Looking behind the story

The story of News International being awarded more than £30,00 in damages and more than £40,000 in costs against the owners of a celebrity news site which had lifted pictures, attracted my attention this morning.

A report in Press Gazette says the costs were awarded against "Robert and Judy Douglass, who own and operate a website called Robb’s Celebs, which offers a mix of celebrity pictures and videos and pornography".

What sort of business was it and what were the Douglasses like? The next few minutes showed the power of the web as a research tool for reporters.

Very quickly I was looking at an aerial photograph of their remote farmhouse home on the Welsh border near Knighton, their CVs — including photographs — and the company house registrations of their companies.

The first step was to do a Google search for the website. Then a Nominet WHOIS search provided an address. A search on confirmed the address and the name of one of their companies at the same address.

Then a companies house search produced the names of two companies. Another Google search revealed the CVs of the couple, neither of which has been updated for several years. They showed a couple who both have years of experience in computer consultancy with leading organisations.

What happened? It looks to me as if there may be a fascinating human story here. Internet research is a tremendous way to follow up hunches which may lead to a story. But there is always a point when the reporter has to talk to people.

I will be fascinated to read their story if someone gets the Douglasses to talk (the web research produced a phone number but I sense chance of success would be greater knocking on the door). And I am going to keep this search as an exercise for students.

Altered reality in pictures

Ian Jack has a fascinating piece on the altered reality of documentary film makers in the Guardian today. The BBC trailer which used a picture of the Queen in an apparent strop after celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz had asked her to remove her tiara, is his peg. In reality the picture was of the Queen entering the room for the photographic session.

Jack tells a story which suggests that altered reality applies just as much to still photography. He went to Los Angeles to interview Michael Caine but was firmly turned away at the star’s home.

Later he got the explanation that Leibovitz, who was to take the photographs, had insisted Caine dress in clothes she had brought with her. Caine told Jack: "I wasn’t having any of that crap. I wear my own clothes."

The large crew of assistants and the equipment used by Leibovitz to help create her images is well documented and requires the full co-operation of her subjects. Or, as Wikipedia puts it, is "marked by a close collaboration between the photographer and the subject".

How far this collaboration goes is demonstrated by an article in Salon in 2000 by author Brett Leveridge on the day Leibovitz photographed him for a book cover. He wrote:

"I like your beard in person," she says of my tiny goatee, "but I’m not sure it’s working in all these shots. Why don’t you shave it and we’ll shoot some more?"

Fine by me, of course. I’m not going to decline the opportunity to have Leibovitz shoot another round of pictures of my mug. She sends someone out for a razor and shaving cream and, upon their return, I head for the bathroom and off comes the goatee. We do another 30 or 45 minutes of shooting before I make my way back out into the chill Manhattan afternoon, walking approximately 6 inches off the ground.

It makes asking the Queen to take off her tiara sound trivial. 

Are Getty Images and Corbis getting too big?

On the day Getty Images announced the $200m purchase of Wireimages, to strengthen its position in multimedia material (Press Gazette), Lewis Blackwell, group creative director of the giant photo library, was defending their policy of acquisitions.

Last month Eamonn McCabe, former picture editor of the Guardian, wrote about the move of the Sygma picture library from its central Paris base. Sygma was bought in 1999 by Corbis, owned by Bill Gates of Microsoft.

McCabe was worried about the concentration of pictures under the control of Getty Images and Corbis. He wrote:

Today, the small family structures that still exist, and the mergers of photographers or co-ops, are faced with a colossal challenge: to convert quickly to digital in order to sell across the internet, or be reduced to the status of a museum. In the late 1990s, Sygma did not have the required money, but Corbis had the investment capital at a time when the work of over 10,000 photographers had to be digitalised to compete with the other major player in the global photography library business, John Paul Getty Jnr….
Getty and Gates are buying up photo libraries by the day, in order to one day own every photo used on the web. They already own between them a third of the world’s images, a fact that has to worry photographers. Gressent, the archive manager, is reassuringly passionate that the photographer will be king in his new library. At least the images by the 10,000 photographers who worked for Sygma are safe and in order, thanks to his team.

Yesterday, Blackwell responded in the Guardian saying that in the “vast, globalised net marketplace, photographers and collection-holders alike gravitate to companies such as ours because they offer the expertise to deliver image content into the right hands”.

