UK Press Gazette – 13 March 1989
If the new BBC Guidelines on sensitive subjects are not to be a dead letter, they will have to be more rigorously applied than those which the IBA has been ignoring for too long.
On February 2, Channel 4 broadcast, in its so-called "True Stories" series, the American documentary "Cover Up: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair". It was greeted ecstatically by the liberal media establishment, including the television critic of the Independent (February 3), who described it as "American television at its best" and who grumbled that, even if our broadcasting law permitted such a programme in Britain, "the company involved would be required to spend several months defending its evidence ..."
A significant part of this "documentary" dealt with what was described as a "$20 million lawsuit" orchestrated by the US Christic Institute. Various defendants were named as belonging to a "Secret Team" of conspirators "with connections to the CIA and the White House".
The viewers were not told that almost six months earlier this case had been ignominiously thrown out of court in Miami. Whoever arranged the film's screening on Channel 4 so long after the event must have been aware of this fact. Why wasn't it mentioned?
Coincidentally, less than a week after "Cover Up" was shown in Britain, the US courts ordered the radical Left Christic Institute to pay $1 million in legal costs to the defendants. According to Judge King, the Institute and its attorney, Daniel Sheehan – a central figure in the film – had had "no competent evidence" to back up their case.
They had refused to name many witnesses because, said the Judge, "the names of 20 of the 79 witnesses were totally unknown to Mr Sheehan. Several of the disclosed witnesses ... flatly denied the statements he had attributed to them in his affidavits".
Regrettably, IBA Guidelines allow programmes in a series to be one-sided, provided that the other side is subsequently shown in that series. As in many previous cases, this proviso was ignored and defendants who had been cleared months earlier were defamed on British television.
Even without the debacle in court, the bias of this programme was frightening to behold. Speaker after speaker stated the same side of the story, even in "random" street interviews. The programme's victims were seen in occasional film clips which barely relieved the monotony.
All that was missing was a Television Society Award for investigative journalism. No doubt that will follow in due course.
Dr JULIAN LEWIS
The Media Monitoring Unit