Vilnius, September 2006
Former BBC correspondent Nicholas Jones reports on how taking part in a Lithuanian television reality show to find future journalists provided some unexpected footage. After he volunteered to be secretly filmed buying some drugs, Jones was taken into custody by armed police with a camera crew in hot pursuit.
Little did I think when I entered Lithuania’s Big Brother house for would-be journalists that I would end up getting arrested and spend three hours in a Vilnius police station. This was a television reality show with a difference, a Pop Idol style contest in which contestants prepare reports on stories which viewers suggestilnius.
My role as visiting guru was to advise housemates how best to conduct an investigation and ensure the delivery of reports which were not only newsy but fair and accurate.
Realybes Sou (Our Reality) was already in its fourth week of an eight-week run; three of the housemates had been fired, voted off for having the lowest scores awarded by viewers and their fellow contestants.
Each weekday evenings the highlights, edited into a half hour programme, had a peak-time slot on LNK which currently claims the largest audience share of Lithuania’s four national television channels.
The set, hidden away at the back of the Akropolis shopping centre, was modelled along the lines of Celebrity Big Brother. The journalists’ house had some predictable facilities: a jacuzzi for interviewing local celebrities; a large see-through tank filled with tropical fish; untidy bedrooms strewn with discarded clothing and a kitchen and dining area piled high with dirty crockery.
Instead of lounging around all day the seven remaining housemates had to get to work. Hidden cameras followed their every move in a newsroom fitted out with desks, computers and a massive score board which tracked their success or failure. Fresh stories had to be filed each day for the show’s website www.alfa.lt . Out on assignment a camera crew recorded every encounter.
I volunteered to help Ievute Zubaviute, a 22 year old trainee, who had been assigned the trickiest story of the day. A viewer had emailed to complain that mothers and children were being intimidated by drug dealers who stopped local buses looking for users in need of a fix.
I suggested we should be secretly filmed. First I made sure that Ievute had checked this out with the police. Were they aware of bus passengers being harassed by drug dealers? She told me their reply was categoric: there were no reports of this happening and anyway it was impossible because there was a police station just 100 metres from the stop which the viewer had mentioned.
I said we should catch the bus, see what happened and then talk to the driver. Our bus was not stopped but we were in luck. The driver confirmed the story and knew precisely where drug pushers had been intimidating his passengers.
We got off as directed and were stopped immediately by two men asking what we wanted. Ievute inquired if drugs were for sale. Yes, said the man in charge. He produced from his pocket a handful of empty syringes; if we paid him enough money, the capsules would be filled, ready to inject.
As I didn’t speak Lithuanian I pretended to be the drug user. I suggested Ievute should ask the cost of three days’ supply. He quoted fifty Litu. As I pulled out my wallet to extract the right note, I turned to look up the road. There was the police station and I could see officers moving around in front of the building.
After the second man disappeared behind a fence for five minutes, he re-appeared with two syringes which were handed to me. We walked away up the road to join the crew which had secretly filmed our every move
When I was assured the cameraman had not only captured the transaction but also the position of the police station, I suggested it might be best to smash the two capsules so that we could not be arrested for possessing drugs. After all, we had the pictures which confirmed the story and the closeness of the police post.
When alerted to what had happened, Ruta Grineviciute, editor of Realybes Sou, put paid to that idea. She insisted we phone the police immediately and hand over the drugs, otherwise we could be accused of a cover-up. Her instruction was entirely vindicated because the focus of the story was about to change. Instead of simply exposing drug dealing, LNK was about to put the spotlight on the police and their repeated failure to crack down on drug pushers.
A police car arrived within a few minutes of our call followed by a plain clothes narcotics officers. We were both taken away for interrogation. Ievute was stripped of her hidden microphone, belt, watch and mobile phone. Her belongings were locked in a cupboard. I was told to switch of my mobile phone
Although we had driven past the precise spot where I had bought the drugs, the officers did not stop the car, even when I pointed out the lead pusher. They were not interested in seeing our tv pictures or any of the photos on my mobile phone. Instead of asking me to describe the two dealers, it was clear we were regarded as the criminals. Reality tv had come face to fact with the reality of an ill-equipped, hard-pressed police force that seemed to have become too demoralised to even bother with petty drug dealing on street corners.
The inside of the police station told the story: the interrogation room was shabby with two decrepit chairs; there was not a computer in sight; the interviewer wrote out our statement in long hand; and carbon paper was used to get duplicates of each form which had to be completed.
At no stage were either of us advised of our rights or told we could have a lawyer but help was at hand. Ms Grineviciute and Dainius Radzevicius, chairman of the Lithuanian Journalists Union, had been hitting the phones. An hour later they barged into the interrogation room accompanied by one of Lithuania’s top advocates, Vytautas Sviderskis, who as I was to discover to my relief, had a well-earned reputation for helping journalists arrested by the police.
By now every move was being caught on camera. Reality tv had succeeded in invading the precincts of Vilnius No.3 police station. In front of the interrogating officers, Sviderskis explained to both of us that under Lithuanian law citizens cannot be charged if they volunteer information or evidence about a crime.
Finally, after giving a written explanation of how we came to have drugs in our possession, we were both told to report to the same police station two days later. Our second interrogation lasted a further five hours; we both left with the firm impression that an investigation was underway.
A surprise was in store on our return to the reality house. While we were being questioned local journalists were tipped off by the police that the syringes did not contain narcotics, something neither of us was told during the interrogation.
It seemed an easy way out for the police. They had put the frighteners on a British journalist and a trainee reporter while at the same time doing their best to thwart the reality show by trying to kill off the story. And, perhaps more importantly, they had found a convenient excuse to drop the investigation, avoiding further questions about their failure to investigate our evidence of drug dealing at a bus stop where a pusher had a pocket full of syringes.
Ievute was the star of the show which had the highest audience of the evening. She told her story interspersed with footage of the drug dealing and the subsequent confrontation at the police station. My role had been rather akin to that of the avuncular Bosley, the friendly assistant in Charlie’s Angels, but despite the populist treatment I felt the show had given a graphic account of a young reporter coming to terms with a challenging story and we had been extremely open with the viewers about our thinking and techniques.
Finally, on my last day with the housemates, the police mounted a concerted operation on bus-stop drug pushers. Fifteen officers in four cars carried out a surprise sweep of the district and arrested twenty one suspects.
My first involvement in reality tv had proved it was possible to have Big Brother with brains. Sixteen years after Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union, LNK and a group of potential journalists had demonstrated that serious reporting of a controversial problem could be woven into the tapestry of one of the world’s most popular forms of tv entertainment.
(First published, The Guardian media page 11.9.2006