Channel 5, whose program “Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away” generates huge profits and viewer numbers on the backs of human misery and humiliation, have been ordered to pay a couple £10,000 each for the distress of broadcasting them being evicted.
Mr Shakar Ali and his wife Mrs Shahida Aslam from Barking in east London were filmed by Channel 5 after they fell into arrears with their rent. Although Mr Ali did not give consent for the footage to be used on TV, it was not only shown but was repeated 35 times.
The High Court in London ruled the couple’s privacy outweighed Channel 5’s right to freedom of expression. Mr Justice Arnold awarded the damages for distress caused in the filming and misuse of the couple’s private information.
‘Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away’ is a long-running series that uses the poverty, sadness and humiliation of the weaker, poorer and less fortunate in our society to provide viewer titillation. To distract viewers from the reality of what they are watching, the program makes a big deal of its cameras following the daily work of a team of High Court enforcement officers.
In 2015, Mr Ali and Mrs Aslam were filmed by a TV crew and High Court officers who were wearing body cameras, while they were being evicted from what was then their home. For reasons that are totally irrelevant here, Mr Ali had fallen behind on rental payments for the house which he shared with his wife and two children. The owner of the property obtained a court order for repossession, and Channel 5’s team of enforcement officers carried out the eviction. The court officers were accompanied by a TV crew who entered the house to film the couple’s reaction, even filming in the children’s bedrooms. The landlord’s son was also present during the eviction was was seen and heard on camera ‘taunting’ Mr Ali and complaining that his family was out of pocket because of the rent arrears and eviction costs.
Although Mr Ali asked the enforcement officers and the film crew why they were filming, no-one explained who the film crew were or why they were there. Mr Ali did not give his consent to the filming. Mr Ali also contacted the production company after the eviction and before the programme was first shown to ask for it not to be broadcast, but Channel 5 broadcast it anyway. The programme was shown a total of 36 times on Channel 5 and its sister channels and was also available to view online, with a total audience said to be 9.65 million people, including repeat viewers.
Mr Ali said that the programme had “showed them at their lowest ebb…. in a state of shock and very distressed… [and] caused them significant loss of dignity”. In their defence, Channel 5 argued that under “freedom of expression” laws they were entitled to show what happened during the eviction.
At the High Court, Mr Justice Arnold ruled that although Channel 5’s claimed that Mr Ali had provided consent by talking to the producers and enforcement officers during the eviction, “he unequivocally withdrew that consent” when he asked for the programme not to be shown.
The judge said that the Ali family had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” and that the “focus of the programme was not upon matters of public interest, but upon the drama of the conflict” between the family and the landlord’s son. The judge ruled the family’s right to privacy outweighed the documentary maker’s right to freedom of expression.
Christopher Hutchings, who represented the family, said the ruling was “one of the first legal actions” arising from “an observational documentary”. He added that the “judgement will inevitably have wider ramifications for those broadcasting film of a similar kind.”
Channel 5 said it welcomed the judge’s assessment, which recognised the show was “made in good faith and in the public interest”. A spokesman added the case only related to “a segment involving the Ali family and not the series in general”.
We truly fail to see how programs like this which use the pretext of ‘public interest’ to make money out of the misfortunes of others can be allowed to film and broadcast without explicit and advance approval from all parties involved.
We’re not talking about a TV program in which undercover reporters track paedophiles, wife-beaters, benefit cheats, animal abusers, scooter gangs and film their activities, handing footage to the Police to guarantee convictions. Hell, that would be dangerous for cameramen, obviously.
No, this kind of program is a disgrace, preying on the vulnerable. Our only negative thought relating to the verdict is that the compensation is nowhere near high enough to compensate for being humilated in front of nine and a half million people. Make it a pound per viewer and we’d say it was a fair outcome.