None So Blind – self censorship

August 22nd, 1991Stephen Mayes

Second in a series of three articles exploring non-legislative control of information in the media. Although written in 1991 with specific reference to the United Kingdom, many of the precepts remain highly relevant.

First published in the British Journal of Photography, 22nd August 1991

It is one of the most elegant and sophisticated machines of censorship and control of information: it is huge, constantly at work and dominates our perception of the world. It is called the Press (which here includes all the printed and broadcast media dealing with news, features and general interest material). It is labeled ‘Here is information’, but this is a cover for a greater function: to restrict information and to exclude alternative perspectives.

The elegant beauty of the machine lies in the invisibility of the processes even to the participants, who are the very cogs and wheels that keep it moving. Most working journalists and photographers have a crazed belief that they are working to inform and edify their readers with The Truth. Feeling fully clothed in the glory of their stories and supporting facts, journalists and photographers expose themselves to eager viewers who clap and cheer enthusiastically. The Emperor’s tailor had nothing on the British Press machine. One can only recently observe a glimmer of hope as circulation figures decline for some of the less successfully ‘dressed’ newspapers (June sales ’91 against June sales ’90: Sunday pops down 5.27%, Sunday heavies up 1.4%), but most of my observations as a worker in various capacities within the business apply equally to all parts of the industry. The most profound constraints are intrinsic to the structure of the industry of which I am part, and I do not attempt to offer solutions. However, this is a start, as the very existence of the many constraints of self-censorship has been unrecognized for too long.

Political Flavorings
Of the many restraints that the media places on its own operations, there are some that are deliberately and carefully calculated. The most widely recognized of these is the political spin which any publication will put on its material. Far from criticizing this, I regard it as a necessary, even desirable function. Given that no reportage can be truly objective, and that all news coverage is interpretive, it is helpful for the viewer to identify the general framework that has informed the presentation of the material (be it news, analysis or general interest). A belief that any publication (Sun, Guardian or even Vogue) presents objective truth would be a dangerous thing; a Polish colleague once commented in awe that his political censors (at that time) could have learned a lot from the British papers that successfully persuaded the readers that they were privileged to be told the truth. (NB: the run-up to a general election is a wild and enjoyable time for any observer of the media, as the political drum-beating drives to a frenzied crescendo; my scissors are even now twitching in anticipation as the papers line up for the coming festival of propaganda!)

Proprietorial additives
The influence that proprietors wield over their organs is another widely recognized function, and when spotted often results in gleeful taunts from the competitors’ soapboxes. While such influence may not be ignored, it is perhaps the least significant imposition on published material.

News values
A very strict hierarchy of news values exists, determining what is deemed worthy of inclusion and how it is to be presented (as a leading article or postage-stamp insert). Although the list of priorities varies between publications (for example, The Independent versus everyone else on Royal coverage), the process is the same in all camps: material is meticulously sifted and discarded, according to completely arbitrary assessments of ‘news worthiness’. Parallel examples of In and Out abound, and for the purposes of illustration I have invented the death of a single person under a variety of circumstances: the effect on the world is the same in each instance, but the coverage is very different. (Readers of this list may recognize the factual sources of the examples):

News worthy
1) Helicopter crash
2) Hypothermia (Nov-March Only)
3) 120ft fall by TV stunt person
4) Drug overdose at Oxford University
5) Bomb in London

Not news worthy
1) Car crash
2) Death by damp-related condition
3) 120ft fall by construction worker
4) Drug overdose at Liverpool University
5) Bomb in Belfast

The magic ingredient missing in the non-newsworthy material has been described by some as the ‘Oh My Goodness!’ factor — the response that all proper ‘news’ should evoke in the reader or viewer. James Grant, head of UNICEF, uses a grim illustration of this form of censorship: ‘Every day the number of children that die of readily preventable causes is some 20,000 or 25,000, roughly the same as in the Armenian earthquake. But somehow we have not been able to get the media to dramatize this’.

News spotlight
This is a phenomenon similar to, but distinctly different from the news value. It is a single-issue appetite that demands one subject for attention while excluding all others. As applied in the international scene, the sharply defined spotlight sweeps around the globe arbitrarily pausing for a strictly limited moment on one area at a time. The lurching path of this spotlight can be traced by media historians from Eastern Europe (autumn ’89) to South Africa (spring ’90), to the USSR (summer 90), the Gulf, to Kuwait, to North Iraq, etc. Do you remember being concerned about Chinese prodemocracy campaigners? Or the Tamils of Sri Lanka? Or the people of Bangladesh? Basque separatists? … These all remain current news stories, but when were they last splashed, or even mentioned?

In January 1991 I sold a reportage on the worsening plight of Ethiopia to a major international news magazine (the story had hardly been a secret for even the previous 12 months). It was scheduled as a cover story, but Operation Desert Storm blew to the forefront and I received a polite phone call informing me that Ethiopia was to be held until a ‘lighter news moment’. That seemed reasonable and we waited patiently. The lighter news moment came five months later, and the potential deaths of 30 million people became the week’s ‘sexy’ story four months after the coalition troops had entered Kuwait city.