He pointed out that Getty Images was not owned by John Paul Getty Jr, denied that the two giant companies owned a third of the world’s images and concluded:

Consumer choice now rules the market. Large players can only be successful if they offer something better than what is easily available in numerous places elsewhere on the web. The photographer remains king in this new environment – in fact photographers now have more options for sharing or making money from their work than ever. That’s something that anyone who cares about photography, and the impact it has on our lives, should celebrate.

There is no doubt that giant libraries made life easier for picture researchers and their employers but global dominance worries me.

When should children should not be seen?

This pixelating of faces in pictures of children is going too far. Today the Guardian has a pleasant picture, across four columns, of David Cameron, wife Samantha and daughter Nancy leaving a Oxfordshire church. Nancy’s face is obscured.

This is the same Nancy who was shown with her face unobscured on her father’s shoulder in a picture released just before the Conservative Party conference last autumn.

I can’t find today’s story or picture on the paper’s website but the earlier picture is there.

Today’s picture is on the photographer Ben Stansall’s web site, with Nancy’s faced unobscured. It is a nice picture and while I don’t have any evidence that it was posed there is no sign of objection.

Anyway, having allowed publication of a family picture including Nancy, there is no question of preventing identification of the little girl.

The Press Complainst Commission code of practice says:

i) Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.

ii) A child under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.

iii) Pupils must not be approached or photographed at school without the permission of the school authorities.

iv) Minors must not be paid for material involving children’s welfare, nor parents or guardians for material about their children or wards, unless it is clearly in the child’s interest.

v) Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child’s private life.

This raises the question of whether David and Samantha Cameron gave consent to the taking of the picture with their daughter outside the church. To have refused having previously consented to a family picture including the little girl would only reinforce the impression that they use their daughter for political gain when it suits them. Probably they were not asked.

Sometimes I have seen the faces of new born babies obscured. Who can recognise a baby? It is time to clarify this rule and get some common sense into its interpretation.

Paps pull back from Kate Middleton

The unseemly scrum of paarazzi surrounding Kate Middleton, the girlfriend of Prince William, wherever she goes seems to be dwindling. Fears of legal action and the danger of legislation seem to have concentrated minds.

The Sun reported yesterday that Jack Straw, leader of the Commons, was “sympathetic to a call from a senior Tory MP for a debate on whether current curbs on press intrusion are adequate”.

The paper is a part of News International which has banned the use of paparazzi pictures of Ms Middleton from its publications which also include the News of the Word, the Times, Sunday Times and thelondonpaper.

Hello, the Spanish-based celeb magazine, has also said it will not publish paparazzi pictures of Ms Middleton. In a statement, reported by the Guardian, the title said: “We are always careful, in any case, in the choice of photographs and respectful of her privacy.”

It is expected that other publications will fall into line although interest and curiosity about Ms Middleton will continue at a high level because of speculation that she will marry the prince.

The pros and cons of publishing picture from execution video

Condemnation of the Guardian’s decision to print a still from the unnocficial video of Saddam Hussein’s execution was very close to unanimous among the 200 readers who contacted the paper, Ian Mayes, the readers’ editor, says in today’s paper.

Among journalists on the paper and the website there was a very small majority against its use. Mayes says the decision to publish the picture on the front page was taken by the the deputy editor, who was on duty that day. He consulted Alan Rusbridger, the editor.

Rusbridger has written to all those who complained. His letter starts:

We thought long and hard about the use of the picture. Few would argue that the quasi-judicial execution of a former head of state was an insignificant event. Saddam was one of the most controversial political leaders of the past 50 years. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been expended in bringing about his downfall. Our own government has been in the forefront of seeking this outcome. The circumstances of Saddam’s trial and hanging may prove to be of great consequence within the region and beyond. So we were satisfied that this was a news event of considerable importance.

A further factor in our decision was the misleading impression of the execution which had been conveyed by the original “official” silent video released within minutes of Saddam’s death. The subsequent mobile phone footage – shot from a different angle and with the sound of cursing, chanting and jostling observers – gave an entirely different impression of the occasion. It was, in my view, right to give some prominence to this unvarnished version of events. Both the British and American governments have subsequently distanced themselves from the manner of the execution and the Iraqi authorities have launched their own inquiry into the footage from which our still picture was taken.

Mayes’s conclusion is that it was a time to “take readers into your confidence” and that there should have been an editorial note at the time of the presentation explaining the decision.

A lot of people have commented on the reader’s editor’s explanation and by this afternoon there was a fairly even balance among those who think the paper was right to publish the picture and those who feel it was wrong.

