Today, British news, including the BBC were forced to hand over all unbroadcast footage of the summer’s riots in England. This came after they were served with production orders from the courts, and the police hope the footage will assist them in bringing convictions against rioters.
ST84Photo Blog hails from Liverpool, where some significant public disorder occurred. I think the events nationwide are morally abhorrent. I also believe both that participants should face prosecution and that we need to look seriously and deeply at the range of factors that prompted these events, taking action to prevent a reoccurrence.
The two beliefs conflict when it comes to reacting to the news of the production orders being delivered. Obviously, I want successful prosecutions of those who are guilty, and the news footage may arguably be useful in achieving this. Yet, I am deeply uncomfortable about the demand on news organisations to hand over footage.
The state, acting through the police and the courts have, in serving production orders, stepped into the sphere of regulating journalistic practice. There are times when this is necessary (e.g. in developing libel laws, to prevent the news from fabricating stories about individuals and organisations) but, at other times, necessity isn’t so clear, and the importance of a free press as a key element of a civilised and civically engaged society deserves consideration. And that is precisely the case here.
Ignoring, for a moment, the presumably substantial amount of footage acquired through state cctv, the private cctv systems of shops attacked, and the Police FIT squad, the attacks on journalists during the riots shocked many. Unsurprisingly so, given we hold the idea of a free press being key to a liberal society as an important and fundamental idea.
These attacks indicate that there already exists a suspicion of reporters among some sections of the public. As a photographer, I worked in Toxteth prior to the summer riots. It was a personal project, and I grew up in the area, yet I still experienced great wariness from the community in conducting my work. People would approach me to question if I was with the police or the press. And both were considered equally suspect. When I work on long term projects, I frequently give my subjects my word that I wont publish the images anywhere (even on social media sites) without first showing them the images and agreeing with them that certain images are acceptable. In some cases, when I’ve photographed illegal immigrants, or photographed drug dealers, it is the only way I can work and it is only an effective working method so long as I can gain the trust of my subjects.
Every judgement like that delivered today erodes the scope of trust between journalists and the public. Other events, most recently and notable the phonehacking scandal, also erode this trust and journalists are far from being perfect. But the profession in its widest sense demands both that journalists hold themselves to account and add value to the profession before they consider damaging the profession to advance their careers, and that the state recognise and respect the extra-legal importance of the press.
I am not a journalist; I’m a documentary photographer and I don’t work for newspapers. But still, the journalistic ethic applies to the work I do. And journalists become ethically compromised by the seizing of documents – how can a journalist ethically and honestly assure a source that their identity won’t be revealed if the state shows a willingness to intervene and seize documents when it is deemed to be politically opportune?
Further, how can we hope to unpick the complex and multi-faceted causes of events like these? Because as much as I believe the participants in the rioting need to be punished, convictions will do little to address the various contributing issues to what happened. In this sense, prosecutions seem a rather glib response.
And this is highly relevant to the unease I feel about the production orders served upon news organisations today. The issues involved in the riots happening are complex, and a rush to prosecute and forget does nothing to show respect for the wider society of Britain that was affected.
There are times when we agree that individuals need to be “made an example of” – instances of justice as publicity, where the punishment of one individual for their crime is used not merely to punish them and try to prevent them reoffending, but also to signal to others that committing that crime will not be tolerated.
But justice as publicity arguably cuts both ways, and there ought to be times when we recognise that the pursuit of justice undermines itself when it reaches so far as to encourage more of the crime it is supposed to prevent. I believe that, when it comes to news organisations handing over footage of the riots, this is one of those times. After the teens of these riots have grown up, after the broken windows of the shops have been repaired, and after individual records get expunged, compounded by further crimes, or mitigated by future good behaviour, the long term effect of today’s judgement is a further erosion of the craftmanship and integrity of good journalism. And, with it, an erosion of the scope for positive progress in British society.