Journalists in the mist (Image via Shutterstock)
When the UK’s two flagship documentary outlets put out undercover investigations on the same night, there are some interesting lessons to be learnt about the state of British investigative journalism.
Undercover journalism has the potential to offer drama and revelation. It usually also promises grainy footage and awkwardly shot camera angles. And in this post-Leveson climate there will always be a question of the story’s relevance to public interest.
Both the BBC’s Panorama investigation ‘Debt on the Doorstep’ and the Channel 4 Dispatches’ ‘Cruises Undercover: The Truth Below Deck’ used undercover investigations to shed light on important injustices.
In the poor community of Rochdale, Lancashire, BBC Panorama explores how easy it is to get a loan and the exploitative tactics of the companies who deliberately target the vulnerable. While also treating the easy money practices of high street and online payday loan companies, Panorama sends a journalist undercover in the guise of a trainee for Provident, the UK’s biggest door to door loan company.
It’s an industry that counts 1.8 million customers in the UK and Panorama finds confused pensioners and suffers of schizophrenia among their number.
‘We don’t ever want to let them pay up,’ says one loan company employee.
It is ‘gotcha’ moments like this that make undercover investigations sing. The unscripted, callous, line that pits the morally outraged television viewer against the offending person on screen.
It is not as simple as that, of course, and Panorama does go out of its way to point out that the low-level debt collectors are not to blame.
‘In fairness to Sam, she didn’t issue the loans. She’s just collecting the money,’ says reporter Richard Bilton. In that case, there may be no need for the ominous background music and more effort should have been made to grill the company directors or explain why they did not appear on camera.
Far from Rochdale, Dispatches looks at the exploitation of cabin crews working for luxury ocean liners. While the reporter, Tazeen Ahmad, and producer dine luxuriously above deck all the while narrating what they see, ‘Paul’ is sent undercover as a waiter.
Stuck in a cabin with a foul-mouthed roommate, undercover Paul waits days to receive his contract. Finally legalised, he is paid hundreds of pounds less than what he was promised on dry land and if he protests he will be booted off at the next port and obliged to pay his own way home. It’s a complaint that many workers have but that few can afford to voice.
Industry experts testify that the working conditions experienced by the undercover journalist and the real-life workers violate international conventions.
‘In effect, it’s like bonded labour. They don’t feel free to leave the ship no matter what the conditions,’ one expert says.
The programme’s point is quickly made – poor foreign workers with few rights are paid a pittance and held in bond-like conditions by the £21 billion ocean liner industry that offers hors d’oeuvres above deck while forcing its staff below to work 100 hours a week with no holidays. Like Panorama, Dispatches’ scandalous discoveries are not answered in interviews with company representatives, who instead choose to respond to allegations by email.
The ocean liner operator in question refuted Disptatches’ allegations and claimed that its thousand-strong workforce was satisfied with employment conditions.
In both cases, putting the information obtained undercover to the real power brokers would have strengthened the investigations’ impact. Nevertheless, neither Panorama nor Dispatches fall off the tricky moral tightrope of going undercover.
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