ITV needs checks and balances to avoid damage to its reputation.
It’s shocking that video game footage ended up in ITV’s serious investigative doc strand Exposure, and trying to convince a sceptical industry that this was simply “human error” rather than sloppy or even unethical programme-making will be a major battle for the broadcaster.
Mixing up footage purporting to show the IRA using Gaddafi weapons to shoot down a helicopter with footage from a video game is inconceivable, and many doc-makers are asking the obvious question of what that footage was doing there in the first place.
Moreover, if you do have seminal footage of the 1988 attack in question, wouldn’t you take better care of it? ITV’s defence is that it did have the original footage all along, which featured in a previous Cook Report, but sought a cleaner version. It stumbled across one on the internet - or at least, it thought it had.
But that’s ignoring the more basic questions around the clip, which shows much more than the original footage. Rather than men in balaclavas firing into the air, it depicts the helicopter being shot at, surrounded by black smoke, and plummeting towards the ground. However, back on that day in 1988, the helicopter landed safely with only a damaged tail-fin.
Veteran observers point out that the IRA men depicted are operating from military-grade vehicles, a capability they never had, not to mention the fact that it looks more like Serbia than South Armagh.
The incident is hugely embarrassing for ITV and knocks the shine off what has been a strong start to the autumn schedule. The consensus was that without Simon Cowell, The X Factor would be a shadow of its former self, when in reality, it’s a hundred times better. The new judges gel and have succeeded in revitalising the series, which saw 10.6 million tune in on Sunday night.
Downton Abbey returned with much fanfare and was up this weekend, with an average audience of more 9 million, while The Only Way Is Essex came back with a bang, achieving its biggest ever audience with a peak of 1.7 million, more than tripling its slot average. The consolidated figures will no doubt be huge.
The ambition of reintroducing serious current affairs to ITV1 is a worthy one. Such series are never going to bring in big audiences or attract the headlines (the kind you want) but are there for pure reputational dividend.
ITV has issued an apology to the press, although it does not intend to apologise on-air and will not be conducting any kind of internal investigation.
However, it needs to be confident that it has all the checks in place - whether that’s budgets big enough to afford experienced researchers or a robust compliance system - if it’s to avoid such a schoolboy error damaging its reputation again.
Lisa Campbell is editor of Broadcast