Has Vice got people killed? And can BBC News call Nigel Farage 'far-right'? A TV insider on the dangerous and ridiculous world of British documentary making

Stick on your flack jacket and let's dive in...

This is an edited interview with a senior British TV executive, with a background at a number of major independent production companies over the past 20 years. 

The executive was given sight of the final piece to ensure accuracy but was not given copy approval. Individuals are not named purely to protect Conquest of the Useless and me, as an individual, from legal threats. 

What’s the biggest problem in documentaries right now? 

People are at risk. One of the key cuts being made is the safety and security of crews. People are going to really dangerous places without proper training and equipment. Training costs are being passed on to independent production companies by the BBC, and then they are passed on to freelancers — ads say “Need hostile environment training and own kit” 

The kit means flack jackets, lenses, and your own camera. Loads of people just say they’ve had hostile environment training and have done fuck all. And almost all of the courses are just run by random blokes. No one ever checks the hostile environment training certificates properly. 

I was on a film when someone got the job on the strength of them saying they spoke Pashtun. We got to Afghanistan and it turned out he didn’t speak Pashtun. He claimed they spoke different dialects or that most of them spoke Farsi. I had a phrasebook and could’ve done better. And that guy… is still working for the BBC despite lying and putting people in danger. 

What’s it like to work in documentaries from a career point of view? 

No one in the industry has any employment rights -- it’s a neoliberal paradise, everyone is on a short-term contract, everyone is disposable -- every company is three months away from bankruptcy — one bad season away from bankruptcy. There’s no job security whatsoever. 

What’s the #metoo situation in the British documentary industry like? 

There is very little comeuppance for people who are awful. One guy, in particular, has been destroyed about three times and comes back. Sort of things he does -- caught faking footage, he was fired, the show was pulled, he resurfaced at Vice, and was fired from there for sexual harassment -- how much of a predator do you have to be sacked from Vice for being a creep? And now he’s rocked up at the BBC.

How bad is it for women? 

People are willing to excuse abuse if people are productive. There’s a young colleague of mine who asked for advice about an editor, who had followed a junior producer home and climbed into her house, then fell out of the window, she had to call both the cops and an ambulance because he was so badly injured. Six weeks later he was back on the job. He should be in jail. He should be fired but he should be in jail. 

It is so much harder for women to get on than men. If a man decides he’s a director, everyone just believes him. If a woman says that, everyone questions her. 

There’s an Oscar-nominated producer, mid-thirties, and she sat down with the BBC to tell them the film she wanted to make and the BBC said to her, “No offence, you should keep producing, you’re not ready to direct.” She told them to fuck off, took the project to Apple and they commissioned it. 

Why is the BBC struggling so much? 

There are a lot of pieces to that puzzle, but essentially there is an internal culture at the BBC that is absolutely stultifying. It’s incredibly difficult to come up with a good idea within that framework. Brilliant office politicians succeed at the BBC. The key still they have is convincing senior people that the producer’s idea is actually the senior person’s idea. 

Say you were asked to do a documentary about Instagram influencers, some senior exec wants that done. It’s like random ‘thoughts’ in newspapers; a comment desk editor has a thought in the lift and they get a more junior person to do 800 words on that. It’s no more complex than that. Everyone is just trying to suck up to senior people. 

To move up at the BBC, you need hit targets like, your work is being critically acclaimed. But the priority that is put on things that could win an award is different from what things would generate a big audience.  

I had a conversation with a talented filmmaker about a good film he made and I said, how did you come up with the idea? And this Etonian said, we sat down with the head of BBC2 and the head of documentaries and we just spitballed ideas for 2 hours.

I usually get 45 minutes and they stare at their watches throughout as I pitch. The things I make rate, but they’re not awards-bait. The BBC is so disconnected from commercial television or places like Netflix. Those places focus on projects that will bring key audiences. The BBC does not worry about that. They say they do, but the executive focus is on things like awards — things that will make them stand out.”

Are the politics or lack of them in BBC News/Current Affairs a problem? 

There is a trick question in interviews:

Is Nigel Farage far right? If you say ‘yes’, then you cannot get a job. They say: “We cannot have people working in BBC News or Current Affairs who think Nigel Farage is far right.”

[I have confirmed this happens with three different people who have interviewed at the BBC in recent years.]

It is manifestly true that the Far Right is on the rise. People have to be curious and open to the possibility that people are Far Right. 

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Is Gogglebox good for British documentary makers? 

It’s a shame Gogglebox isn’t on the BBC; if it were, it would do 2-3x the numbers it does on Channel 4 and would showcase the variety of British telly much better.

The BBC is cushioned by inertia; as soon as you move down the EPG from BBC 1, the audience numbers drop. BBC 1 has a cushion of older viewers — those viewers do not love diversity.

It shares a space with the Daily Mail and the Express. It’s a prosperous elderly audience. [Ed: Are they racist?] Well… 

There will be a Part 2 of this post. I am also now researching a story on the murder of my friend Lyra McKee in Derry, and the role played by documentary makers in the disturbances on that night.