Sunday, 27 November 2011

Where does the news come from Daddy?

In light of the Leveson enquiry, I have dug out of my files something I wrote in September 2002 that I offered unsuccessfully as a comment piece to dozens of magazines and newspapers.

Where does the news come from Daddy?  

By Nat Bocking  

Pick up a magazine or a newspaper today to answer a five year old's query and you may wonder how do they obtain their stories?  

Peter Preston voiced his concern in the Guardian [Comment and Analysis 2.09.02 p15] that too many news stories come from unattributed sources. His worry was that powerful interests, whether governments or intelligence agencies, might be shaping public opinion without accountability.

Like my eggs at breakfast, I like to know how the news gets to my plate. Is it battery or free range? How a news story was acquired is a facet of its worth and credibility. 

I don't ask for the name of every mole in the House of Commons, just for a clearer indication on the provenance of the stories the media publish.  

Every story must have the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, why, or so said Clark Gable's hard boiled newspaperman in 'Teacher's Pet'. In these days of spin doctors and sound-bites, there should be more HOW in accounting for the sources and giving bylines reflecting the true authors of the story.

I have several years experience in tabloid celebrity journalism where stories with quotes attributed to "an onlooker" and "a close friend" are rampant. 

After being a staff photographer (who can also use a pen) at several news agencies, I have become used to seeing my stories published with other journalists' bylines or subsumed by the agency's credit or with none at all. All of this weakens the story's provenance and the publisher's accountability for it.

It was the story in the Guardian [31.08.2] about the discovery of a gun in an aircraft passenger's luggage in Stockholm that got me and Mr Preston thinking along the same lines. 

That story has four bylines and lots of quotes, including some from "security sources". Quotes must always have an attribution, even if it's only "a senior government official." 

In which case, I want to know how unnamed sources come to speak to a reporter and why must they be unnamed? Was it a reluctant doorstep challenge or a meeting arranged by a press officer conditional on unattribution? Was it perhaps a whispered conversation in the murky depths of a Washington garage?  

Another quite normal practice worries me. Seeing Jacky Rowland's story of facing Slobodan Milosevic at his trial on 'Newsnight' one evening and then in the Guardian the next day made me wonder if a cross-media package deal had been done. I expected a book and an appearance on Woman's Hour to follow. Naturally the 'box office' return - the measurement of consumers' interest - on stories must influence the choice of stories to report.

As a news photographer, my customers seem only prepared to pay worthwhile sums for photos of celebrities so this amounts to a form of censorship. I wish the media barons paid for photos of politicians as much as they do for well endowed pop stars, then I'd spend more time in Westminster instead of Soho. The expenses scandal would have surely been uncovered sooner.

The truth is that celebrities are a cheap source of raw news material who need the media as much as we need them. Politicians need celebrities too, bread and circuses comes to mind. Those who should be given the closest scrutiny don't crave exposure and have some means of the state to prevent it. Celebrities can't invoke 'D' notices or claim 'security' as a catch-all smokescreen.  

In the past decade or so, all forms of news media have reduced their manpower and now assign fewer correspondents overseas than before. [Channel 4 News stays at home to save cash. Media Guardian 2.9.02] The only growth sector has been local news agencies and online media. The quantity of stories filed by freelancers and agencies under newspapers' mastheads has increased year on year. 

It is a reality that the information age has enabled a trading floor where news stories can be bought and sold instantly as a commodity across several media platforms. Perhaps the reader should know what side of the bargain the publisher was on. Doesn't it make a difference between a newspaper approaching the subject of story or having it pitched it to them?  Readers would do well to tune their antennae for stories that might have been dressed up and had facts twisted to make them more attractive to buyers. I know, I've seen it done.  

A speciality of an erstwhile employer was transcribing anything a celebrity said on television chat-shows and radio in the UK and selling it overseas, often spun into a 'confession' story. There are many news agencies overseas selling the same thing to the UK. I notice that, across all newspapers and magazines, as more content is bought off the peg, paradoxically the less it is acknowledged as agency or freelance material. 

