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Category: European Journalism

Vilnius, September 2006  

Buying drugs and getting arrested was not quite what I had in mind when I agreed to spend the week as the visiting guru for a group of would-be journalists on a reality television programme in Lithuania.

But once I sensed the editors and producers of LNK were ready to confront the police I knew I had to help.

As a former BBC correspondent, I realised I might have some clout. After all I had a reputation to defend having once been admonished by the BBC’s controller of editorial policy for having become "excitable and untrustworthy."

My task was to advise Ievute Zubaviciute who had been assigned the most difficult story of the day. She was investigating complaints that drug pushers were harassing mothers at a bus stop on the outskirts of Vilnius despite there being a police station across the road.

Knowing we were being secretly filmed, and on being approached by a pusher with a handful of syringes, I suggested to her that I buy three days’ supply. On rejoining the crew I advised smashing the capsules to get rid of the drugs but Ruta Grineviciute, editor of Realybes Sou (Our Reality) insisted we hand over our evidence to the Police.

Eight hours in police custody was not what I had bargained for but the Lithuanian Journalists Union was on hand to advise and, after LNK hired the country’s top media lawyer Vytautus Sviderskis, we were both released without charge.

During the final few hours of interrogation every move was caught on camera after Realybes Sou succeeded in invading the precincts of Vilnius No.3 police station. Reality tv had come face to face 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.

Ievute was the star of the show which had the highest audience share of the evening and Ms Grineviciute’s editorial judgement was entirely vindicated because we had put the spotlight firmly on the police.

My arrest had done the trick. LNK had set the agenda, forcing the police and justice minister to respond. On my last day with my six reality tv housemates we heard there had been a surprise sweep of the district and the arrest of twenty one suspected drug pushers.

Sixteen years after independence from the Soviet Union, LNK had demonstrated the growing sense of confidence in Lithuania’s news media and a group of potential journalists had shown that serious reporting of a controversial problem could be turned into popular reality tv.

(Submitted to The Journalist, 26.9.2006)