The ongoing Leveson Inquiry into media ethics & practice has great potential to help improve the media landscape in Britain, it also has the power to severely curtail a free press and destroy visual journalism. With the proposals and discussion of laws that would require a person’s consent before photographing them in public, news photographers are becoming understandably alarmed.
Some of the disgusting practices of ‘pap’ photographers described by witnesses are already illegal and require a combination of enforcement of existing law and wider changes to affect the market for unethical images. Creating tough, new draconian laws to appear to be taking action is not a solution.
Any such law, like a french-style privacy law that would have that effect, would obliterate news coverage, investigative journalism, street photography, photojournalism and many other areas of documenting visual reality. Numerous examples of photos that couldn’t exist with this sort of law have been put forward, from coverage of riots & disorder through to the 7/7 aftermath to Oliver Letwin putting documents in a bin, amazing crime pictures like this and many more day to day examples. Not to mention footage like the assault on Ian Tomlinson during the G20 or the beating of Rodney King in the US. A kneejerk legislative reaction here could have far reaching consequences…
The NUJ is continually consulting members to make further representation to the inquiry and the BPPA are asking for core participant status in order to counter some of the attacks on photography. Taking pictures in public either without permission of the subject or against the will of the subject is a vital right within a democratic country and nessercary for a free press. The concept of no reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces is one we have to defend. If we were to only be able to photograph what people want us to, would we not become merely PR photographers rather than journalists? Would people be willing to accept superinjunctions or the need for approval from the subject before writing a critical article? Why accept it with photographs…
Here’s my small contribution to the debate, a few recent photographs of mine taken without any permission from the subjects, and where asking permission would either have been impossible, disrupted the moment or would not have been given.
You can see more of my news work here on my blog or in my portfolio.
I think the British Press Photographer’s Association are planning a large and amazing ‘Photos you May Never See Again’ set so watch for it.
Please do have a read through some of the blogs & articles i’ve linked to above. I leave you with this open letter from award-winning photographer Christopher Pledger:
“The testimony of witnesses this week at the Leveson inquiry has included damning condemnation of the behaviour of the paparazzi. Both the celebrity and ‘ordinary’ victims of phone hacking have told of being chased, spat at and terrified by photographers. These experiences could have fatal consequences for the news photographer, a vital part of a truly free press
There are important distinctions to be made between a paparazzo and a press photographer. A comparison of the two is like that between the cowboy builder and a professional tradesman. It is also important to distinguish between the paparazzi and celebrity photographers. Celebrity photographers work with the permission, and often to the benefit of, their subjects. This can range from red carpet premieres to organised and set up photo shoots of a celebrity out shopping or on the beach. I do not class them in my definition of paparazzi. Lacking moral or ethical guidance the paparazzi work with little respect for the law. The composition, quality, or origin of a photograph is a distant second to its commercial value. Paparazzi agencies will often employ people with little or no knowledge of photography. The agency will provide cameras with settings taped over so they cannot be changed. It is not a photographer that is sent out of the office, simply a man with a camera.
Press photographers by contrast are skilled professionals with years of training and experience. They work within the strict guidelines of both the Press Complaints Commission and their newspaper or news agency. These guidelines include respecting both peoples right to privacy and the boundaries of private property. A good news photograph will be technically excellent and able to tell the story in a single frame. In contrast to the paparazzi financial rewards are low.
This is not to imply that all press photographers are angelic super-humans working to expose the truth to an unwitting public. Like any industry there are a minority of ‘rogue traders’ who are prepared to bend or break the rules to get a picture.
The problem for legitimate press photographers is they are seen as no different from the paparazzi. Regardless of the assignment they are covering all press photographers now experience regular abuse from strangers in the street. When photographing something as mundane as a the outside of a high street bank it is not uncommon to hear shouts of ‘pap scum’ or ‘leave them alone’ from passers by. If a group of press photographers are gathered outside a court or government building the first question asked by curious passers-by is not ‘what’s happening?’ but ‘which famous person is coming?’.
The problem of public perception stems from two different sources, celebrity magazine culture and television news. The dominant celebrity culture makes it hard to avoid a constant stream of images cataloguing the daily lives of the A to Z list. It is no surprise that the general public perceive the primary role of photographers as being to feed this machine. The problem is complicated by disreputable publications being prepared to buy pictures on a ‘no questions asked’ basis. This makes it hard to distinguish between photographers working in a professional way and those who aren’t.
Television news coverage is the other major factor in the problem of perception. During most stories a clip of press photographers is included as a ‘cut away’ shot to add visual interest. If the clip includes the subject of a story being surrounded by the media reporters will often refer to a scrum of photographers. This ignores the numerous TV cameras both in the scrum and filming from a distance. This has been demonstrated during TV reports on the Leveson inquiry. Press photographers have been working from an official area behind a barrier to give witnesses arriving space. TV reports have consistently referred to ‘hordes of photographers’ while ignoring the seven video cameras surrounding witnesses as they arrive. By using these tactics TV news aim to draw a distinction between the dirty press and the clean media. In doing so they may perhaps be driving the Leveson inquiry toward concluding tough privacy laws are required, privacy laws that will include a ban on photographing people in public without their permission.
A ban of this type would be the death of the free press in the UK. Current guidelines require that individuals should not be photographed while they have ‘a reasonable expectation of privacy’. In practical terms this means anyone in a public place can be photographed without permission, as they cannot expect privacy in a public space. If laws were introduced requiring the written consent of an individual before they were photographed, it would mean press photographers would have to ignore events unfolding before them. Some of the biggest news stories in the last year could not have been reported. Pictures of Charlie Gilmour swinging from the Cenotaph would have been taken illegally, likewise pictures of Oliver Letwin disposing of government documents in a park bin. Press photographers would be as ham strung as reporters prevented from covering stories of public interest that are subject to super injunctions.
The problem of finding a solution that avoids this type of privacy law is extremely difficult. Legitimate press photographers already have licensed press cards that are required to be shown to work in places like Downing Street. This system has not stopped any of the behaviour reported this week, or prevented the use of faked press cards. Digital cameras are cheap and easy to use making it hard for anybody to distinguish between professional and amateur, press photographer and paparazzo. If 99 out of 100 photographers comply with a code of conduct, one will always break the rules and tar the rest with the same brush. Introducing government or police regulation and control over licensing of press photographers would affect impartiality and freedom.
It would be very hard to argue that there can be no changes following the Leveson inquiry. We must be very careful what these changes are and where they will take us. Press photographers are in danger of being so restrained by regulation that we become like the fire fighter who cannot enter a burning building for fear of breaking health and safety regulations.
These are my personal views and are not intended to be representative of any organisation I work for as a freelance photographer. Christopher Pledger.”