Charity blocked publication of documentary film amid fundraising and reputation fears

Filmmaker says he has been offered a 'derisory' £2,500 good-will payment to sign over all of the footage

A scene from the Samaritans documentary
A scene from the Samaritans documentary

The suicide-prevention charity Samaritans blocked the release of a documentary about its work because of fears it might affect the charity's fundraising and its ability to recruit volunteers.

David George, the filmmaker behind the documentary called "Samaritans, can I help you?", has also criticised a "derisory" offer of a £2,500 good-will payment from the charity, subject to him signing over all footage and edits of it to Samaritans.  

George, who is a Samaritans volunteer, approached the charity in 2012 with a proposal from his company, Utility Films, to make a documentary celebrating its work. The charity agreed to support the film on the condition that Samaritans had final approval of it.

George told Third Sector that more than 50 hours of footage was taken for the film, which included following a group of new Samaritans volunteers receiving training on how to take calls, and interviews with Catherine Johnstone, its chief executive at the time, Phil Selway, from the band Radiohead and who volunteered for the charity for 20 years, plus volunteers and celebrity supporters.

Although the film shows the new recruits putting their training into practice through a series of role-play situations, it does not include any footage from any calls or break any confidences, said George.

He said his company submitted numerous edits of the film to Samaritans head office and in November 2014 went through the film frame by frame with its then communications director. But the charity was not happy with the documentary and in March 2015 George received a letter from Fiona Malcolm, its deputy chief executive, saying the charity could not agree to the film being released to the public.

The letter said: "To clarify, this decision is based on how the overall quality of the Samaritans’ service is presented in the film... the potential impact on Samaritans’ reputation, ability to recruit and retain appropriate volunteers and fundraise at a local, regional and national level; the risk to the operation of the Samaritans’ service and the age, timeliness and accuracy of the content featured in relation to current operational practice and organisational leadership."

The charity had asked for a section on "sex calls" – inappropriate calls made to its telephone helpline – to be removed from the final version of the film.

"We have real concerns that there could be a potential negative impact on donations and fundraising at local, regional and national level if there is a negative response to the way our internal handling of less well-known aspects of our service such as sex calls, which represent a small proportion of all calls answered... is shown in the training sequences in the film," Malcolm’s letter said.

The letter said the film had also become out of date because the chief executive and chair had both left their posts since it was made. It also said the charity was going through significant changes in the way it functioned.

"It is simply not appropriate to release this film to a public audience due to the risk of an inaccurate view being formed by callers, potential volunteers and donors on the service itself," Malcolm said in the letter.

George said he offered to reshoot sections of the film but this had not been taken up by the charity. He said he received a final letter last week from Malcolm restating an offer made last year of a £2,500 good will payment "in consideration of the costs incurred in the making of the film", subject to him signing over all existing footage and edits of the film to the charity.

"This derisory financial recompense was never requested, nor will it ever be accepted," said George.

He said the charity was "looking a gift horse in the mouth" by blocking its distribution.

George said it was unlikely that a mainstream broadcaster would be interested in the film but said it would have been shown on the Community Channel and could have attracted a lot of interest.

"The perennial problems of retaining volunteers and raising funds would have been helped by the film," he said. "Samaritans volunteering can be visceral, you're dealing with some very basic problems - the idea that my film would encourage sex callers or affect donations is, to be honest, plainly ridiculous.

"What I hope it achieves is showing that we are just, as the Samaritans founder Chad Varah put it, ‘ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing’."

A Samaritans spokeswoman said the charity was approached by Utility Films in 2012 with the idea and Samaritans had not commissioned the documentary. She said it was unfortunate that it had not worked out but the charity had a brand to protect and had to consider the impact of the film on its service and its 21,000 volunteers.

She said much of the footage for the film was now out of date and "does not reflect where Samaritans is as a charity and where it is going". 

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