There are some sources, such as Reuters or PA, with reputations for accuracy to protect who make their byline a condition of supply but there are also thousands of cash-strapped news agencies and freelancers out there who are prepared to lose their byline if it makes a sale. Why do the publishers remove bylines? Well, it looks bad if some days most of the paper comes from freelancers and agencies.

As a entertainment news photographer, the sort behind the ropes on the red carpet, I hear and see a lot more than I can actually photograph. When I was employed by another news agency, passing on 'wicked whispers' and such tittle-tattle kept my employer happy (or so I thought) while they were paying me a salary to bring in the story they could splash all over the world. I am quite proud of my extensive cuttings file but without my byline on them, I can't claim authorship and you can't hold me to account for them.I can claim nodding acquaintance with several gossip columnists but they have no idea I was the source of many stories with their byline.

I always make sure that with my photos or stories come the facts of how I came by them, a sort of witness statement if you will yet I can count on one finger the times I have been asked to provide any evidence to corroborate a story. The biggest concern anybody had is that I wasn't on private property when I took the photos. "Don't forget" my editors told me, "the PCC is only a voluntary code" as I was despatched to Eton for two weeks undercover to get anything of the royal princes attending school. I was grateful to the Thames Valley Police for encouraging my employer to reconsider my assignment.

The first I know if my photos or stories might be splashed somewhere is when a journalist calls me to supply the "an onlooker said" quotes. There is always the danger that, as these quotes are unattributed, that either the seller will provide the buyer with what they want to hear or the buyer will put words in the mouth of the witness to serve both their interests.

Before becoming a news photographer, I had twenty five years in the film industry that enabled me to spot a celebrity at a thousand yards and that led to my mid-life career change. When I was new at the job, I was shocked by the rampant distortion of facts in the story's progress from pen to page. My fellow agency journalists, usually young and fresh to London from a local paper, were always under pressure to find something sensational to interest their editors. The agency editors were looking for the angles to sell it to the tabloids. News productivity was charted against salary. If your stories didn't sell for more than your wages, you were gone by the end of the month. When a story went to a tabloid or magazine, more often than not they would juice it up a little further. I'm not claiming anyone made stories up, just stretched the truth past what is fair. Once published, a story would be referred to whenever another development arose. Each time it was a lash on the spinning top of myth manufacture.

When Julia Roberts wooed Hugh Grant in 'Notting Hill', part of her character's angst was that her reputation lived forever in newspaper press cuttings and any indiscretions would forever be trotted out whenever somebody wanted to say something about her. I bet she had no trouble finding her motivation for that scene. So many stories have become 'facts' by virtue of endless repetition. I don't see any proof in the photos accompanying the stories that a Duchess gave an oral pedicure to a commoner or a 'Doctor Who' actor was the lover of a Welsh actress. 

Early on in my new career, I happened upon pop singer Robbie Williams sitting in Tom's coffee shop in Notting Hill. After snatching a frame and plucking up my courage, I naively asked if I could take his photo. "F**k off" was his direct answer. I asked if there was a compromise I could make with him but he wouldn't have it. He made a passionate plea that he be left alone and that he wasn't public property. I have no idea why he then went on to confide in me that he was feeling miserable because his dogs had crapped all over his new carpets and he had a case of eczema. By the time my report of that encounter got into the newspaper, the headline was "Robbie cracks under pressure", his outburst and skin condition being added to a long list of his troubles over the previous two years.

If it ever did go too far and a lawyer's letter cost a newspaper money on legal fees, the sanctions were hardly punitive. The tabloids might put our agency in purdah for a few days, but as the monster has to be fed daily, eventually they would call us just before their deadline, asking if we had anything they could use to fill a space and it would be back to business as usual.

One reassurance I would hear from my editors if I expressed any moral doubts was that readers of celebrity gossip take it with a pinch of salt anyway. Should cynicism of the media be encouraged in society? Will my five year old child, already a voracious reader, grow up believing nothing?  I single out newspapers and magazines for vigilance because of the semiotics of text. Unlike sound or visual recording, type on a page does not convey information on time or place of recording or the tone of voice or body language of the subject and so we must rely on the writer to convey this. 

