Protest and the pub­lic sphere: our demo­cratic duty to re­port

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Paul Chad­wick

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.

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