How a great documentary turned into sensationalist reporting

So it was him. After months of speculation there is now a body of proof that suggests that the skeleton found under a Leicester car park is that of Richard III, one of England’s most reviled kings. After what has been referred to in the media as one of the most significant finds in archaeological history, the 500-year-old mystery over the king’s death seems to have been solved and the discovery sheds new light on his last resting place. As you would expect, the global media machine went crazy for the story and it was great to finally see it reach a satisfactory conclusion, or at least the first of many conclusions.There is still much work to be done and a battery of scientific tests and analyses are yet to be carried out. For the scientists involved, therefore, it is nowhere near the end of the road but it is probably the last stop for the general public whose interest is very likely to dwindle after such a climax.

In general, the coverage was very good and balanced and in most news stories the science was reported accurately, in an accessible manner and with a reasonable amount of detail for a lay audience. However, the exception to this was a documentary on Channel 4 that I found very disappointing. Airing on the same day as the press conference announcing the results from Leicester, Richard III: the king in the car park, claimed to be an ‘exclusive’ about the dig and the findings. Given that about 12 hours earlier a lot of the detail had been revealed, I wondered how they could justify that term. Nonetheless, despite my doubts and even at one and a half hours long, I thought the programe would be worth watching.

Unfortunately, it was not what I had been expecting. Focusing on the positives, I should say that the science presented in the piece was good, as they relied on able professional scientists for assistance, advice and comment; and the term ‘exclusive’ seemed apt as the producers had hedged their bets quite early on and sent a camera crew to a lonely car park in Leicester in the hope that events unravelled as they did. This gamble paid off big time; the cameras had unprecedented levels of access to the site and scientists, and were there to record it all first hand.  One has to admire the good judgement (or luck?).

What spoilt the programme for me, however, was the editorial decision to feature an amateur historian, and member of the Richard III Society, as the thread that glued the story together. Her disproportionate and emotional responses to almost every discovery (good or bad) turned what could have been a great documentary into an example of sensationalist reporting. For example, before transferring the box containing the skeletetal remains from the car park to the laboratory for analysis, the amateur historian ceremoniously covers the box with an English flag before very slowly walking it to the van waiting to be loaded. At this point there is no certainty about the provenance of the remains and the scientist in charge of the dig refuses to take part, admitting to not being comfortable with the proceedings. This scene, if you watch it, is almost theatrical, and there is plenty of theatricality in the programme. Unfortunately, this is one of the risks of science reporting going mainstream and this type of story, because of the mystery surrounding Richard III’s death, lends itself to this kind of media treatment. A small price to pay? Too high a price in this particular case, I’d say.