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The Economics of TV Journalism: How Many Tibetans' Lives Do You Need to Wreck to Sell a TV Show?
Dr. Robbie Barnett

Human rights groups are warning that a controversial documentary on Tibet could lead to the imprisonment and torture of people who were secretly filmed watching an illegal recording of their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The film, entitled What Remains of Us, reports on the political and religious persecution faced by Tibetans living under Chinese rule.  Participants risk jail and torture, say rights groups. In its 19 May 2004 edition, the Guardian called this film ‘too dangerous to show’.

Don’t we all love journalists?

I used to work as one, and I am still in awe of many of them, the ones who’ve spent years learning the language of the country they write about, who’ve studied its history, whose articles are the result of hundreds of hours of listening, reading and research. But journalists working on Tibet - that’s been a patchy story. And when it comes to TV journalists, it’s an oil slick: most TV journalism about Tibet reeks of dodgy ethics, opportunism and superficiality. A few good pieces were done in the past - the very best are those by Tenzin Sonam and Ritu Sarin. But they aren’t journalists, they’re film-makers — they don’t try to make hot news, they don’t rush their work, they have years of background knowledge, and they don’t try to make a quick buck. But now, as the Tibet story becomes more complex and doesn’t have dramatic incidents you can easily catch on film, freelance journalists are looking for innovative ways to make films about Tibet. And that brings me to What Remains of Us.

In case you don’t know, this documentary was shot by two Canadian men and an exile Tibetan woman who made several trips as tourists to Tibet. They took with them a video of a message from His Holiness and filmed the reactions of Tibetans there who agreed to be shown watching the video. There are a lot of tears, and by all accounts, it’s very moving to watch.

The film-makers imply that what is special about their film is that it was shot secretly inside Tibet, with real Tibetans talking. But actually, what is almost unique about it is that it shows the faces of the interviewees for all the audience to see. So the filmmakers have made a lot of publicity about checking the spectators when they enter the showings. They even have a man with night goggles standing during the show to check that no-one takes pictures of the film. It all seems really professional and adds a frisson of real-life danger to the spectators’ experience.
These security measures have gained the documentary a lot of publicity, and it has had great success on the small film circuit in the US. Despite the strong reservations expressed by one Tibet organization — ICT— some other groups have shown it, and last month it was on in New York. The organizers did this knowing that dark questions hang over this film, because some leading human rights experts who attended were asked not to say anything critical of the film in case they scared off funders.

The What Remains team are in a long tradition of TV journalists whose work includes putting Tibetans in danger of their lives. Vanya Kewley did it first in the UK in 1988, showing faces of Tibetans whom she said had given consent. She said, just like her latest imitators, that she had to show their faces on the screen because the audience wouldn’t fully understand their feelings unless they could see the eyes of the weeping interviewees. Off the record, she told me the real story - she wouldn’t have been able to sell it unless she showed the interviewees’ faces. Before the broadcast she also published their photographs in a Sunday colour magazine, which meant that I failed in my plea to the UK Broadcasting Authorities to get her film modified for having unnecessarily placed people at risk. Among the magazine photos was at least one of an interviewee who hadn’t given permission for his face to be shown, and another who said he would only be able to leave Tibet that December — a month after the film was shown.

The Tibetan who was told to arrange Kewley’s two trips said later that four people had to flee Tibet because of her, and that on the second trip she had threatened to turn him in to the police if he didn’t arrange for her to stay in a Tibetan’s house in Lhasa, even though she had no permit to be there. There is no confirmation of his accusations - maybe he’s wrong. But in an op-ed in the UK paper The Independent written by Kewley to publicise her film, she said that two people who had sheltered her in Lhasa had been arrested just after she left their place. She publicly accused them of having revealed her name to the Chinese. In fact, long after Kewley left, one of them — Sonam Drolkar - was tortured with electric shock treatment every second day for six months, which an Amnesty researcher described as one of the worst cases of non-fatal torture she had ever heard of in China. Sonam Drolkar later escaped and is to my mind one of the great unrecognised heroines of Tibet. But who remembers that film? Or her? Why was it necessary for her to go through that?

Just last year, a Tibetan man from Nepal returned to Kathmandu with a story that none of us researchers had heard of. He had been in prison for four years, and badly tortured, because he had been caught guiding an inexperienced German woman TV journalist, Maria Blumencorn, round Tibet while she filmed secret interviews. He had never wanted to do it, but had been put under heavy pressure by her and her supporters, in which the name of His Holiness had been freely used. The woman was present when he was arrested. But she still toured the film round Europe, apparently without publicising the arrest. When she was confronted with the news that her guide had returned and told the truth, she sent him some money with an apology note. I wonder, how much money is four years of prison and torture worth? I don’t even know the name of that film. I am not even sure if it was ever broadcast.

So what have the What Remains people added to this tradition? Their achievement is a spectacular public relations double whammy: they persuade the western audiences that they are protecting their interviewees, while actually doing the opposite. Having security at the cinemas earned them terrific press coverage, looks really conscientious, and makes viewers feel important. But it’s a con. For one thing, I could shoot the entire film from the audience with a pinhole camera and no-one would ever know. But that’s not all.

Look at the stories above: many arrests and torture happen because, while they are in Tibet, the journalists — always amateur and freelance — lead the Chinese police to their interviewees and helpers. You think the Chinese can’t spot an amateur camera crew wandering into Tibetans’ houses to hold interviews? The real damage is done by going into Tibet and talking to people there, instead of doing it in India or Nepal with people who have escaped.

To see the film helps the Chinese police, but it isn’t essential. And if they didn’t spot the film-makers while they were in Tibet, then all they need is the film-makers’ names. The name of every hotel guest in Tibet goes onto a police computer every night, and most can be tracked to see who their contacts were. If the journalists had really cared about the safety of their contacts, they wouldn’t have revealed their names to the public. So one wonders if their career and fame aren’t the big factors in their decisions.

There are bigger questions too. Is there any connection of Dharamsala officials with this? How do these journalists get Tibetans to agree to give consent? In one case a few years ago, a Tibetan escaped with a story that he had been persuaded by one American to be filmed in Lhasa because the American said the film was to be shown to His Holiness and the UN. Apparently he didn’t mention that it would be broadcast too. But more likely the filmmakers have a simpler method: they imply the film will make a difference. They probably do nothing to dissuade their subjects from thinking that one TV documentary will change the fate of Tibet and might even make it independent. You and I know that independence, freedom and even happiness don’t come from TV shows.

Personally, I suspect that repeated displays of Tibetans weeping and complaining might even do damage to those outcomes, since it makes Tibetans look like passive, helpless victims rather than intelligent planners who could be capable of running their own country - so it fits rather well with Chinese propaganda. We also know that journalists who bring home sensational copy sometimes do very well in their careers. So is this an economic deal — sell one film for the cost of a few Tibetans? This kind of product might help Tibet for the few thousand people who see it and who don’t already know the situation — that’s possible. But maybe a journalist who can’t find a way to show the situation in Tibet without sending people to prison should start taking a closer look at their motives and ability.