Public broadcaster pulls ‘Jesse’ documentary amid questions of objectivity

Edition 28 September, by Storm Gibbons

Dutch public broadcaster BNNVARA has decided not to air a documentary on Groenlinks party leader, Jesse Klaver. The documentary, which chronicles Klaver’s journey during the election campaign in the runup to the 2017 general election, had been heavily criticised by the public and politicians alike. The controversy had been bubbling after the announcement and soon reached breaking point, with BNNVARA announcing that they would not air the documentary at all. Since, however, the broadcaster has retraced its steps and sold back the copyrights to the producers, leaving its release up to the producers. Observers are concerned that the piece is essentially free advertising for the Groenlinkse party paid for by public funds.

The ‘Dutch Trudeau’

Over the past year Klaver has seen an explosion in popularity, especially among young people. Touted as the Dutch equivalent of Justin Trudeau for his youthfulness and charisma, he was often seen on the campaign trail posing for selfies with his fans. This popularity led to his party gaining a substantial share of seats in parliament, although the party had been expected to perform better once Klaver proved a credible candidate and not just an idealist. Due to his role in the rise of his party, BNNVARA had already been considering a documentary on the party leader. As they had not been able to formalise any agreements prior to the elections, the broadcaster jumped at the chance to use hours of campaign footage, which had been recorded by former campaign member Joey Boink. The broadcaster agreed to Boink directing the movie and releasing it on their terms: all the campaign material (both good and bad) should be included, Groenlinks should not play any role in the production of the documentary, and Boink had to explain his role within Groenlinks in the documentary.

A controversial angle

Yet the measures did not prove enough to avoid heavy criticism. BNNVARA was the subject of criticism from politicians, as the broadcaster is partially financed with public money and airing the documentary was considered a free advert for Groenlinks, paid for with public money. For the most part, however, Boink’s intentions were questioned, as the producer of the documentary had become close to Klaver working with Klaver on the campaign trail, as the producer of Groenlinks’ campaign material. Boink insists that the documentary contained footage that may be considered negative and that it serves a unique perspective into Dutch politics and election campaigns in particular. Furthermore, Klaver himself was confused by the public broadcaster’s change of heart: “I find it very remarkable that they first make the decision to go ahead with it and (…) when pressure starts to increase from outside, they decide to pull it”, he told the TV show Jinek. BNNVARA director, Gerard Timmer, later explained that his decision to pull the documentary did not result from the criticism it had been subject to, but rather on closer inspection of the terms of the documentary. He raised the question whether an independent producer would have shot the same footage and whether the footage critically depicted negative aspects of both the campaign and Klaver himself.

Broadcasted anyway

While BNNVARA initially had maintained that the documentary would not be released at all, it has since been aired in various cinemas and theatres across the country, as well as being made available on Blendle. The public broadcaster sold the copyright back to movie production agency, Doxy Films, and organized a number of debates and events along with its release. The objectivity of the documentary is now up for the public to decide.