Photographs imply veracity and some information of their provenance is naturally embedded within them. There are however many cases of distorted news photos in which analysis refutes the facts they establish.

I cannot enforce that my byline remains with my photographs but I always demand it because otherwise my photos can be used to corroborate inventions. One allegation I am confident of defending was in May 2000 when I snapped Madonna walking down Goodge Street carrying a rolled up sweater. It just happened that she passed an Oxfam shop. The picture was published in the Daily Express without my credit with the amusing story that Madonna, a multimillionaire, shops at Oxfam and had just purchased a £7 sweater there. I asked my editor, who wrote the story but isn't the name credited, how they could know this as I hadn't seen her do this. They said they had called the shop and located a customer who gave a quote about Madonna spending twenty minutes choosing the sweater. My photo, tightly cropped, purports she has been caught in the act of shopping when in fact she was stepping from the door of her car to the door of Guy Ritichie's office next door. The Oxfam shop turned the news cutting into a AO size poster and had it in their window for several months giving credibility to the story. Although I wasn't happy at seeing this done, I wasn't going to rock the boat over it. If Madonna had complained, the newspaper would blame my agency and in the mean time, they would make another story out of it. If my byline been on the photos, if anyone did care for the truth, they would have been able to contact me and I would have told my side of the story.

The newspapers that buy celebrity stories off the peg and publish them under their own staff bylines take a risk their suppliers haven't made the story up. The newspapers and agencies that make a habit of lifting stories from other sources take this risk as well. The Mail on Sunday got caught out with the untrue George Harrison "is resigned to dying" story. When the MoS fluffed up a news agency story and published it as their own 'exclusive', the rest of the world's press and television media lifted it from there. [This is gone into in detail by Martin Lewis in 'The Art of Lying' on and check out who was behind it.] If the MoS had stated which celebrity news agency 'their' story came from, a few journalists might have remembered a prior debacle over a Russell Crowe wedding and checked a the quotes before telling their own readers. In some kind of karmic retribution, after the Harrison affair the agency went into a financial tail-spin culminating in the departure of the company's founder.

It was no secret that an agency I worked for, like many other news agencies, employed a roomful of trainees (including a young Amy Winehouse) to read newspapers, monitor television and radio and surf the internet to supply an 'entertainment newswire' to overseas subscribers. Depending on the company's cash-flow, our one, two or three reporters accompanied by me as photographer attended a couple of news events per shift and contributed perhaps 5% of the daily word output. When I wondered aloud if this sort of boiler room operation was legal, my editor there told me that unlike a photograph, nobody owns a news story. Once you have the facts from a source, you can freely sell them again as long as you rewrite them because in a text format the copyright exists in the expression of the story and not the content.  This can occasionally backfire. Someone began picking stories out of the NME's 'Cheap Thrills' page, which is a satire on pop industry news. These almost plausible chunks of humour started popping up all over the world's media and became fed back into our newsroom. One of our subscribers was the NME who hit the roof when they realised we were selling them back their own stories. 

Newspapers also need to account for how they got their stories because so many external influences shape their reporting. Don't make me wait until BBC2 commission another 'Decisive Moments' (off air since 1999) to find out how an unnamed photographer got a photo through a bus window of the recent alleged highjacker being held by an armed Stockholm policeman. Did a plane spotter with a $10,000 lens just happen to be at the airport or was the bus brought in range of the media like the 'perp walk' photo opportunity so loved by the FBI?  

So it it is becoming ever more certain that what is in the paper or magazine you read today, especially the entertainment and celebrity stories, will be from unnamed sources who supplied freelance reporters who had their words dressed up by agencies and sold to publishers who claimed it as their own. Not exactly a recipe for truth and fairness is it? 

If a magazine or a newspaper admitted that an interview with celebrity was actually given six months ago to 300 other journalists at a press conference and it has been bought from an agency because a rival has an exclusive interview with the same person tomorrow, then they might win some kudos for irony and independence from the PR machine. Sometimes the source of a story being a publicist can enhance the readers’ expectations. I am always interested in reading something if I think Max Clifford has had a hand in it. The headline "Max Mosley to be flogged by Max Clifford” would get my wallet out any time.