The Leveson Inquiry
*Stands up from the gathered folk sat on chairs in a circle in the community centre hall* My name is Edmond Terakopian and I’m a press photographer of 22 years. Following the Leveson Inquiry, anyone would think that being a press photographer in this country is wrong and the devil’s work and that we’re all villains. Well, I’m Edmond Terakopian, a press photographer and extremely proud of it.
Wave after wave of celebrities (and others) with their own personal agendas (always interesting to look back on the ethics and behaviour of such people as they attempt to take the moral high ground) have been giving testimonials on press intrusion. The unfortunate thing is that this has gone from press intrusion (for which there are some very valid cases) to a witch hunt against photographers. The paparazzi who are making life hell for those in the spotlight are now in the spotlight. I personally have no major issue with this as I have witnessed the behaviour of the paparazzi and hate what they have done to the industry I so love. People in their ignorance, and the wider media (reporters, both in newspapers, radio and TV) who know better, are branding every press photographer a paparazzi. This is absolutely wrong and a disgrace. Another disgrace is the way some reporters are trying to distance themselves from press photographers by pointing fingers! I’d like to remind these small minded print journalists that without pictures to illustrate and highlight stories, most stories would either go unread or will at best lack impact. A newspaper without strong and interesting photography would indeed be extremely boring and I would suggest, will not sell. To my colleagues in TV I would like to say that we are all journalists; some use a TV camera, others a microphone, some a camera and others a keyboard. If by all this ridiculous finger pointing and sensationalising that’s going on, carries on and laws are passed, this will effect the entire industry. The whole notion of freedom of press will be in dire peril. Be responsible and please be careful. Perhaps all of this is being done on purpose by some news editors to help shift the public’s attention away from the phone hacking and unethical journalism which is the question at the core of the inquiry?
Allow me to remind everyone what press photographers do; remember the ultimate sacrifices made by our colleagues over the years as they put their lives on the line and cover conflict and inhumanity around the world. Let me remind you of luckier colleagues who ‘only’ lost limbs whilst doing this most honourable of jobs. Don’t tar us all with this brush.
The funniest thing of all though is that on the whole, a paparazzi has a higher income than a press photographer does – yes, even those that risk their lives in conflict zones. The reason for this is simply that the public buy newspapers and magazines that carry this material. As a result, papers and magazines pay top whack for this material. The biggest selling publications are those that run this rubbish; it’s a question of supply and demand. Stop buying this trash and the market for paparazzi pictures will shrink. To the finger pointing public who find it funny to throw abuse at photographers and call us paps, take a look in the mirror and see which publications you and you families buy; you may well find that you’re funding this issue you’re so outraged by. I hasten to add that my colleagues who are celebrity photographers aren’t tarred with this brush either. Honourable and skilled photographers who cover premieres and parties, all by invitation, who are a huge part of the image building of actors and singers.
I’m worried by this inquiry as it has been extremely one sided. So far, neither the NUJ (I have now found out the NUJ has are a statement at the inquiry, but very early on, and before the entire thing turned into an anti-photographer campaign; please see the bottom of this article) or BPPA have been invited to speak. There are also a huge number of politicians who were stung because of the recent MPs expenses scandal. This group of people I’m guessing would jump at any opportunity to try and pass into law some of the ludicrous suggestions made by some at the inquiry.
One cannot have a democracy without a free press. If we can’t do our jobs, bring corruption, injustice and inhumanity before the eyes of the world, just imagine to what depths society can sink to.
I would suggest those who at this point are shrugging their shoulders to go and get a few good photojournalistic books and imagine a UK history where such a book does not exist as these images could not be taken. Then get a few books on street photography and imagine a situation where this sociological history was not documented in the UK.
There is no excuse for bad journalism; fiction or sensationalism should not see the light of day in our papers or TV news segments. However, there is a credible danger that we may end up ruining the people’s right to a free press. Imagine a country where the government is not held to account by the media, or one where criminals get away with all sorts without being shown in the media. There are many consequences to this.
My colleague Christopher Pledger has put a lot of what’s been on my mind perfectly in his open letter, which I’m reproducing with permission, in full below:
Christopher Pledger: Press Photography and the Leveson Inquiry
“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.”
Please spread this link to as many people as you can. This is an important issue which has extremely far reaching consequences; ones that can have a hugely negative impact on society as we know it. I’m Edmond Terakopian and proud to be a press photographer.
I have just found out (26 Nov, 16:57) that the NUJ has indeed made a statement at the enquiry. However, the NUJ statement was made very early on in the inquiry and was before the entire thing turned into this one-sided, anti-photographer campaign by the famous. When photographers are being attacked in this extremely one sided way, why the BPPA hasn’t been invited is beyond me. The NUJ statement can be read in full in this Media Guardian article. My thoughts are that the NUJ London Photographer’s Branch needs to now be invited to address the points being raised.
More food for thought on some of the ridiculous proposals being aired at the inquiry. Can you imagine if press photographers had to ask for permission every time they needed to photograph someone in public? Having to stop emergency personnel from doing their jobs, to get written permission when on a breaking news story. How often would criminals give written permission? MPs who are stealing from the tax payer via their expense claims…how many of them would give permission? Documenting the horrors of the July 7th bombing of the tubes and bus; would it be right to stop injured people and ask them to fill in and sign forms? On a different note, this would also completely stop any social documentary – street photography of daily life? Forget it. All those natural and real moments will be lost forever. Can you imagine a world without the brilliant images of Henri Cartier Bresson?
On a related note, illustrating why we should not all be tarred with he same brush; has anyone had a bad builder? A bad doctor? A bad dentist? A bad meal in a restaurant? What are we going to do, ban builders, doctors, dentists and chefs? There are always rogue elements in the world. Coming up with ridiculous suggestions which apply to the entire industry and upset the exact freedoms this country fought for in several wars is disrespectful, immature, self centred and just plain wrong. Bad journalism should not be tolerated. Absolutely not. However, holding one sided inquiries where the ill informed people with personal agendas are given free reign to say all they want without hearing the other side is just plain injustice. I’m not defending disrespectful paparazzi, the rogue photographer, the bad celebrity agencies or bad tabloid journalists – let’s just not forget that there is a lot of nobility and importance in the work the press and press photographers do.
Another huge issue that everyone is missing, is that although these images are press images, they do then become historical. Can you imagine history books without any real photographs in them? No images from July 7th. No images from the London riots. No images of dodgy MPs or Murdoch and Wade. Everything having to be posed and re-enacted. How is that good for society?
Disclaimer: These are my personal views and do not reflect those of any news organisations for whom I work.
The Leveson Inquiry – Leon Neal’s Blog
Flaws On Both Sides of the Leveson Inquiry – Mark Borkowski
Leveson Exposed Celebrity Exploitation… – The Guardian
A Paparazzo Speaks – The Guardian
Photographers Hit Back Over Leveson ‘one way traffic’ – Press Gazette
Leveson Inquiry: Photographers Seek To Counter Criticism – Journalism.co.uk
Photographers Facing Unfair Criticism – The Guardian
Taken Without Permission – Jules Mattsson