The sight of a pack of paparazzi in pursuit of some celebrity, victim of crime or even a suspected criminal is one of the less attractive aspects of having a ‘free press’. It’s easy to condemn but more difficult to draw a line between the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy. However, there is some hypocrisy involved in the media’s defence of their practices, a failure to acknowledge that they are as much the result of practical and commercial considerations as of any pursuit of truth and justice.
Anyone who writes, for a living or for pleasure, knows that it takes a lot more effort to fill space with words than with pictures, especially in the age of the digital camera. So, it’s unsurprising that newspaper editors welcome the efforts of paparazzi to provide them with glamorous or sensational photographs. These may add no information to the ‘news’ they illustrate, but they do catch the eye and can be easily expanded. How much easier than churning out an extra paragraph. That’s why editors are prepared to pay significant sums for the right picture, and why photographers will behave so badly in order to take it.
While pictures are an optional extra in our newspapers they’re a necessity in television news, where editors feel obliged to provide us with constant visual stimulation, along with the factual information we actually need. Too often the availability of dramatic pictures comes to dominate the news agenda and how items are covered. For example, shaky cell phone pictures of something happening in Syria take precedence over a challenging interview with the Syrian ambassador or some contextual analysis by an academic expert. The result is to bias reporting towards dramatic action, rather than thoughtful consideration of the issues.
No doubt, the Leveson Inquiry will struggle to find a fresh approach to regulation of the media which strikes the right balance between the right to know and the right to be private, and ensures that all sides of a dispute are fairly represented. These are important matters for democracy but, aside from those considerations of principle, we ought to remember the practical concerns which must often motivate the people who operate our media, whether printed or broadcast. Just imagine the awful daily responsibility of having to fill all those blank pages and screens !