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What should I do if we are to be featured in a documentary?

Documentary

Over the past decade, there has been a shift in the focus by major TV channels to current affairs, increasing the breadth of investigative programmes and their search for targets – often in the shape of businesses and the people behind them.

What is the process documentary makers follow?

Programme makers are obliged by the Ofcom Broadcasting Code to notify the subject of a documentary and offer them a right to reply or contribute within an appropriate time period before it airs.

When will they contact me if I am to feature?

There is no definite timescale for what is “appropriate” or “timely” but in our experience, from a practical point of view, producers will factor in the time it will take to obtain the subject’s response and work it into the programme – therefore, it is crucial to provide the right response at the right time of production in order to obtain a favourable outcome.

How soon should I get lawyers involved?

In our experience, TV production often differs from online and print media and the legal approach should be tailored accordingly. Online and print media tends to often be extremely time sensitive given the pressure to generate vast amounts of content in a fast-paced news or current affairs environment. In contrast, preparation for a TV documentary can take months. Documentaries are often well researched as a result of months of planning and preparation. This is why it is vital to instruct lawyers as soon as the first notification is received. We can immediately work with you to identify any weak points and locate the necessary counter evidence to get you back on the front foot.

Can I avoid being mentioned in a documentary?

This depends on the individual situation but in our experience, if there are enough weak points in the evidence presented and the producers have better footage from other company’s or individual’s then a push can be made to either omit your name entirely or anonymise the material.

What do I do if filmmakers doorstep me?

Doorstepping is the filming or recording of an interview or attempted interview with someone, or announcing that a call is being filmed or recorded for broadcast purposes, without any prior warning. There are strict guidelines in the Ofcom code stating when this practice is appropriate. It should not take place unless a request for an interview has been refused or it has not been possible to request one – or there is good reason to believe that an investigation will be frustrated if the subject is approached openly. If these guidelines have not been fulfilled then the programme maker is not being fair to you as a potential subject of the documentary and could be breaching your privacy. You should alert them to the fact that the correct procedure has not been followed and that you do not consent to any filmed footage being used. They should then be told to contact you in the proper manner with an official request for an interview as well as some background to the programme content and areas of questioning.

How can I make them include my statement in the programme?

OFCOM rules state that you have a right of reply as the subject of a documentary. They are not obliged to include every word of your statement but they should ensure they include the salient points of the reply and that material facts have not been presented, disregarded or omitted in a way that is unfair to an individual or organisation.

What options do I have after broadcast if the programme is unfair?

If you believe a programme is unfair to you or your organisation you have the option to complain to Ofcom (or the BBC directly if the programme airs on that particular channel). Ofcom will consider each individual complaint and make a ruling on whether there has been a breach of the rules by the TV channel – in certain extreme cases a channel may be fined. All decisions are publicly available online and a finding against the programme can be widely referred to in order to mitigate any reputational damage.

Jessica Lovell has worked alongside producers as an in-house lawyer at ITV and has an in-depth understanding of the production timeline and how and when is best to correspond with the producers in order to achieve the most favourable changes to the programme.