Protest and the public sphere: our democratic duty to report
Cameras surveil many public spaces, and mobile phones can take pictures any time, anywhere and disseminate them, yet there remains a curious resistance among some to photojournalism at protests. Perhaps it is because people have become used to editing their own social media presences, deleting images and posts at will, so they believe they are sovereign over every use of their image. Now that we are all potential publishers and broadcasters, it is necessary to distinguish between an individual’s media presence and the traditional mass media. Professional journalism outlets remain an essential element of a democratic society, partly because they use longstanding techniques of collection, verification and dissemination to nourish a shared public information space. Granted, some pollute it too at times, but the point holds.
People whose public actions are lawfully reported in mass media cannot assert a right to edit that coverage in the same way they can curate their Facebook page or Twitter activity. True, publicity has its ripple effects and it is necessary to consider images in context – placement, caption, accompanying text – to avoid false-light portrayals. But the ability of journalists to report freely what they see, hear and photograph at public demonstrations is one of the safeguards of freedoms of assembly, association and expression. Threat of disclosure can be a check on unreasonable controls or excessive force by authorities. Disclosure afterwards is an accountability method and a sanction.
Violence unleashed on the crowd at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in 1819, led a businessman who witnessed it to establish the Guardian. Today, both professional journalists and citizens together can provide the necessary scrutiny. In London in 2009, crowd-sourced images helped to establish the facts of the death of a bystander, Ian Tomlinson, who was struck with a baton by a police officer when he became caught up in clashes between demonstrators and police.
Twice in recent months I have received complaints from people whose images were used to illustrate unrelated London street demonstrations. In each case, photographers had captured their images when the two adults, who are unconnected, freely participated at lawful events in public streets. Editors chose the images for their powerful encapsulation and communication of each event. Neither person was named. After what is always a balancing exercise, both requests for deletion were denied.
In essence, the pair objected to being a kind of personification of the protest that each had attended. Depending on what happens, that is what any person who joins a public demonstration could become. Chance might put them in the photographer’s viewfinder and among the editors’ choices.
The public sphere is both necessary and untidy.