Commentating on the race to the bottom

Yet again The BPPA finds itself responding to a piece by Professor Roy Greenslade on The Guardian’s website. Yet again Professor Greenslade adds his influential voice to the drastically mistaken notion that anyone can take a picture good enough for a newspaper these days. Seriously? Have you looked at some of the utter rubbish that gets used in some of our newspapers? To assert that anyone with a camera can take a picture isn’t only an insult to the skilled photographers who make silk purses out of sows ears on a daily basis it also invites the bean-counters who are behind the decisions to axe photographers jobs to question the need for written journalists too.

I can just imagine the conversation between the accountants and the owners with an editor sitting there listening to the conversation;

Owner: We need to save some more money. Sales are still in decline and sacking the photographers hasn’t saved us enough.

Accountant: Well, members of the public are providing all of our visual content so maybe we can get them to supply the words too.

Editor: But…

Owner: Brilliant idea. Let’s start with all of the senior reporters who really know what they are doing. Editor – we need you to sell this to the staff.

Editor: But…

Owner: They’re all scared for their jobs anyway. Accountant – you are a genius and you will be rewarded for your work with a big pay rise.

Editor: But…

Accountant: Thanks Owner, maybe we should discuss a few other money-saving ideas that I have over a drink or two. Do we NEED editors?

How long will it be before expensive columnists get their marching orders in favour of a few blokes with word processing software who “can write a bit”? Who will those people actually be? Will they be honest and concerned citizens or will they be people with an agenda and an axe to grind?

We are already at the stage where a large percentage of the ‘supplied’ images being printed in some papers are not properly checked for honesty, accuracy or ownership (not to mention quality). Beyond that, nobody seems to care whether members of the public are putting their own or other people’s lives in danger to get the pictures that they are giving away for free. Even Professor Greenslade has to agree that journalism stands or falls on its honesty and accuracy even if he has already thrown the towel in on quality.

One of the numerous responses to his Media Guardian article points out that very few people remember the words after the event compared to the number who remember the images. You might think that newspaper owners would forget this at their peril – unfortunately they have forgotten and their newspapers are in peril. Another response points out that newspaper decline could well be a chicken and egg discussion. Which did come first – the fall in sales or the loss of photographers?

This is rapidly becoming a race to the bottom and it really doesn’t help the case for quality newspapers and quality journalism when one of the highest profile commentators on the industry has given up on any notion of defending the simple idea that quality products have longevity and cheap ones don’t. We’d wonder if The Guardian’s own Picture Desk team would agree with The Professor’s odd logic or if its own sub-editors would approve of his fact checking.

Losing reporters would be the largest and most recent nail in the coffin of local and regional journalism. National newspapers, radio and television get a lot of their best people from the superb training ground that is (or maybe was) local journalism.

If I were contemplating training as a journalist right now I think that I’d have second thoughts about it. If the learned Professor is right maybe those currently on his course should consider switching to accountancy before it’s too late.

The Seating Plan

On Tuesday of this week I was at The Leveson Inquiry. Not outside behind the barriers. Inside the building inside the courtroom, suited and booted and even wearing a tie. More astonishingly, so was The BPPA Chairman Jeff Moore (although he refused to shave). The most important BPPA person was Neil Turner, fellow Vice-Chairman and the man in the spotlight. The man who was going into battle with some of the finest minds in the British legal system.

Neil had prepared the initial eighteen page submission, so we knew that inside out, but as we spent most of the day before preparing we had no idea what route the questioning might take. Would they demand to know what our definition of ‘private and public’ was? Would they hold up photographs of photographers in bun-fights and demand their names? Would they demand the names of dodgy picture desks and editors?

The night before we had dinner together, whilst going over and over what might happen. Afterwards, Jeff said that it felt like The Last Supper. To put it bluntly we were bordering on terrified, well I was and Jeff admitted to being even worse. There was some mention of his ‘flapping posterior’…..

