How shut-out photographers are lobbying to make Westminster more transparent

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street / Photo: Dan Kitwood | Getty Images

News photographers are pressing for access to the Houses of Parliament to take pictures of MPs and peers at crucial events, in an attempt to bring greater transparency to UK politics.

The move is regarded as an important step in improving public trust in the UK’s political system, which is more restrictive in granting media access than that in the United States.

Jay Davies, director of photography for Getty Images News (EMEA), says he will be lobbying the Houses of Parliament for change in conjunction with the other major news agencies. “If there was more visibility [politics] would be less alien to the public,” he says.

In an interview with The Drum, Davies also calls for British hospitals and police forces to increase access for photographers so that vital issues, such as the impact of the knife crime epidemic, can be better explained to the public. “Because there is zero photography of trauma units in the UK dealing with stab wounds, you will not see any real photographs of what that looks like,” he says. “I haven’t seen one good example of photojournalism about knife crime in the UK. None.”

Having left the Getty Images News New York office to take up post in London last September, he has been struck by the limitations on news photography in the UK, vis-á-vis the US. “The UK, by comparison, feels slightly more closed in how its institutions operate…where it is even less transparent and there’s a greater degree of artifice in how politics operates and how political actors perform their roles,” he says. “There is just more openness and more day to day interaction between the press and US government than there is between the press and the UK government.”

Photocalls create 'contrived' coverage

Davies is frustrated by the dependency of British officials on “highly-contrived” photocalls outside Downing Street or other tightly-controlled settings, where media are sometimes reliant on a single ‘pooled’ photographer. “Given there’s such a limited range of environments in which the visual media can make images of the government at work it’s going to inherently limit the public’s understanding of what’s going on.” He is concerned that pooling and other restrictions on photography will grow worse under the new prime minister, Boris Johnson.

He says that neither the 30-year presence of fixed position television cameras, nor an increase in the handout of still images shot by House of Commons staff photographers, have been sufficient to engender public trust in the political process. Parliament photographers are “government employees” making “publicity material”, which is “not a substitute for independent press coverage”, he says. “A good number of the images are scrubbed – photoshopped – to remove the text from documents that are visible in them, which is something that the press would never brook.”

Fixed TV cameras are of little value when news stories happen in the chamber, such as when Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle seized the ceremonial mace in December, or when Extinction Rebellion staged a semi-naked protest in the public gallery in April (the scene was snapped by MPs with their mobile phone cameras). “In a world that feels so image-saturated it seems conspicuous that we don’t see more of our governments at work when they are making consequential decisions,” Davies complains.

Together with fellow agencies Reuters, AP, AFP and PA Media, Getty Images News registered its concerns with the House of Commons in a formal letter a month ago. Davies says he will be stepping up his efforts following the summer recess. “We are trying to find the right time to present that fight with the greatest possibility of success,” he says.

The current arrangement “fosters a lack of familiarity” in the public’s understanding of politics and encourages political journalism that is based on hearsay. “It feels very anti-democratic. There is plenty of political gossip in the US but here it features more highly in the stories of the day; you will see page one headlines and stories in every national newspaper where the whole gist of the story is based on one anonymous source. I think there is less of a pretence to cross-check and verify.”

While he does not hold up American society and politics as “a paragon of trust”, he claims that the presence of news photographers inside the House of Representatives chamber for important events (such as visits by foreign leaders or a presidential address) provides valuable insight for the voting public.

Photojournalists see pictures at these often formal occasions that official photographers miss, or avoid, he says. “The trick is to find the creases in that facade where some meaningful information is being conveyed,” he says. “A lot of that is dependent on our photographers being clued in to what the story is of the day and looking for subtle ways to tell that story in what is a somewhat limited medium – two-dimensional photography.”

While he understands the nervousness of politicians at the prospect of being caught off guard at work, Getty Images News is not looking for “cheap shots…of an MP eating something and looking embarrassing”, Davies says. “That’s not the kind of journalism we practise.”

The closed nature of British government extends to the PR policies of public institutions from the National Health Service to the police, Davies believes. He complains of a deep-rooted aversion to media coverage, with GDPR and other privacy regulations being used as an excuse. “There’s a reflexive invocation of privacy in a way that I find really annoying; I find it obstructive to the act of journalism,” he says.

Distance between policymakers and the people

This is feeding a void in understanding of the impact on public services of social issues such as gang violence and poverty, he believes. Getty’s attempts to go inside hospital trauma units to document the response to rising and knife crime and the use of new health technologies to save lives has so far hit a wall. “When the police keep you behind police tape and the hospitals keep you outside their doors, the public understanding of what’s going on there is necessarily superficial and I think that’s a problem. It reinforces a distance between policymakers and the people being affected.”

Again drawing a comparison with the US, he says coverage of the opioid epidemic has featured photography “at all stages” of the addiction process, with media access to hospitals, police stations and rehab centres. A ‘ride-along’ with police units in the US is a “fundamental journalistic scenario”, he says. “The press rides along with the cops and shows how they work and the cops invite you in because they think that it’s going to show the public that they are being responsive to community concerns.”

In the UK, access to the police is “much more difficult”. The New York Times was able to accompany West Midlands Police in February for a photo spread and article highlighting the impact of economic austerity on a hard-stretched police force. “I think The New York Times probably approached it with a US mindset, oblivious to the limitations here, whereas I think a lot of British photographers have probably given up calling police departments.”

There are other factors behind the lack of visual coverage of issues such as knife crime, he believes. One is a palpable lack of diversity in the UK news media. “How many of them know someone who has been affected by this, and have the relationships to facilitate access to this?” he asks. “It does make it a lot harder when your mainstream press has a somewhat limited range of socio-economic experience.”

But the “biggest inhibiting factor” in covering the rise in stabbings is “a more inherently antagonistic relationship between the public and the press and between the government and the press that has prevented us from getting access to those moments where a lot of this story unfolds,” he says, drawing another unfavourable comparison with US media culture.

Overcoming this distrust is not going to be easy, especially when – as Davies points out – the UK has fallen behind the US, France and Germany in providing platforms for photojournalism. This country has a “proud tradition of documentary photography”, he says, but the lack of space for long-form pictorial narratives is “a symptom of the media marketplace across the UK”.

Meanwhile, sections of the British media are happy to run endless paparazzi shots of celebrities.

Davies is undeterred. He will “soldier on” with the campaign to open up parliament and he will continue to look for the photo essays that go beyond the day-to-day agenda of the news wire and give clients something that they weren’t expecting.

“We still strive to make aesthetically impactful images that are interesting to look at even if the information is depressing and sad,” he says. “I think you have a greater challenge if your subject matter is grim to make those images that people feel compelled to look at when there is such an easy alternative of fluff.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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