As the BBC’s hit television series Bodyguard reaches its climax on Sunday evening, its producers can expect a record audience. The show’s success, attracting around 7m viewers who have been drip fed a traditional format of weekly episodes, has challenged the Netflix model of box-set bingeing: great news for the BBC and its current season of vigorous dramas. It is good news too for international sales of British TV. But is it good news for news itself?
The drama of Bodyguard, a political thriller in which the life of a home secretary with an authoritarian bent comes under threat, is heightened by its apparent authenticity. Set in the present day, it features a divided government looking for the best response to a terror threat. Westminster scenes are recreated with attention to detail. The audience is further seduced into pseudo-reality by a constant thread of familiar voices and faces drawn from the BBC’s own news and current affairs teams.
The imagined news coverage, integral to driving the plot forward, is not fronted by actors but instead features cameo performances by top BBC news talent: Nick Robinson, Andrew Marr and Laura Kuenssberg appear, among others.
It’s certainly an opportune piece of product (or, in BBC parlance, “talent”) placement. But the corporation risks boosting the authenticity of its drama at the expense of the credibility of its news service.
The practice has drawn criticism from the families of those who died in real-life terror attacks, who have questioned whether journalists whose reputations rest on their objectivity and accuracy should one day be seen reporting on actual attacks and the next on imagined ones. That’s fake news isn’t it?
The problem is by no means limited to the BBC. Sky News and ITN journalists are also partial to some of their own bit-part action. Newscasters from the commercial sector have recently added a smattering of realism to dramatised reports in ITV’s crime series Broadchurch and Unforgotten.
It’s happening in Hollywood too, with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer relishing a role announcing the nuclear obliteration of three major cities in the latest of the Mission Impossible franchise.
If independent broadcasters want to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, between show business and news, it is ultimately a decision for their own networks and shareholders. But, as long as the BBC receives a licence fee from its viewers, it is accountable to them. It rightly subjects itself to high levels of scrutiny aspiring to industry-leading standards of objectivity and neutrality.
Things have come a very long way since 1976, when a BBC executive was forced out over the controversy caused by newsreader Angela Rippon baring her legs for a dance routine on the Morecambe and Wise show. For today’s reporters, a pas de deux on Strictly Come Dancing is practically de rigueur.
Even so, the BBC’s controller of daily news, Gavin Allen, struck a complacent note this week when confronted with criticisms of the increasing tendency towards an osmosis from news into drama. He defended the practice on the basis that news reports created for the show were clearly fictional. But when journalists convincingly deliver dramatists’ lines, it is easy to see how trust in their commitment to telling us the truth in their day jobs might be chipped away.
Surrounded by a sea of fake news, social media and citizen journalism, the BBC has a unique opportunity — and a responsibility — to reset standards of accuracy and objectivity in its broadcast news. Bodyguard would be no less gripping a drama if actors had played the newscaster roles. Those journalists who have flirted with show business have done their profession a disservice precisely at a time when the currencies of trust and truth need bolstering.
The writer is a political commentator and former BBC producer
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