UN finds TV show too hot to handle

Fictional agent's use of torture leads world body's officials to take a dim view of allowing the programme to film at its US headquarters

NEW YORK // Thanks to his flagrant use of torture to interrogate suspects, agent Jack Bauer, the fictional anti-terrorist sleuth in the US television series 24, was never likely to receive a warm welcome at UN headquarters. The espionage show, shot to resemble "real time", is broadcasting its eighth season, in which counter-terrorism agents seek to thwart an assassination hit on a Middle Eastern president that would derail peace talks with the United States.

Although the action is set at UN headquarters in Manhattan, filming took place in Los Angeles studios after several months of negotiations between producers and the world body failed to yield a deal to shoot on its premises. This is despite the UN's new "open-arms" Hollywood policy, which has seen episodes of Ugly Betty and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit filmed at UN headquarters. There was even a tie-up with the sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica.

Talks between the makers, 20th Century Fox Television, and the UN were marred by the controversial content of the show, which has been criticised for promoting the use of torture and stereotyping Arabs as terrorists. "When you think of the range of shows out there 24 is not necessarily the most natural show that you would associate with the United Nations, so, therefore, a lot of people within the UN perhaps had some qualms about it," said Eric Falt, director of the UN's outreach division.

"There were hesitations on the part of some because in the past the show was portraying issues which we were unlikely to agree with; torture being one of them." In the storylines, agent Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, tramples over myriad human rights principles cherished by the UN - not only the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. During talks lasting several months until August, when Fox abandoned plans to shoot at UN headquarters, the outreach department raised several technical concerns about the script.

It objected to fictional US law enforcement agents bypassing protocols and taking control of UN security in episode three. Officials say the East River strip of international territory belongs to all 192 member states and fiercely defend its integrity. "That's not how it happens at the UN," Mr Falt said in an interview. "The UN is an independent security apparatus, which is independent from whatever host country we are located in."

While appreciating the depiction of the UN as the site of fictional peace talks between the US president Allison Taylor and her Middle Eastern counterpart, Omar Hassan, president of the fictional Islamic republic of Kamistan, UN officials raised concerns about the script's obvious political parallels. Negotiations between the fictional leaders hinge upon whether Hassan will abandon his nuclear technology programme - presenting a readily apparent comparison to the US-Iran dispute.

Mr Falt said the UN "would not be able to support any project that would pinpoint to a member state" and that discussions with 24's makers concluded "that it had to be a composite" nation. Writers opted for the fictional Islamic republic of Kamistan. Once it was decided that 24 would not be filmed at the UN, producers were left using footage of Hassan's journalist girlfriend in front of the Secretariat building, but from the pavement of First Avenue and beyond the limits of UN territory.

Although Mr Falt insists relations with Fox remain cordial, talks were clearly less successful than those with the makers of Ugly Betty and Law & Order, when the UN granted crews access to their midtown Manhattan campus without charge. The writers of Ugly Betty, an ABC comedy-drama series, agreed to build a UN-backed anti-malaria campaign into their script; while NBC's Law & Order presented the theme of Ugandan child soldiers.

Actors from Battlestar Galactica were cheered at UN headquarters during a special session in March last year, when they debated the show's allegorical analysis of US foreign policy, suicide bombings and religious fundamentalism. Falling under the auspices of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, the makers of 24 were always going to have a hard time striking a deal with the UN. The Australian-American media mogul's empire encompasses the New York Post, Fox News and other outlets that rarely miss an opportunity to lambast the world body.

Producers declined to comment on talks with the UN. Alan Averyt, from the UN Association of the USA, which seeks to improve the UN's profile in the United States, urged scriptwriters for 24 to present an "accurate portrayal of the UN's work" to its 11.6 million viewers across the country. jreinl@thenational.ae