Sunday, January 07, 2007

Now we can all set the news agenda

It takes only one person with a camera phone for news editors to start losing control to the citizen journalists, as demonstrated by the violent images of the death of Saddam Hussein

The Prime Minister has backed an Iraqi investigation into how illicit footage of Saddam Hussein's execution became public. David Cameron found the pictures "frankly pretty grisly", and Ofcom has launched an inquiry into their use by broadcasters. But, for new-media enthusiasts, the fact that amateur film from a mobile telephone set the global news agenda shows citizen journalism has come of age.

From the moment the explicit footage appeared on, traditional editorial processes were redundant. No editor decided who could witness this tawdry spectacle. Questions of taste were left to viewers as the shaky but powerful images spread via the file-sharing websites YouTube, Google Video and Revver. Traditional broadcasters and newspapers were confronted with the biggest story yet to emerge from what Americans call "participatory media", television editors term "user-generated content", and participants define as the era of citizen journalism.

New technology had already accelerated and extended news-gathering. The most memorable images of the 7 July London bombings were taken by members of the public. Footage shot in smoke-filled Underground carriages and the iconic picture of the wreckage of the No 30 bus in Tavistock Square provided the BBC with 50 images within an hour. ITN received more than a dozen video clips.

That process of witnesses sending pictures to conventional media outlets matured five months later when the Buncefield oil depot in Hertfordshire exploded. The first still picture reached the BBC minutes after the initial blast and was followed four minutes later by video footage from a mobile phone. Some young "citizen journalists" took risks conventional ones would not. Told that their close up footage was wobbly, they returned to shoot more.

But images from events such as Buncefield, and the tornado that hit Kensal Rise, north-west London, last month, posed few dilemmas for editors.

"The question used to be whether the pictures might be a hoax and how they could be validated," says Stephen Jukes, head of the School of Media at Bournemouth University and former head of global news at Reuters. "That dilemma began to change when video images of Ken Bigley [the hostage murdered in Iraq] appeared on the internet. Editors questioned whether they should give his captors the oxygen of publicity. Many thought showing video of him was pandering to extremists. When Margaret Hassan was taken hostage, less footage was shown of her under stress."

With the Saddam images, new-wave unmediated journalism proved that freelance citizen images can dictate, not merely influence, the news agenda.

"At the time of 7/7, sites such as YouTube did not have much power," says Mr Jukes. "Now young people live by them and you cannot put that genie back in the bottle. User-generated content has taken off and that poses new challenges."

Top among them last week was how to publish and broadcast graphic images of Saddam's last seconds that were already available on computer screens.

"The most significant thing is that the footage was shot in the first place," says Peter Horrocks, head of television news at the BBC. "That video completely subverted the official version that the execution was dignified and that Saddam was treated humanely."

That has not stopped Ofcom launching an investigation into UK broadcasters' coverage. It has received 30 complaints about the video and audio footage of the former Iraqi dictator being mocked on the gallows by his executioners. A handful relate to Sky News, ITV1 and Channel 4, but 11 of them object to coverage on BBC1 and a further eight to News 24.

Mr Horrocks is unrepentant. "We decided to show the noose around the neck on News 24 but not on BBC1 at a time when children might be watching. We decided in advance that we would not show the moment of death. No mainstream broadcaster has used the moment when the trap door opened. We are not planning to reuse the images filmed immediately before the drop. We will use the preamble, but not the same range of pictures."

But despite ruling some images too graphic for future use, Mr Horrocks denies his decision to show them last week was influenced by the knowledge that millions of licence payers were watching them online. "It was a big step to see aspects of a public execution on British television, but the editorial issue was about images of violence and the public appetite for that. At no stage did I say, 'So many people have seen this online that we should show it too.'"

Others admit they were influenced to exceed normal limits on taste and decency by the millions linking to the images of Saddam filmed through the railings of the scaffold. "Several of us used images we might otherwise have kept off the front page," says one quality newspaper executive, "because we were persuaded that readers had chosen to look at worse ones online."

Until it was copied from website to website, broadcasters in Britain and America showed official footage that stopped when the noose was placed around the former dictator's neck. Afterwards the hand-held images with their accompanying soundtrack of savage taunting became ubiquitous. Steve Capus, president of NBC News, told The New York Times: "I want to do this with a measure of taste, but I don't want to stand in the way of history."

On this occasion the first draft was written by an Iraqi government official with a mobile telephone. His motives may have been sectarian or financial but through the increasingly power-ful medium of user-generated content he has done the world a favour.

"There is a question about whether the images are ghoulish and in appalling taste," says Bournemouth University's Mr Jukes. "But the person who took the images has highlighted something shocking. Without them we would not have seen the atrocious way it happened."

Mainstream media had already recognised the potential of citizen journalism. Newspapers, magazines and broadcasters invite us to fill their airtime or pages via sites such as BBC News Interactive's "yourpics" facility, the Five News website ("At least £100 plus your name on air") and The Sun's unambiguous "We want videos as well as your great stories and pics." Now illicit images of the sordid death of Saddam Hussein have seen citizen journalism define the editorial agenda for traditional media around the world. What might we know if a mobile telephone had been on the grassy knoll in Dallas in November 1963?


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