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.

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“We are the eyes of the public…”

I’ve been to a mystical land! It’s a land where press photographers are loved and feted. They are considered professionals whose role is vital to the nation. They are not abused on the streets and the Head Of State, the President,  joins them for dinner when they have their annual awards ceremony, the winner of which is whisked away in a limo’ for a live prime time television interview. They are interviewed again for breakfast television and their winning photograph is plastered all over the national newspapers. One previous winner told me how he and a colleague were given a civic reception in their home town the year they won. To get there you just head north, turn left at Birmingham and keep on going.  You’ll probably need a boat or a plane, but it’s not as far as you think.

If you think I’m talking about the U.S.A then you are wrong! This land of dreams, where our profession is so loved is in fact the Republic Of  Ireland.

I’ve just returned from Dublin, after three days of judging the Press Photographer’s Association of Ireland ‘AIB Photojournalism Awards 2012’, along with my colleague photographer Peter Macdiarmid from Getty Images and legendary former picture editor of The Irish Times, Dermot O’Shea. We spent a fantastic weekend going through the cream of Irish press photography. The decisions were hard to make, but we were happy to spend the hours in a darkened room because the photography was just amazing. The results are almost a state secret, only to be revealed in February at the gala black tie dinner attended by non other than the Irish President Michael Higgins himself! Peter and myself were treated like visiting dignitaries and taken to the best restaurants and bars in Dublin, where the reception was never anything other than fiercely friendly. We are both looking forward to returning for the main event.

The thing that struck us both during the visit and which spurred me on to writing this, my first ever blog post, was how different the atmosphere was around the subject of press photography in Ireland. It really is respected, all the things I mentioned at the start of this post are true. On the final day of judging we were visited in the hotel, where the judging was taking place, by six photographers from the Irish national press for a photocall and on the following day the readers were put off their breakfast by our (mine and Pete’s) ugly mugs staring back at them. These national papers will also run massive spreads after the winners have been announced. The winner, as I said earlier, is taken to be interviewed on ‘The Late Late Show’, Ireland’s highest rated and most prestigious television show on RTE. This is fantastic support and publicity for the world of photojournalism and it is quite obviously paying dividends evident in the Irish public’s attitude to our job. The sponsor, Allied Irish Bank (AIB) must take a great deal of the credit too. They tour the exhibition to their branches around the country bringing this high quality work to the grassroots. Small communities getting the chance to see the work of the country’s finest. AIB also marry the tour to local festivals, so the photography becomes part of community events. It’s a simple idea but brilliantly effective because it makes people feel part of our job. It’s there for them to see in their high street.

Bearing all this in mind makes you wonder. Could we TheBPPA do the same !? Maybe we would need a fairy godmother sponsor? The work involved in touring any exhibition is daunting and probably beyond a volunteer lead organisation at the moment, but the publicity in other areas of the media must be achievable. We’ve got friends in television, why can’t we get them onside!? We all mostly work for newspapers and magazines, why can’t we get them to do spreads of member’s work when we have a completed project? I used to do ‘vox pops’ with Boris Johnson, surely City Hall is a prime exhibition space?We need ideas and we need everyone to get behind the cause…….

Whatever we do we’d better do it fast! The Leveson Inquiry set up following the phone hacking scandal, was very quick to turn it’s guns on press photographers. It’s easy to see why….we are ‘low hanging fruit’. The visible face of journalism. We stand on the street, we don’t hide in an office. We come face to face with the public and from experience I can tell you they are not big fans. We need to win them over. We need them to understand that we are there to serve them. We are there to show them what’s going on.

Andrew Wiard, a fellow TheBPPA board member and respected photojournalist, coined this brilliant phrase at a recent meeting when he said, “We are the eyes of the public..”

All we have to do now is work to get them to see it!