The London Freelance debate on 'citizen witness' reporting

Free love, fair dealing

WHY DO people feel that they want to contribute photos and write text and do it for free? What is it that the mainstream wasn't providing? Jemima Kiss of www.journalism.co.uk focused the London Freelance Branch debate on "citizen witness" reporting with this.

Photo of the panel © Wilf Kunze

Adam Christie, Robin Bransell, Dave Rotchelle & Jemima Kiss

She hadn't come to defend "citizen journalism". Her job is to write about the online news industry, so she has a professional interest in it. She reminded us that "the public" are considerably more sophisticated than people give them credit for: see the free encyclopaedia at www.wikipedia.org where the content is as good as the best person that's edited it.

The internet is, she said, in "a state of free love - there's something very positive about people being prepared to spend hours of their time working on this stuff".

The wiki-world reminds us that our discussion covers "a multitude of sins": we also have participatory journalism through contributed photos and comment, discussion forums, www.indymedia.org and blogs. The phenomenon is by no means new, but technology has made it much easier. The conventional media remind Jemima of a dad in his 50s confronted with open- minded teenagers.

In her experience the media "dads" generally use such content to supplement journalists' work. Online, you have virtually unlimited space; but the lead picture still needs to be a professional job. She's heard anecdotes about local news sites commissioning fewer freelances - but we need to do some actual research.

Jemima regretted that the BBC and Scoopt weren't at the meeting. None of the BBC people the Branch had contacted agreed to come. Kyle MacRae of the new agency www.scoopt.com sent apologies, due to family business. He said he was open to suggestions on their terms and conditions that impose legal liability on people contributing photos. And Kyle said that the full waiver of moral rights was a misunderstanding with their lawyer: they had only wanted to deal with sales where a byline was not possible, and they would change the agreement to restore contributors' right to defend the integrity of pictures.

Robin Bransell of www.youview.co.uk described the technology they have sold to newspapers and broadcasters. It enables members of the public to send phone photos in as though they were text messages, rather than faffing around with wires, a computer and email.

All the national papers except the Telegraph had signed up - and he revealed that Trinity Mirror, owners of at least 250 regional titles, were enthusiastic. They had concluded that "small incentives work" and readers would send pictures for the chance of a prize.

Adam Christie of the NUJ's Freelance Industrial Council described the draft Code of Practice. It was important to make a strong link to the NUJ Code of Conduct, as well as the Press Complaint Commission code, to uphold ethical reporting whoever's contributing. He noted that the BBC had set up a unit of four people dedicated to collecting citizen reports - but what about checking these? It must only be a matter of time before www.theyesmen.org repeat, for example, their spectacular hoodwink of the BBC over compensation for victims of the chemical leak at Bhopal. In discussion Hilary Macaskill noted the readers' restaurant reviews the Guardian is using: who was checking that the establishments (still) existed?

Adam is not sure, either, that news organisations understand the administrative burden that they face in dealing with this material. Especially with public service broadcasting, he's open to discussion on whether all uses should be paid for, or whether contributors should be able to donate a first use and be paid for re-use and syndication. (Two days after the meeting the man who filmed the arrest of 21 July bombing suspects said in a BBC3 program that he regretted assigning all rights for about £60,000.)

Martin Cloake of the NUJ's National Executive noted that citizen witnesses can aid the democratisation of the media and more open access. Their use doesn't have to be an attack on members and on our professionalism.

He was involved in fanzines 20 years ago: who remembers Sniffing Glue? It's just the reproduction technology that's changed. In 18 years of NUJ activism, Martin has never seen such a response from grassroots members to a debate, with people not just expressing making interest but making detailed contributions. Donnacha Delong, New Media representative on the Executive, noted that, for example, the NUJ has come out and strongly supported Indymedia in the past. But we have to be aware that companies like Trinity Mirror will exploit anything. If they have been so keen to pay so little in the past we can be sure that they will be keen to pay nothing in the future.

The next stage will be a round table discussion on the idea of a Code with publishers. For details see www.londonfreelance.org.

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