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Media Manipulation

14 July 2001 - Neil Turner

So what is news and what is spin? We, as photographers have to walk a fine line between honest reporting and simply reproducing the line fed to us by the political PRs

As I sit and write this the news has been hijacked by something of a “media discusses the media” story. The Labour party has accused three major news gathering organisations of “colluding with demonstrators” to give the politicians a hard time for the cameras. It has been a heavily stage managed campaign so far, so would anyone blame the stations for doing a bit of “news management” of their own?

The problem with the modern political world is just the same as the one with the corporate one – everyone wants to control the news. Television has to shoulder quite a lot of the blame because it is tied to formulae and tight schedules in a way that newspapers are not. The power of television is such that a vast majority of the population gets most of it’s news from it and therefore everyone wants their message to get onto it. Political parties time their every campaigning move, sound bite and gesture to fit in with the broadcasters. They try to spoon feed their news agendas to the television journalists who have historically taken what they were given because it was well packaged and entirely relevant.

During the current UK general election they have simply gone too far. Both sides have become so used to this symbiotic relationship that when it no longer functions properly they are each looking for ways to get their fix. I would say that neither the senior management of the news organisations or the senior party leaders are aware of just how much whispering and deal making goes on at lower levels, but I have seen TV camera crews talking to demonstrators to find out what they are planning to do and suggesting ways that they could make their protest more “telegenic”. As a photographer I have asked protesters to “hold their banner higher”, so is what the TV guys do any worse? I’m not sure if I’m detached enough to get to the right answer on my own, but the whole thing has become so uncomfortable that I will not be asking placard carriers to do anything ever again. The power of television is sufficiently great that broadcasters must put themselves beyond reproach, and that definitely goes for freelance cameramen and aspiring reporters for whom delivering the package of sound bites and images is more important than telling the whole truth.

The election was called in a girl’s school where the Prime Minister talked straight over the heads of his audience to the television cameras. He made no pretense of even talking to the thirty or so stills photographers gathered there. Maybe the world wants it’s politics in easily digested chunks of rhetoric, but being there when political fixers and broadcasters chat makes me feel more than a little uneasy. The stage management has become overwhelming and photographers are being squeezed out by the instant media. We want to do an honest job by reporting the news, but when everything is staged for the cameras you have to wonder whether you are just a pawn in their game and just whose news you are reporting.

© Neil Turner, 2001

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