, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission noted increasing viewer complaints about people being treated unfairly in “documentaries” and consumer affairs programmes. The drop in standards was attributed to “ratings pressure” and an increasingly “competitive and casualised” television industry.
Broadcast media watchdogs have obviously done little to improve what Daily Telegraph writer Maggie Brown described, when writing about Channel 4, as “too great an appetite for lager-lout youth programmes, foul-mouthed live performers, and unwatchable ‘zones’ of loosely themed repeats.”
Others have had similar experiences with Berthon and the “Secrets Lives” series. Wartime aviation historian and author Dilip Sarkar worked with Berthon on a “Secret Lives” programme about World War II Spitfire pilot and hero Douglas Bader. “I’ve got no doubt that the agenda was a hatchet job,” said Sarkar, “and to produce as much negative material, contrary to the public’s generally accepted view and version of the Bader legend as was possible.”
Graham Arnold, editor of Lotus magazine, had similar comments about the “Secret Lives” production on the life of car racing legend Colin Chapman.
“They were continually on the telephone to me, trying to find people who would ‘dish the dirt,’” said Arnold. “I got the feeling there was a hidden agenda, to get as much bad news” as possible.
“Colin Chapman was a very great man,” said Arnold, “probably one of the finest engineers of this century.... They wanted to turn that upside down. One way or another they wanted to turn his reputation upside down, and I almost felt they wanted to destroy it.”
Improved Standards Needed
The worst aspect of the media industry’s failure to restrain its worst excesses is that sooner or later restraints are going to be put in place by others.
“Defining the limits of vulgarity is a job best done by the media itself,” said Simon Jenkins of The Times. “If it refuses, the limits will be fixed by others, and they will be tight.”
Unless those currently entrusted with making media regulation work become serious, Britain’s long-heralded media freedoms will be curtailed. And the party most to blame will be those like Simon Berthon and Jill Robinson—and irresponsible media like Channel 4 TV who admit they have no procedures to verify the facts of the programmes they fraudulently broadcast as “documentaries.”
If you saw Channel 4’s recent “Secret Lives” show on