Over at the Independent, Stephen Glover, their media commentator, says: “Those editors who showed restraint were right.”

'Saddam video is not citizen journalism'

The mobile phone video of the execution of Saddam Hussein is being treated as a defining moment in the development of citizen journalism. In the Independent on Sunday today, Tim Luckhurst writes that “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.”

The video has clearly changed perceptions of the execution which was first seen in the sanitised official version. We know nothing yet about the intentions of the person who took it. We don’t know if he intended it to enter the public domain and, if he did, whether the purpose was to advance the cause of some sect or to provide additional information to the public. I have seen no evidence whatsoever of any journalistic intention.

We cannot accept that any picture, video or account of an event that comes into the public domain is journalism, citizen or otherwise, without stripping all meaning from the word.

What has changed is the means by which material such as the execution video can come into the public domain and immediately by-pass the mainstream media. Its widespread distribution also challenges the role of the press and broadcasters as arbiters of taste and decency.

That raises big enough issues without muddying the water with talk about citizen journalism.

Making money from citizen paparazzi snaps

Yahoo’s choice of Mr Paparazzi as the best UK entertainment website in its 2006 Finds awards suggests there is a way to make money out of “citizen journalism” or whatever you choose to call it.

The site is a spin-off from the Big Pictures business of Darryn Lyons who got a lot of free publicity from the BBC’s Pararazzi documentary series. The neat money-making touch is to offer would-be celeb snappers a “where are the hot subjects” text message service. They promise to send not more than 20 updates at 25p each in a week.

That adds up to £260 a year which might just be better business than actually flogging the pix.

The changing headline on the home page urges visitors to, “Make loads of money from your celebrity snaps.” A rotating gallery of pictures are flashed “sold for” at sums ranging from £8,000 to £200.


There is a sister site in the US but that does not offer the mobile phone service.

According to a report in The British Journal of Photography when Mr Paparazzi was launched in April last year, those who submit pictures that are sold can expect 50% of the earnings.

It is legal and it is encouraging many more people to be involved in journalism. So why do I find this concept distasteful? Probably because I am a po-faced grumpy old man who finds Civil Engineer more engaging than Heat.

And there is a worry that more people with camera phones harassing celebs will eventually lead to more restrictive privacy laws which will make it harder to do the stories that I think matter.

There are seven category winners in the Yahoo awards and visitors to the site are being asked to vote for “The People’s Choice” from a list which also includes the short-listed sites.

'Black' Kate Moss brings backlash

Editing by gimmick has its dangers as Simon Kelner found out this week when he handed the paper over to “guest designer” Giorgio Armani. The result of the worthy second Red edition to highlight HIV/Aids in Africa has been controversy over the picture of a blacked-up Kate Moss.

Kelner, the paper’s editor-in-chief must be reflecting on his words of a week before: “Giorgio Armani will bring his own, highly distinctive view of the world, and his unique creative vision to the pages of the newspaper, and there promise to be some spectacular visual treats.”

Certainly a spectacular visual but many did not regard it as a treat. Sunny Hundal, editor of Asians in Media, writing in the Pickled Politics blog said the edition was an “absolute travesty”. He went on: “Could they not find a black model to represent Africa? A lame and typical example of liberal guilt “we-feel-sorry-for-you” racism. It would have been better for the Indy to not even bother.”

The attack was led by Hannah Pool in Friday’s Guardian. She is a black journalist who writes about make-up among other things, not a woman who rails at every perceived infringement of political correctness. She wrote:

What exactly is this picture of Moss-as-African-woman supposed to portray? I suppose it is meant to be subversive, but what does it say about race today when a quality newspaper decides that its readers will only relate to Africa through a blacked-up white model rather than a real-life black woman? What does it say about the fight against HIV/Aids if that is the only way to make us care? And, as a black woman (born that way), what does this trick say about me?

It is almost 30 years ago that the BBC took off its long-running Black and White Minstrel Show. And that was too late according to many at the time.

Back copies of The (Red) Independent including a “free” Kate Moss poster are available at £10 from read4charity.

Retrospective of altered images

The slimming down of Katie Couric is the latest picture manipulation to become news and is the first example in a gallery of Pictures that lie at Cnet.

Some of them are clearly jokes and there is a good representation of pre-Photoshop examples including the erasure of Leon Trotsky. That one and quite a few of the others are not the work of journalists, but it is a gallery I will want to show to journalism students.

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