by Kevin Meagher
Citizen journalism is perhaps a rather grand term to describe a person with a smartphone capable of pressing an ‘app’ and pointing it at a commotion, however its effect has now revolutionised the visual media, as we saw in all too stark terms last week.
The heinous murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich and its aftermath was quickly whizzing round cyberspace allowing us to see, graphically, the tale of horror that was being cautiously relayed by the mainstream media.
The term ‘media’ never used to need this caveat. The term was exclusively reserved for newspapers and broadcasters. Now, the technical utility of a smartphone allows everyone to publish and broadcast. We are all the media.
It may be shaky and grainy, but we are getting used to unexpurgated and contemporaneous footage undercutting broadcasters and newspapers’ monopoly in telling us the truth. It is utterly changing our understanding and reaction to major events.
Now, we decide for ourselves. Uploaded to YouTube, this unshackled truth is, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, up and halfway around the world before the context gets its boots on.
This is the challenge facing modern editors and news outlets, judging how far to go in matching its pace. Sit too long on these first-eye accounts and the readers will simply find them elsewhere on the web. Edit their usage and stand accused of censorship or bias. Use them and stand accused of sensationalism or in that hoary old term, giving terrorists the oxygen of publicity.
In a piece for the New Statesman last week, Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, a think tank exploring issues of identity and integration, said it was ‘a shame’ that no newspaper front pages the day after the killing of Drummer Rigby ‘inverted the lens’.
He cites the exchange between brave passer-by, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who came to the stricken soldier’s aide and confronted one of his attackers. “It is only you versus many people. You are going to lose” she said. ‘Could that not have been the stuff of front page headlines too?’ asks Katwala.
But in an age of cynicism about every aspect of public life, are we not entitled to see exactly what is happening in our society that directly affects us; even if it is shocking and even if this is what the perpetrators of horrible events seem to want?
After all this is sadly nothing new. IRA ‘spectaculars’ like the Manchester and Canary Wharf bombings in the mid-1990s generated acres of newsprint and hours of footage. These were as much motivated for their propaganda value as the killing of Drummer Rigby seems to have been.
Of course the implications, not least for criminal proceedings, are massive, with millions of people now treated to powerful and emotive images about which they form solid and immediate views. How do we even form an impartial jury for anyone charged with the events in Woolwich?
The legal process and new media are oil and water. Sally Bercow’s legal travails tell us that. Lord McAlpine’s successful libel action against her for her now infamous innuendo shows the danger of publishing unverifiable material. There are still limits, but how durable are they?
Technology is casually extending the scope of free speech, sometimes recklessly, but this particular genie is now out of the bottle and tweeting away, when he’s not pointing his camera phone at the crowd.
Short of shutting down YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and telling mobile device manufacturers to stop fitting cameras to their phones and tablets, little can be done.
It seems we will muddle through for now. The law and how it relates to social media will remain ill-joined. Judgements about how we use controversial footage will be finely argued. Editors will continue to twitch. There will be further scandals – and now, perhaps, more writs too.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut