Don’t blame the council – blame ITV


Like many others I tuned in yesterday to watch ITV’s Don’t Blame the Council, billed as a ‘behind the scenes’ look at Wigan Council.

Back in October, when Wigan announced they were going to take part in a BBC documentary, Call The Council, I blogged about it and was hopeful that it would help shine a light on the real challenges faced by local authorities like Wigan. Maybe it would help ‘ordinary’ residents understand what the unprecedented cuts to budgets really mean for the services that many people take for granted.

At the time, Donna Hall, Chief Exec of Wigan Council, wrote a piece for the Guardian Public Leaders Network explaining why Wigan had decided to let the cameras in. She said:

“The last time there was industrial action, in Wigan we had to cancel our household waste collections. That went down like a contaminated bin at a recycling centre. Our social media accounts were inundated with questions from angry members of the public whose bins were not collected. Many asked: “When do I get a refund for the service you’ve not provided?”

This reaction told us one thing – an awful lot of council taxpayers appear to believe all we do is empty their bins.”

And she explained what she hoped the programme would achieve:

“I’d guess most of our residents wouldn’t be able to name more than 10 services we provide. In fact, Wigan council provides more than 700 services to 310,000 residents.

“Call the Council won’t be able to reflect all those services but it is going to show a rich mixture of our work. The film crews have only been with us for a few weeks but they have already followed our officers doing spot checks on taxi drivers, organising an Expo for small businesses, taking food samples from shops, dealing with illegal traveller sites and installing LED street lighting.”

I really admired Wigan Council for taking the brave step of letting the cameras in. Their aim was noble – highlighting the many and varied services that local government provides, and to demonstrate the tough decisions that councils all over the country are having to take.

Since then it seems that Wigan Council also permitted ITV to film with them for yesterday’s Don’t Blame The Council.

The BBC series is yet to be aired. But ITV’s effort was broadcast last night and left a bit of a sour taste.  Despite all the interesting and varied jobs that their Chief Exec described the BBC filming in the quote above, ITV’s hour long programme focused instead on… you guessed it… BINS.

Their portrayal of council staff was purposely negative – showing a sleeping bin lorry driver (legitimately on the break he is legally required to have maybe?); made the officer in charge of dog fouling and flytipping look over officious (despite the fact she was carrying out a very tough job that most members of the public, in my experience, support); poked fun at the stereotype of council workers always having meetings and generally being inept.

Not what I (or Wigan Council, I imagine) had hoped for.

And a missed opportunity I felt. Lazy, stereotyped fly on the wall nonsense that had no real intention of highlighting the very real issues and challenges facing local councils, but just wanted to follow a few ‘characters’ and have a bit of a laugh at their expense. 

The comments on Twitter were particularly depressing, with lots of ill-informed anti-council hate being posted. Early local media coverage hasn’t been much better. Not exactly what Donna Hall set out to achieve.

I feel for Wigan Council. They were brave enough to take this risk, and it hasn’t worked out as well as it could have. That is ITV’s fault for taking the easy, lazy approach.

A transmission date is yet to be confirmed for the BBC’s Call The Council series. Let’s hope for a more thorough, carefully considered programme from the Beeb. Perhaps they can put ITV to shame. But ITV’s treatment of this subject matter is bound to make other councils think twice about taking part in any future project as a result.

I would love to hear what other local government workers and communicators thought of the show – and I can’t wait to see how differently (hopefully) the BBC approach this issue. 



10 thoughts on “Don’t blame the council – blame ITV”

    1. Ah, so it is, thanks for that. A search reveals that Call the Council is bbc & is a whole series about Wigan Council. Broadcast date tbc. Let’s hope for a slightly fairer approach from the Beeb then!


    2. I’ve updated my post to reflect the fact that Wigan have in fact taken part in two programmes – Call The a Council is a BBC series which is yet to be aired, as you’ve rightly pointed out. Thanks again


  1. I think ITV have completely done the dirty on Wigan Council and the borough. They deliberately portrayed the northern town (as these types of shows alwys do) by leading on it’s more negative elements. There was absolutely no balance with other parts of the borough or with residents who were more positive about improving life there.

