“There really has to be something in the documentary about her ideals (…), now thats not in it at all.” For example, D66 urged the creators of the VPro movie about Sigrid Kaag for substantive adjustments. “In at least three fragments, Kaag doesnt have a seat belt that needs to be adjusted,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (BuZa).
The team behind the documentary then examined whether the seat belt could be fitted by a specialist company if necessary. “But whatever you do about it remains visible,” someone from production company De Familie responded.
In this way, D66 and BuZa have explicitly interfered with the creation of the 76 minute film Sigrid Kaag: from Beirut to Binnenhof. The VPRO has met them in part of these requests, according to communication from stakeholders published by GeenStijl.
“Image manipulation would be very blame”
The film was “independent and critical”, the broadcaster responds. But the published documents make it impossible to maintain that point of view, according to media ethicist Huub Evers.
“The VPRO was apparently open to political pressure and even attempts to manipulate images. Thats apparently considered with that seat belt. If it was technically feasible, they might have done it too, I read. That would have been very bad,” says the former member of the Journalism Council and now Ombudsman at De Limburger. “VPRO cannot sustain that Kaag documentary is independent.”
“Have to say no earlier”
The option to “photoshop in” the seat belt should never have been examined, acknowledges VPro editor Stan van Engelen. “Its very clear that we should have said faster, sorry, were not going to go along with this.”
Adjusting or removing the scenes in which Kaag does not wear a seat belt in the car was never really an option, according to Van Engelen. “It was already clipped and ready for the creator to stay in final assembly.”
The editor-in-chief denies that the VPRO Kaag has met far. “You can see the pressure to adjust passages in the emails, but we havent moved on many points. In the end, director Shuchen Tan was able to make the film the way she wanted it.”
It is common for journalists to view the final text or editing in personal portraits for publication. That way factual errors can be removed. For example, in the case of a minister, it can prevent secret or state-sensitive information from leaking out.
Evers: “But really getting political sensitivities out, that shouldnt be discussed. It does happen, but it is common for this to be explicitly mentioned in the interview.” In this case, the VPRO should definitely have done that.
Thomas Bruning of the Dutch Association of Journalists (NVJ) agrees with him. “Obviously mistakes have been made,” he says. Especially because the documentary – which was broadcast 2.5 months before the election – is politically sensitive.
In the published emails, a Buza employee writes that there was even a discussion about the documentarys broadcast date “before or after the election for example”. The VPRO denies that and states that this trade-off has been purely and only with the broadcaster and NPO 2.
But if the ministry workers assertion is correct, Bruning believes that it is completely unacceptable. “That would damage independent journalism in its credibility. Its very good that this is also coming to the water thanks to other journalists.”
Minister Slob (Education and Media) asked the broadcaster for clarification. At the end of 2020, he answered questions by the PVV that D66 “did not have any involvement or influence on the documentary”.
The Media Commissioner is considering investigating the progress of the documentary. The NPO Ombudsman has already launched an inquiry.
“Running such a documentary in campaign time is almost always a bad idea,” former D66 politician Boris van der Ham responds on Twitter. “Campaign team and BuZa wanted influence and the VPRO and the production company got weak knees. That is now (rightly) come true and gets (rightly) criticism. Just dont do this kind of stuff and timing anymore.”