'Freak' TV shows divide opinions

Indira Das-Gupta

Documentaries that claim to inform the public about rare medical conditions are often regarded as sensationalist and misleading, a charity survey shows.

The survey, by the Voluntary Action Media Unit, was prompted by concern within the sector over the recent spate of 'shock docs'.

The trend started in 2004 with Channel 4's The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, which generated interest in DebRA, the charity that supports people with Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa, the condition the show focused on. The programme generated about £500,000 for DebRA, although it was forced to buy advertising time to air its details.

"The response was extraordinary," said John Dart, director of the charity.

"But taking part is a gamble. We were misled about the focus of the documentary, although in the end it worked out well."

But recent documentaries, such as Human Mutants and I Gave Birth to a Mummy, have prompted claims that vulnerable groups are used for titillation.

The survey's findings were presented at the Edinburgh International Television Festival on Sunday.

The survey, conducted via www.askcharity.org.uk, took responses from 209 press officers from disability, health and mental health charities, a quarter of whom described themselves as disabled. A further 123 people who use the BBC's Ouch! website for people with disabilities took part. Of these, 85 per cent described themselves as disabled.

The research showed a split between the groups, with 64 per cent of disabled Ouch! users branding such output as 'freak shows', compared with 46 per cent of disabled charity respondents.

Damon Rose, editor of BBC Ouch!, said: "It's voyeurism dressed up as education. The fact that these programme-makers think this is somehow ticking a box for 'good things they've done in the year' makes me vomit."

But Winnie Coutinho, communications manager for Changing Faces, disagreed.

She said: "If the producers consult widely and work in partnership with charities, they can be educational. The titles could be a bit more sensitive, though."

FACT FILE

Most respondents said the shows were made for shock value and to boost ratings

Most felt that the documentaries portrayed disabled people as victims

Titles included I Gave Birth to a Mummy

The majority felt these programmes should still be shown.

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