History and the Media: Are you being hoodwinked?

Documentary film-maker Martin Smith calls for makers of history programmes for television to reassess their standards.

As 2002 drew to a close I settled down to watch Ben Lewis’s award-winning documentary The King of Communism on BBC4. It was both rewarding and disturbing: rewarding, because it brought unfamiliar and telling images to my attention; disturbing because Lewis examines, in the starkest manner, the dangers of television presenting deceitful and dishonest images. Among the sequences he pulled from the archives was one showing the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu inspecting a bountiful harvest for the benefit of Romanian TV audiences. On screen the fruit and vegetables looked enticing but – as Lewis made clear – they weren’t real. Much of the produce was painted wood and polystyrene. Yet a Romanian producer responsible for televising similar lies defended the presentation of such images as ‘professional’. It couldn’t happen here, right? Don’t be too sure.

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