First-Person Accounts Investigations

Inside the Producer’s Studio

Factual television is one of the most influential arenas in British culture. But our insider has serious concerns about what is happening behind the camera.

TV production companies hire teams of freelancers who have little to no experience in the field. Their credentials are never verified by management. How do I know? I was one of them. That’s how my career as an undercover reporter started.

My first job was to pose as a sixteen-year-old girl on different social media accounts, to trap suspected fraudsters. My typical day would start at 4am, where I would spend two hours changing outfits and loca­tions, to provide a team of digital experts the material to build fake accounts which were used to uncover rings of illegal activity operating through­out the UK.

To make the account credible, my face couldn’t be picked up by reverse image search technology. The photos had to be original. To execute this, we had a member of staff accompany me to various locations to take my picture in a coffee shop, or over dinner with the sign or menu visible, so that the character I was playing could be geo-tagged to that specific location. This was crucial in proving that ‘her’ background story checked out because she was from that specific area. It also meant that all of my social media accounts containing existing photos of my real life had to be shut down, upon accepting the job.

Everything can descend into a dangerous farce when you’re working undercover. After a series of telephone conversations with a gang member who was suspected of running logistics, we agreed to meet him. The hired bodyguard twisted his ankle and was not physically capable of running, so a producer from the BBC was brought in to oversee things. The risk doubled when the boss sent a runner to meet him on his behalf. To make matters worse, as I followed my exit instructions, I was bundled into a car by my producer, who later informed me that I had been followed. As a result, the office turned into a grim temporary hostel. My roommate? A loudly snoring bodyguard.

After several weeks of peeling duct tape off your tits, and squatting in coffee shop loos to get a signal on your Nokia, the field producer will give you the green light to collect yourself somewhere private and turn the equipment off.

If dying your hair different colours every month wasn’t taxing enough, then came the matter of your actual taxes. With the tightening of bank standards over suspicious payments, being paid in the industry has become so complex that HMRC have now allocated a representative to oversee undercover journalists and their tax arrangements.

Throughout my undercover roles I was always paid in cash, which resulted in an awkward encounter with my bank manager after my account activity was flagged as suspicious.

HMRC also work directly with production companies to set up separate bank accounts that are used to fill ‘dirty money’. Dirty money is the money earned by an undercover journalist through their cover story. For instance, if you were uncovering a story about the abuse of supermarket workers, you would have to successfully be hired by that company, and as a result would be paid by them as an employee.

This money is paid into a predetermined bank account that will be set up, with your wage from the supermarket being paid directly into that account, with your salary from your undercover filming being paid to you in cash or to your personal bank account. After production stops, the accrued money is paid back to the employer. Legally, companies have a duty to declare this monetary gain to avoid sanctions – for them – or the undercover journalist. But who is to say that they always do?

Traditionally, only an existing production team member, an ex-police officer or ex-military personnel would be hired as undercover reporters, due to their knowledge of the law. However, since undercover journalism has become increasing lucrative for indie production companies, the producers have opted for hiring young people, often university students. Advances in open source data means that you can find a lot about a person by simply locating them on social media. Students are the perfect candidates, due to their digital know-how and lack of professional affiliation.

What many viewers don’t know is that the content that you watch on a demand service – such as BBC Three or the ITV HUB – is made by independent production companies. Freelancers who work on a day rate are the dream for companies like this, as they are a cheap means of getting a lot of work done. These companies have digital ‘talent pools’ which are full of CVs and can assemble the perfect team for their upcoming project, tailoring the talent to the needs of the task. It would be close to impossible to have a team of in-house staff that could cover the range of topics, issues and locations that are covered in factual television. While one week you will be working on a supermarket exposé, the next they will need to source civilian footage of airstrikes for the latest Dispatches or translating interviews for an upcoming series of Unreported World.

I’ve been in this industry for some time. I’ve witnessed producers steal and sell ideas and watching freelancers be put into unsafe and unregulated scenarios for the sake of dinner-time background noise. Over half of my colleagues have left the industry completely.

While factual television aims to entertain, inform and hold those to account, the industry refuses to look at the facts. Placing young people in significant danger without adequate training is highly irresponsible. As one of the few industries doing well during the pandemic, I hope that this has been a time of reflection on the importance of making honest, safe and reliable television, with the well-being of its employees at its core.

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