Unsung hero Jan Tomalin on her award-winning career.

When I am training production teams, I frequently tell them that in 30 years of advising on programmes, 20 years of which I spent at Channel 4, I have seen most things that can go wrong, go wrong.

Technology, audience tastes and genres may change, but the key challenges remain consistent.

When I joined C4 in 1988, the ‘Ofcom’ of the time (the IBA) was the legal broadcaster of the channel. It had the right to preview, edit and even ban its programmes before broadcast. We literally biked a VHS to the IBA and if they didn’t think the programme or something in it was appropriate, it didn’t go out.

This makes you a quitter or a fighter. I chose the latter.

My aim is always to try to help the programme maker achieve their creative ambitions, rather than impede them.I hate to see ‘compliance’ used unnecessarily as the ‘programme prevention unit’.

Ironically, to me, compliance first meant freedom. Once C4 became responsible for its own compliance with the regulatory code, there was scope to take risks not previously allowed.

I was fortunate in my early career to advise on the Banned Season to celebrate this new regime – it was a range of films, including documentaries, never before shown on British television.

One of these, Damned in the USA, made by Paul Yule, included images of controversial artworks censored in the USA.

C4 faced a court case from the documentary’s key contributor, the head of the right wing Christian group, the American Family Association. He claimed millions of dollars under a release form, drafted by his own lawyers, for being included in a programme which contained the very images he wanted to ban.

This culminated in a trial in Mississippi at which I testified along with the film makers and commissioners. We won, but I learned invaluable lessons I apply to this day about dealing with difficult documentary subjects.

I have advised on thousands of hours of factual programming, from undercover investigations, through observational documentaries and blue light shows to formatted reality shows and everything in between.

So-called gonzo or immersive journalism brings its own challenges, not least to confirm the veracity of content generated by inexperienced journalists, whistle-blowers, campaign groups or members of the public.

However, footage captured in this way can be the most original and compelling. I have seen non-journalists operate instinctively in accordance with journalistic rigour and very experienced producers, who should know better, make mistakes that would make a rookie blush.

These are my golden rules for factual programme makers:

  • Don’t underestimate the risks of any project. The most apparently anodyne content can unexpectedly bite you viciously in the behind. Assess the risks early and prepare accordingly.

  • Remain vigilant and refer up – don’t go rogue or cover up.

  • Always respect the audience. Documentaries have a vital role to play in informing the public and should be trusted. Don’t undermine that trust.

Jan Tomalin, who runs Media Law Consultancy, is the inaugural winner of Sheffield DocFest’s Unsung Hero in Factual TV award, which is supported by Channel 5.