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Investigative documentary: when methods and effects distract from the content

Turbulent times for investigative documentary

The recent revamps of Norway's and the UK's top investigative documentary programmes show how the genre is struggling to find the right format in a changing media landscape characterised by stiff competition, converging platforms and cost-cutting.

"Complicated...will we be seeing much of that on the new Panorama?", asked Adrian Monck before the first edition of the new revamped Panorama this week: with its airtime halved to 30 minutes, many fear that BBC's current affairs flagship will be skewed to lighter, less substantial issues, and reviews were mixed (see Chris Shaw's review for The Guardian and Peter Cole in The Independent on Sunday).

As Norway's longest running investigative documentary programme, Brennpunkt, had a slot just short of 30 minutes for years, I asked Morten Möller Warmedal, a former Brennpunkt editor, how much difference this makes: "Some stories are suited to 30 minutes, but not 60, there can be some advantages, but it's no denying that it's a challenge to tell a complicated story in 30 minutes," he said.

Norway's public broadcaster, NRK, has gone the opposite way of Panorama and is currently developing a new, 60-minute format to replace Brennpunkt, which was "shelved in its current format" in November, but the remake hasn't come without turbulence and protests. Kampanje reported that all the program's staff had been asked to reapply for their jobs, creating uncertainty and fear that some of the journalists will be 'reassigned' to other programmes. "Moral is low", said a former work associate I ran into just after the news broke in November, which prompted me to pay the program a visit:

It was Monday, an hour after lunch, and I found the usually busy corridor all vacant but for the finance director and the corporations' lawyer. How fitting, I thought - the more pessimistically inclined would say that's all investigative documentary has been reduced to these days: law and accountancy.

How much time is left to do groundbreaking investigative reporting and explore new formats for telling complex stories when you spend all of your time either in court or preparing the documentation? That said, some of the methods and effects commonly used in investigative documentary these days are controversial, and worthy of a debate on their own...

So what will emerge in Brennpunkt's place? "Many people are giving this a lot of consideration because NRK, as a public broadcaster, has to be everything to everyone. The corporation works hard to be on all platforms, with increased focus on the online world. Brennpunkt was primarily a documentary platform, not a reporting platform like for instance 60minutes, to my mind is – I don't know what the new Brennpunkt will be," said Möller Warmedal.

General notes
Some of you may fault me for comparing BBC's and NRK's investigative documentary programs here, but a seminar I produced two years ago revealed the challenges they face are much the same (I worked for Brennpunkt for a short period in 2004-05). Two years ago, to the day, we were exploring the future of documentary, debating the ethics of using various effects and methods and exchanging experiences with Panorama and other key industry experts in London. Two years of course, is an aeon in media terms. Of the seminar's key speakers, both Alan Hayling and Mike Robinson have left BBC – not without a degree of frustration over the obstacles facing investigative documentary in particular, and public broadcasters in general. These challenges reflect both overall changes to the media industry, but also "the permanent revolution" any public broadcaster experiences these days.

Of course, had I the time I could have cast my net wider here, but as this is a blog I don't pretend in any way to offer the whole and unvarnished truth, nor the complete picture. This is just a quick summary of some interesting developments, the comment section is wide open though...


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