The Sunday Telegraph, Inquiry into TV shows funded by ministers

Sunday, 3 August, 2008

MINISTERS WERE at the centre of a row last night over the use of taxpayers' money to fund television documentaries.

The Government has spent almost pounds 2 million to fund programmes that are all but indistinguishable from regular shows, The Sunday Telegraph has established.

But unlike normal documentaries, the programmes are commissioned by ministers with the purpose of showing their policies or activities in a sympathetic light.

The media watchdog Ofcom disclosed last night that it had opened an investigation into one of the programmes, Beat: Life on the Street - about the Government's controversial Police Community Support Officers, to see whether it breached its broadcasting code.

Media freedom campaigners, broadcasters and opposition politicians expressed alarm over the Government-funded documentaries. The Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow said: "I find it extraordinary. So the Government is funding commercial television productions highlighting government policy? Presumably they don't criticise government policy.''

The Government has funded at least eight television series or individual programmes in the past five years. Subjects range from an Army expedition to climb Everest to advice for small businessmen on how to improve their company's fortunes.

However, the show about PCSOs and a newly commissioned programme about Customs and Immigration officers are particularly controversial because they deal with sensitive political issues and policies.

Beat: Life on the Street, which was supported with pounds 800,000 of funding by the Home Office for its first two series, portrayed PCSOs as dedicated, helpful and an effective adjunct to the police - despite the controversy about their role.

One Whitehall source admitted of the documentary: "It allows the Government to have more air time and get its message across to people.''

Ministers are so pleased with the way the series, which drew in audiences of three million

people on ITV and changed the public's perception of the officers, that they commissioned a third series, to be broadcast next year.

But The Sunday Telegraph established that the programmes appeared to break Ofcom's broadcasting code by not making it clear that they were funded by the Home Office. In a further apparent breach of Ofcom rules, this time on independence, Home Office officials were directly involved in the making of the series. They were allowed to view a second edit of individual programmes and were able to suggest changes to some of the "terminology'' and "language'' used in the narration.

The Conservatives condemned the Government funding of programmes as an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money. David Ruffley, the shadow police minister, said: "People want the Government to put police on our streets, not propaganda on our television sets.''

The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom said that it was a disturbing trend in Government attempts to influence television programming. But a Home Office spokesman said: "Documentaries of this nature play an important role in informing the public, openly and transparently, about the work of the police and UK Border Agency.

"The Home Office do not influence the content of these programmes after they are commissioned and they adhere to Ofcom's strict guidelines on this kind of programme.''

A spokesman for ITV said: "As with all advertiser-funded programmes, Beat: Life On The Street is subject to a strict process to ensure it meets all the regulatory requirements set out under the Ofcom code on sponsorship, to ensure transparency and editorial independence by the broadcaster.''