Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Thoughts from Jill Saward's funeral- yesterday

Parasites. Scavengers.

It's probably unfair to use those words to describe some press photographers. Mosquitoes, vampire bats, vultures, jackals and hyenas all play a necessary part in the world's eco-systems, and they don't get to choose what they do. David Attenborough is quite taken with some of them. But unlike human beings, these simpler creatures lack the capacity for moral choices. They don't know the difference between Right and Wrong, or try to puzzle out the grey areas in-between.

But when a crowd of mourners emerges from Lichfield Cathedral to face the multiple whirring of clicking cameras, you can wonder where some press photographers might have buried their consciences, to be able do this kind of thing for a living. The congregation were here at the funeral to say goodbye to a valued friend, a relative, a sister, an aunt, a resolute campaigner against sexual violence- so why were the press taking close-up pictures of individual with zoom lenses? By all means, it made sense to take pictures of the coffin, the undertakers, and the hearse driving away. But why intrude on personal tears and deep distress?

The photographers' answers would probably be- 'Because we can. Because images like these are interesting for our viewers and readers around the world- and of course, because we're only doing our job.' People like this might even witter on about 'the public's right to know', but I'm not sure why this mythical public needed to see the individual grief of family and friends. During the 2011 Levenson enquiry into press freedom, the reporter Paul McMullan memorably said,

“Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things in. Privacy is for paedos; fundamentally nobody else needs it.” (Huffington Post, 30/11/11)

Was he being cynical, arrogant- or just desperately sad, without realising it? Privacy is the space we each make our own. Intruding on a person's private grief and recording it for a profit, is a theft of personal space.

Some interviews and pictures regarding Jill Saward's funeral had been prearranged and agreed with those leading the service. That's fair enough- Jill had a public persona, she made an obvious difference to many peoples' lives, so her funeral was obviously of national significance. Some of those leading the service gave their permission to be interviewed, and so the reporters asked the questions, recorded the words and took the pictures. But before the service, I saw this person walking around, taking photos of chairs.

What was he up to? Afterwards, I realised he was recording the names of family members who had been given reserved seats at the front, because the press wanted to know the names of as many people as possible who were significant to the story. Get the names, make it personal, then get the pictures... That's how it works.

Now, to be fair to them for a moment- the press reports we saw after the funeral yesterday were a lot more factually accurate, than those printed after the Ealing Vicarage attack in 1986 (which Jill referred to, as the 'second violation'). Perhaps that's because fact-checking is much easier these days, when records can be instantly accessed, updated and shared online. (In 1986, vast files of clippings were maintained by newspaper offices. Keeping them up-to-date was a tedious, thankless task, and judging from the number of times they repeated the same inaccuracies despite requests for corrections, it was often done badly.) Also, there's now a lot more information readily available online, if the press want to start nosing around social media.

But yesterday, a large number of close-ups were posted online immediately after the service. At one point, I saw a scrum of photographers huddled together, trying to identify an image they'd taken of someone talking with Jill's husband. Who was she? Curious, I wandered over... and the reporters instantly turned and tried to interview me. 'No thanks', I replied. 'We had enough of that 30 years ago.' Thankfully, I didn't say more.

But that's how these people work (and they are mostly men, by the way.) Get the story, put it together and send it off, then you've done your job making money out of other peoples' lives. Our story and Jill Saward's story, were just one more job to get covered and dispatched, before moving on to the next gig. In a bizarre way, we suddenly knew what it must feel like to be a member of the British Royal Family every day.

So since they didn't ask our permission to take these kinds of photos, I thought I'd give you a photo of the press. I'm sure it's what they would have wanted. After all, they were obviously having a great day out.

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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.