News photographers in Downing Street

The Leveson Inquiry


In the list of sexy subjects to write about, the Leveson Inquiry may appear to be low down the top 40 but this is the one that has huge potential to change working practise for every photographer in the UK.

The fourth day of the inquiry has now finished and, along with a large percentage of my colleagues, I feel truly let down at how we, as photographers, are being portrayed.  By way of a cheat-sheet for those not following the story, the inquiry was launched to investigate malpractice within the media, following on from the hacking scandal at News International but appears to slowly be turning into a witch-hunt against photographers.  While celebrity witnesses have been lining up to vent their anger at the ordeals that they have faced at the hands of the paparazzi, the differentiation between news photographers and paps has been blurred to the point where the whole industry is now being tarred with the same brush.

Having started writing a blog post on the subject, colleague and friend Christopher Pledger beat me to it with his “open letter” explaining how he feels about the situation.  He’s kindly let me reproduce it here.  If you agree with what’s been said or even feel that it’s made you consider how you feel on the topic, please share this page.  It’s important that as many people as possible get to know that there is a difference.  Over to Christopher…

“These are my personal views and are not intended to be representative of any organisation I work for as a freelance photographer.

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 a person’s 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, 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 members of the public. 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 the witnesses space to arrive without being disturbed. TV reports have consistently referred to ‘hordes of photographers’ while ignoring the numerous 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 are when they are 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 increasingly easier 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.”

So there we have it.  This could well be a make or break time for British press photography.  Let’s hope that the inquiry sees sense before knee-jerk reactions destroy some of this country’s powerful freedoms forever.


November 25th, 2011