The fear motive
Fear of missing something that the opposition has is a prime motivation for coverage, and it is the motor that powers the roving spotlight and the news agenda. In other words, the subjects presented, and the manner in which they are shown, are not determined by inquisitiveness or righteousness, but by the fear of being scooped. Publications spend more time eyeing each other than they spend looking at issues, donning blinkers that prevent consideration of other viewpoints and resulting in a pack mentality as everyone groups together for comfort. This fear motivates publications, editors, and photographers: it influences every level of production. Fear grips any group of photographers or journalists when one of their number pulls away from the pack, ‘Where are they, do they have something I’ve missed?’ …

If you have never been part of a press pack you only need to watch the TV news to see the physical clumping of photographers at any significant event, like fairies crammed on the head of a pin, all trying to achieve the ‘best’ shot. The following day photographers reach for the papers to check their own positioning and, more importantly, to check what the opposition achieved. While this is a whimsical example it represents a significant force that operates throughout the media, a force that systematically excludes alternative perspectives. It is worth noting that the same principle applies to fashion, feature and other departments, as much as it does to news desks.

Expectations and assumptions
It is rare for anybody to explicitly impose rules of coverage on a photographer, journalist or editor, but strict rules do exist. These rules are enforced by people’s knowledge of what is expected of them: it is an unspoken contract that everybody assumes (often unconsciously) as they start to work for any publication. The rules are learned quickly: if you want your work published, if you wish to be hired again, or if you would like to keep your job, supply the stories that you know will be wanted in the style that has been successful before.

Curiously, there is no real ‘boss’ dispensing judgment on what is or is not acceptable; everyone is a link in a continuous chain that is structured along the line: the photographer answers to the picture editor, who answers to the back bench, which answers to the editor, who answers to the advertising circulation departments (howls of protest at this point!), which is answerable to the proprietor/shareholders. Any link not conforming to the unspoken rules is replaced. However brave any individual may wish to be, it is the economic viability of the publication that determines whether anything appears at all. Those inclined to identify villains in this scenario might justifiably finger the humble reader/viewer: if they do not wish to see what is presented they look elsewhere; ultimately they are the boss.

House style
Every publication maintains a conspiracy of production values to comply with the requirements of the advertising department (who need to guarantee reliability of product in order to attract clients to buy space) and to the reader/viewer (who needs to understand the framework within which information is presented). However, the demands made by the house style impose themselves on the subject and inhibit the presentation of information: all too often the picture editor will know exactly what the picture should look like even before the assignment is placed with a photographer. At the extreme, it ceases to be a requirement that new information is presented, and becomes a matter of squeezing today’s story into yesterday’s (and the day be fore’s) mould.

It does not take much imagination to conjure images to mind that would appear in the pages of The Independent and at the other extreme, the Mirror to illustrate a High Court hearing: one will publish a tightly cropped head-shot of the principal protagonist, the other will run with a wide shot of 25 journalists surrounding a barely distinguishable figure. (The great advantage of the latter is that it offers genuine information about the context surrounding the event.) More significant examples will appear over coming months as the papers tread their particular paths towards the general election, each telling the story in their own idiosyncratic way, often completely excluding reality.

While this process represents a severe limitation on what the reader/viewer may understand, I must record my tribute to the photographers and journalists who operate the system: it takes great skill and imagination to reshape every day’s stories to fit moulds that are often wholly inappropriate to the subject!

Racism and sexism
It is almost unknown for a black face to appear in print, the exceptions being when race is the subject of the article or, more frequently, when the face is that of a criminal or outcast. Although there are rare exceptions (often published in an attempt to represent the ‘exotic’), this cultural blindness illustrates the most insidious aspects of censorship. No lie is told, but by the omission of alternative representations a huge untruth is perpetrated, portraying people of colour as non-existent beyond the negative context. It is distortion by exclusion.

Similar processes of control operate in the editing of images of women. This is most obvious in the tabloid papers, where not only the pin-up images, but also the choice of illustration for news stories, reflect the somewhat limited perspective of those responsible for their publication (even when such editors are female). It would be complacent to recognize sexism only on the pages of the tabloid press: throughout the media industry there is very little evidence of applied feminism giving dynamic empowerment to the 52% of the population that is female. Each of these subjects requires extensive analysis to describe their function in the media, and this cursory mention serves only to acknowledge their place in the pattern of self censorship.

Facts v truth
In spite of the mythology that surrounds some British publications, it is generally the case that what is published is factually correct (no resources are stinted in checking the facts), but almost anyone who has been represented in the press will offer an illustration of the difference between fact and truth. Sometimes the gulf that divides the facts as shown and the truth as experienced can be of Grand Canyon proportions, with the main culprit being the journalist working under all the constraints of self censorship described in this article. The role of the photographer in the process is crucial; with photography perceived as the vehicle of fact and truth combined, it becomes the role of the picture to affirm the validity of the written story. To refer once again to James Grant, of UNICEF: “There needs to be a new morality in the media- and if the media would treat itself not as a follower, but really push itself as a reporter to the citizenry of what is really happening then we will get change”.

At time of writing Stephen Mayes was Managing Director of Network Photographers, London