Sunday Telegraph: 'Reality TV' straight from the spin machine It may look like a documentary - but 'Beat: Life on the Street' was devised by government advertisers

Sunday, 3 August, 2008

DISMISSIVELY nicknamed "plastic policemen'' and "Blunkett's bobbies'', Police Community Support Officers were getting a terrible press.

Just 28 per cent of the public had a positive view of the civilian patrol teams, and ministers were desperate to improve their standing.

So when, in 2005, a top media agency advised the Home Office that it could commission its own "fly-on-the-wall'' documentary about the officers and get it shown by ITV, the department leapt at the chance.

The first series of Beat: Life on the Street, which cost the Home Office pounds 400,000, was shown in the autumn of 2006.

Its simple format saw cameras follow PCSOs in Oxford and Lancashire as they cheerily went about their business of tackling anti-social behaviour.

The show was a hit. Three million tuned in, and just months later more than twice as many people - 62 per cent - had a positive view of PCSOs.

The Home Office was so pleased - its head of marketing was happy to boast of an "excellent return on investment'' - it paid pounds 400,000 for a second series and has ordered a third for next year.

A further series, Border Force - about the UK Border Agency - has also been commissioned and is nearing completion.

At least six other shows have been funded by Government departments in recent years, including a National Blood Service-sponsored programme encouraging ethnic minorities to donate blood and a Ministry of Defence-sponsored documentary about a British Army team's ascent of Everest. The total cost is close to pounds 2 million.

The genesis of Beat: Life on the Street has caused particular concern. The idea came from the advertising agency Manning Gottlieb OMD, when it was approached by the Home Office three years ago to make a series of PCSO advertisements.

"There had been some quite negative press coverage - 'plastic policemen' - which had stuck a bit,'' said Andrew Mortimer, an MG-OMD executive. "We wanted to bring PCSOs and the public together.''

MG-OMD introduced Home Office officials to a production company, Twofour Broadcast, which agreed to make six episodes, to be shown by ITV on Sunday evenings.

But an examination by The Sunday Telegraph of the second series of Beat suggests it may break media rules on "advertiser-funded'' programmes.

Ofcom states that a sponsor "must not influence the content and/or scheduling of a channel or programme in such a way as to impair the responsibility and editorial independence of the broadcaster''.

Yet Home Office staff were closely involved in the making of the series.

Jules Seymour, Beat series producer, said: "The Home Office paid most of the money towards the programme. I wouldn't say [the series] was sympathetic to the role of PCSOs, but it did follow the ones who were best at their job.

"We kept them informed of what we were doing. We showed them the second cut and there were conversations about the language, terminology and statements of fact about police work being used in the voice-over narration. But the editorial control was always ours.''

Ofcom demands that sponsorship "must be clearly identified... by reference to the name and/or logo of the sponsor... Credits must be broadcast at the beginning and/or end of the programme.'' It adds that the "relationship between the sponsor and the sponsored channel or programme must be transparent''.

Yet the only reference to the Home Office was a glimpse of its logo on an advertisement before and after each episode.

Ofcom is now investigating whether the Home Office or ITV broke its rules - both say they did not - and whether civil servants or ministers interfered with the making of the show.

But the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF), a lobby group, was critical of the apparent lack of clarity. Julian Petley, of the CPBF, said: "It's very important the viewer or listener knows exactly where the programme is coming from as it could change the way they view the content.''

The Tories condemned the programme as an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money. David Ruffley , the shadow police minister, said: "The public would prefer this cash to be invested in putting more police on our streets - not on TV spin.''

A Police Federation spokesman said: "Many police officers would question whether the money would have been better spent elsewhere.''

A spokesman for the Central Office of Information defended Beat and other shows funded by the Government.

"Advertiser-funded programming has allowed the Government to successfully reach 22,804,675 people with important messages, such as those around tackling crime and disorder, or encouraging people to give blood,'' she said.

"COI aims to help government departments communicate their services for citizens, achieving maximum communication effectiveness and value for money. Ultimately, advertising funded programming is regulated by the Ofcom broadcast sponsorship code, where the broadcaster has final veto on what is included.''