    It’s heartbreaking as a local gov employee to see these kind of shows. Fair play to Wigan for having a go at showing their entrepreneurial side but ITV just stitched them up.

    Admittedly the staff didn’t cover themselves in glory at times but you can guarantee strategic pressure would have been applied, repeatedly, by the film crew.

    In the end, we’ll all just turn down these requests to film.

    Keep your collective chin up Wigan staff and residents.


    1. Completely agree. One of the things that really frustrated me on Twitter was a lot of anti-northern tweets making fun of people for having accents and basically for being from the North. Oh please. The show made something from the council trying to generate income but didn’t really explain what that meant and generally portrayed the people as incompetent fools pretending to run a business. It maybe wasn’t a very positive picture of the town – I live in Wigan borough and I can assure you that there are some very nice areas – but they wanted to highlight the areas which had the biggest problem with rubbish, dog fouling and flytipping. The attitudes of the residents they interviewed annoyed me. The idea of The Deal is actually a very good one – residents play their part by recycling properly, using the council’s online services where possible and maybe even volunteer in their local community, whilst the council uses the money it saves to protect frontline services (as far as it can) and to keep council tax frozen. Sounds like a pretty fair, grown up way to go about it if you ask me. Yet you still do get people who think recycling and picking up their litter “isn’t my job”. Of course, they were the ones who made it onto the programme!
      In one of the local papers they said staff who were featured “faced disciplinary action”. I hope that isn’t the case. I think the council made the decision to put these people up for scrutiny, knowing that there was a potential risk for creative or misleading editing, and the least they can do now is stand by them now that that has happened.


  2. I’d rather not name myself, hope you don’t mind.
    I think the film company shot themselves in the foot too-we have request, on a fairly regular basis, asking to film our services.
    If anything, this prog has made my officers decide that there will be no filming of any of our services.
    We are stretched with resources as it is and it’s a huge job to let these guys film. To get this lazy journalism as a result, well…we will just start to politely decline every request.
    I don’t imagine we are the only council taking this approach!


    1. I think you are completely right. Councils get a lot of filming requests and taking part is not only a risk to the council’s reputation, but also to those staff you put in front of the cameras. Seeing the end product with Don’t Blame The Council is surely going to make that answer even more often no than it is yes. Wigan Council have taken part in a recent Channel 4 Documentary called 15,000 kids and Counting, which was about children in foster care. That worked out much better for them, but again, the risks of taking part in that were considerable – first and foremost for the vulnerable children that were featured. It was a pretty big decision but it was the right one as it did a great job of highlighting an important issue and raising awareness of what fostering is. I really hope that their BBC documentary will be the kind of thing that they hoped it would be – they stand a much better chance with the BBC, I must say. But yes, the legacy of Don’t Blame the Council is a damaging one and personally I can completely understand why councils will be more reluctant to invite in the cameras next time.


  3. Wigan Council were well and truly shafted by the TV company. Opening up to TV is a risk, but the reward of being able to tell your story to such a big audience can be massive. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen this time. From my limited experience of TV, I think you have to pick and choose which ones you do and use your instincts about how much you can trust the journalist. Sometimes you know they want to make a quick, low-brow show. Others will spend time to make something more meaningful.


    1. Yes, definitely. What they hoped to achieve was noble. If the programme had managed to raise some of the really important issues that are affecting local government then every other authority would be grateful to Wigan for being the ones to take the risk. Maybe it will work out like that with the BBC documentary – but the number of councils willing to take the gamble in the future is likely to be far fewer thanks to ITV’s efforts.


  4. As a Communications Officer, I find myself being approached by TV production companies almost weekly for us to get involved in fly-on-the-wall documentaries about trading standards, environmental services (yes, bins again) and the like. Our answer is invariably ‘no thanks’ for the simple reason that most of the approaches are from production companies working for commercial TV. In our experience, these companies have little interest is producing amything which isn’t purely
    entertainment’, or overtly controversial (Benefits Street springs to mind). These programmes garner a lot of attention which is popular with the commercial networks because they drive audience figures and therefore advertising revenue – which is the bottom line. The BBC has different priorities and can therefore be a much safer bet – the recent 3 part series on refuse collection in Newcastle is a case in point.


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