The prosecution of an alleged fraudster who was accused of swindling £40,000 from councils collapsed after the BBC botched the filming of two police raids while making a programme on benefits cheats.
The making of the programme, part of the BBC1 series Britain on the Fiddle, involved a production team working with police and investigators including accompanying them on two raids on the home of a person who had allegedly committed multiple serious fraud offences totalling at least £40,000.
The alleged fraudster objected to the filming and said he had not given his consent. His lawyers successfully applied to have the criminal proceedings thrown out because of the conduct of the investigators, police and the BBC.
Details of the case emerged in a ruling from the BBC Trust, the corporation’s governing body, which found that the filming of the programme, which was never aired, was a serious breach of the corporation’s editorial guidelines.
“The judge expressed concern about the relationship the investigators and police had with the programme team, and said that they appeared to be acting as agents of the BBC in order to make a television programme, rather than focusing on the proper conduct of the search process as they should have done,” said the BBC Trust in its latest editorial guidelines bulletin.
During the first raid, the BBC’s digital video director filmed inside the subject’s home as well as in a police car and cell. Filming was also carried out by two police officers using body-worn cameras provided by the BBC, of which the subject was unaware. Four months later a second raid was performed, attended by the same digital video director.
During each of the raids the subject said that they had not given their consent to be filmed. By the time of the second raid the subject had taken legal advice and said very clearly the BBC did not have the right to be there.
The digital video producer repeatedly told the subject the BBC was allowed to film, citing a public interest defence. “I can assure you it’s not unlawful, it’s in the public interest, that’s the journalistic privilege I have,” said the producer at one point. “I don’t need permission.”
Despite the subject’s immediate objection, the producer only stopped filming during the second raid when the police, who once again recorded it with their secret body cameras, said so.
The BBC subsequently received a letter from the subject’s solicitors that the filming broke privacy rules and should not have taken place, which the series producer denied in a response letter.
However, an internal BBC investigation found that the filming raised “significant legal and editorial concerns”.
The subject’s defence team applied to have the criminal proceedings thrown out because of the conduct of the investigators, police and the BBC.
Local council investigators alleged the fraudster was making claims from over 30 councils with overpayments calculated as being at least £40,000.
The judge ruled in favour of the defence and was “highly critical” of the way the search was conducted.
Commenting on one official, the judge said he had “lost control of his own judgmental process in the sense that he was no longer conducting a search and in his mind that was not his primary purpose. His primary purpose was to help the BBC make a film.”
The BBC said the filming of the programme, which took place in 2014 and 2015 and was never aired, was a serious breach of the corporation’s editorial guidelines. “The gathering of the material by the police via the body-worn cameras without the subject’s knowledge or consent, and in circumstances when no BBC camera was present, was clearly a breach of the [editorial] guidelines in respect of secret filming,” said the BBC Trust. “The failure to obtain proper informed consent for the filming was also a breach in respect of fairness, contributors and consent.”
Following the botched filming the BBC moved to “strengthen editorial oversight” of the Britain on the Fiddle series, including replacing a producer, and has published new guidelines on the use of body-worn cameras relating to privacy and consent.
The BBC Trust also criticised a documentary presented by Reggie Yates which “seriously breached” editorial guidelines. Reggie Yates: Hidden Australia saw the presenter spend time with the Indigenous Australian community, depicted as “ravaged by alcohol addiction”.
The first episode, broadcast on BBC3 online on iPlayer, included footage of Yates attending what was portrayed as a single party in the town of Wilcannia, New South Wales. Viewers would not have known that one of those events was a wake, with “the behaviour portrayed as being for no reason other than through the excessive consumption of alcohol”.
The trust said the episode “was a serious breach of its editorial guidelines on accuracy” and that it was “deeply troubled by this incident”.
Yates was also an associate producer on the series, which was made by Sundog Pictures.