On Tuesday morning, we met beforehand and had a last minute chat and a hearty condemned man’s last meal. I went for the bacon sandwich. We headed off to Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) in London, where we were met by a ‘baying pen full of paparazzi’. Oh no hang on a minute, that’s what a television journalist would say. What really happened, was that some of our colleagues greeted us with a wave and got us to pose for photographs. One of the pictures even made it onto the Metro website! It was a little strange being on the ‘wrong’ side of the press pen, but it didn’t last long.

Incidently, the press pen itself was another of our little victories. The pen had been organised at the eleventh hour prior to the start of The Leveson Inquiry proceedings, by myself with Getty Images photographer Pete Macdiarmid and the help of High Court regular Nick Razzell. The Leveson Inquiry kicked off on Monday 21st November 2011 with Hugh Grant and the parents of Milly Dowler. There was no press pen organised in the High Court precinct for photographers. It was going to be chaos. Imagine the footage our television colleagues would have lapped up of the witnesses fighting their way through the throng of fifty or more photographers and cameramen! It would have been very very ugly and luckily a friendly head of security agreed with us enough that an organised pen would indeed be a much better idea. If you don’t ask you don’t get. Disaster averted on the evening of Friday 18th November 2011.

That first week we (press photographers….) were torn to shreds by witness after witness and television loved it. We were getting a kicking and we decided we had to fight back. That’s when we decided it was time that The Leveson Inquiry listened to our side of the story. Things were going to change for us whether we liked it or not, so we had to be listened to. We had to have a seat at the table when the changes were going to be made in the future.

Fast forward a couple of months later and there we were being shown around the Court. We were told we were third up to give evidence, so sat in from the start. It was running over and it was hot, so we were having difficulty staying awake, but it did give us the chance to acclimatise. We never made it on in the morning session, but we were told we’d be first on the stand for the afternoon session. It was starting to get tense again. When we went in, the Court rose and Neil went to the stand to take the Oath. This was it.

Neil was questioned on our submission by Carine Patry Hoskins, Counsel to The Leveson Inquiry. Contrary to what we expected, she explained before we went in what she would be asking us about and pretty much stuck to the script.

It was tremendously difficult to stop myself from sticking my hand up and chipping in. I wonder what my fate would’ve been had I done so….maybe a night in the cells!? We followed every word, muttering between ourselves about answers and generally cheering Neil on under our breath. I sat through most of it with my head down, concentrating. It was going well, but at any moment the Counsel could turn on us.

There were a few points that were at the forefront of my mind. Points that could cause us trouble. I was worried we’d be accused of having members that were involved in some of the worst examples that some of the previous witnesses had mentioned. My thought was, why would we have asked to come here if we thought our members were involved? I was worried they’d ask us what we thought of Paul Dacre the Daily Mail’s Editor-In-Chief’s ideas about changing the Press Card system. We hadn’t had the chance to really tackle this because we’d been in ‘prep’ meetings the day before when he was actually giving evidence. We are totally behind the United Kingdom Press Card Authority, but we had to make sure we didn’t alienate a man who has a lot of clout in our industry. We had to make sure we didn’t appear to think his ideas were rubbish, even if we did. The UKPCA already does most of what he was asking a Press Card authority to do. We had to make sure we were not led down the road of slagging him off. We were there to make friends and get a seat at the table, not make enemies. I was worried how they would react to our criticism about television getting access to events like The Leveson Inquiry whilst press photographers are left literally out in the cold. This was raised, but I think they felt it was a fair point. They certainly failed to pursue the negative side of the suggestion.

My greatest fear was the comment in our submission about “people involved in news stories, not having the sense to stop and talk for two minutes”. To be honest, I’d forgotten about this comment until it came up. I thought that it really made us sound like we think people should do what we want, or face the consequences. Neil played a blinder. He said, it was all about changing the public’s attitude to it. Brilliant and true. Why shouldn’t someone stop and talk, why should they run away!? All we want is a photograph, not to hijack their soul.

Lord Leveson thanked us at the beginning of the session for attending The Leveson Inquiry to give evidence and at the end of the session he commented, (paraphrasing….) “the problem is not with professional photographers and journalists, but professional photographers and journalists are needed for the solution”.

After all our hard work lobbying to attend, we’d finally had our seat at the top table.