The Free Press? Censorship at source

August 8th, 1991Stephen Mayes

First 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, 8th August 1991

There is nobody sitting in judgement on the daily production of the British media and there is no official censor with (or without) a blue pencil vetting material for political and moral ‘correctness’. But a number of factors contribute to impose a strong and unbreakable regime of control on what is permissible, the effects of which are all the stronger for the illusion that we have a ‘free press’. There is a widely held belief among media consumers not only that they have access to the truth, but (should they wish it) that they may have access to the whole truth. As producers we know that this may not be so.

It is not my purpose to explore the legislative restrictions, although these must be acknowledged (the Official Secrets Act, anti-terrorism laws, a rainbow assortment of ‘obscenity’ controls, contempt of court, blasphemy, libel, and so on … with Calcutt , Prirnarolo , Short and others promoting even more in the same vein). It is the unwritten rules that have an even more profound influence, the application of which is sufficiently systematic and rigid to justify the use of the word ‘censorship’.

There is an underlying assumption in British society that information is a privilege: it is not a right, and it is better hidden. There is an almost biblical fear that knowledge is a corrupting force that must be controlled. Within this framework photography has a special place: it is regarded as the medium of factual information (rightly or wrongly), and as such plays a particularly important role. The photograph is perceived as the medium of ‘truth’ (a philosophical concept beyond the scope of this analysis!) and, more subtly, as a powerful affirmation of the written ideas and attitudes accompanying it. This series of articles will examine some aspects of professional practice that inhibit what can be shown: censorship at source, self censorship and censorship for ‘public decency’.

Censorship at source
I am not a subscriber to the conspiracy theory; my experiences have revealed the cock-up theory as dominant: accidents of coincidence create an illusion of ordered planning beyond the competence of most [British] bureaucracies. There is, however, an underlying attitude which binds many of these random events together; the assumption that access to information should be managed, if at all possible.

Much has been said about the role of the police in controlling photographers’ access to events, and there has been an audible sigh of relief on all sides in London with the announcement that the Metropolitan Police intends to withdraw the infamous Met Card from May 1992. (If press photographers must be identified, it is clearly appropriate that accreditation should be confirmed by professional media authorities rather than by law enforcers.) The significant question, however, is not who awards accreditation, but what is the purpose of such identification?
There is a revealing difference in the wordings of the current NUJ press card (recognized by UK civil and military forces) and the card issued by the New York Police Department. In the USA the card identifies a journalist with the words: ‘X is entitled to pass police and fire lines wherever formed’, (with the single proviso ‘not for parking purposes’!); in the UK: ‘This card establishes the holder as a representative of the Press’. Note the capital P which says more about the journalists’ self regard than about the attitude of the authorities; put more bluntly, ‘You are a journalist— so what?’

Where there is an operational imperative to identify journalists a card is useful, but it seems clear that the British culture does not wish such status to carry any significant privileges, and therein lies the danger. On a police training video (In the Public interest, produced by the Metropolitan Police) the following two examples are discussed by police officers: on a siege at Poynters Court which was filmed more closely than the police might have wished, officers were ‘horrified by the effect that was created … The officers involved felt that it did not show them off in the light that they would like to have appeared’. And secondly, at the raising of the Marchioness pleasure boat that had sunk in the Thames, photographers and film crews were denied a vantage point, preventing possible views of the dead. The police officer in charge said, ‘I suppose we were acting to a degree (dare I say it?) as censors … We were doing it for the best reasons’.
While deputy assistant commissioner John Newing expresses the strict legal position that the police ‘don’t have control over what people either show or print, and neither should we’, the practical application of police powers at the point of information gathering is more severe, There is a clear indication that it is not regarded as the role of the press freely to witness events (even in such public arenas as Trafalgar Square where during the Poll Tax riots photographers were vigorously inhibited by police action), but rather to report on the interpretation of the police press officers. As long as such circumstances prevail there will always be confusing questions about whose interests are being served by any approved information: are restrictions placed for sound operational purposes, or for convenience? Without positive privileges of access for photographers and journalists the people’s ‘right to know’ is no right at all.

While the police have been at the centre of the debate on access over recent months, they are only part of the state structures which operate similarly restrictive practices. Look at prisons, for example: as a picture editor I have seen more revealing photography from the Gulag camps of the Soviet Union than I have from UK prisons; furthermore, the activities of the judiciary remain invisible (sketches and reconstructions only). Meanwhile, of course, the Ministry of Defense keeps tight control on the representation of its own operations and, even more mysteriously, over huge tracts of inert landscape.

The recent attempts by the coalition military to extend the pool system during the Gulf conflict introduced a procedural innovation to an already questionable practice. (The ‘pool’ is the cooperative exercise whereby a single photographer is allowed access to a scene, but shares the pictures with other nominated photographers who comprise the pool.) Not only was the access of selected journalists restricted within defined areas but, more significantly, all other reporting and photography was forbidden. This was new in Western media practice, and such a reductive view of events (described by The Independent’s Robert Fisk as the freedom to ‘report what we are told’) sets a dangerous precedent, the consequences of which were explored in depth by the Soviet Union during the first 70 years of its existence. Of course I am mindful of two kinds of public interest (as defined by John Wilson, controller of editorial policy at the BBC): the ‘right’ to know, and the requirements of security. But tribute must be paid to the ingenuity and bravery of the responsible journalists and photographers who broke those imposed boundaries to report events and ask questions, many of which remain unanswered to this day.

The progress of the pool is a creeping form of control: the increasing use of the pool in civil affairs is similarly dangerous. My international liaisons reveal strange procedures being adopted in Britain: unlike many other countries, where there is operational logic for restricting numbers of photographers (the size of the room available and security being primarily important), there are persistently whimsical applications of the pool system in the UK, solely for the purpose of restricting access to events. The range of events suffering such restrictions is growing all the time: state and government events, political parties’ functions (with even a suggestion that coverage of the annual conferences should be controlled by pool), pop music promotions and other showbiz stunts, along with a miscellany of other ad hoc events. It is often not used for operational necessity, nor are photo passes allocated for editorial balance (not that it should ever be the role of a bureaucrat to assess journalistic competence). If there is any logical strategy behind the application of the pool system, it appears to be as a means of limitation to the safest, least critical photographers and agencies in such situations. Joyce McMillan of the NUJ accurately identifies ‘the vicious effect that the pool reporting has on the breadth of coverage and independence of coverage of any events’. The possibilities for varied perspectives, or analytical coverage, are reduced hugely by such controls. (Beyond the issue of censorship, it is ironic that after 11 years of Thatcherism it is the executives of the Conservative establishment who are working to introduce these restrictive trade practices.)

The Royal rota is an extension of this system and, ironically, it is fiercely protected by the participating news gatherers who are privileged to be invited to Royal photo opportunities. To the photographers and agencies it is a means of maximizing income by excluding competitors, while to the Palace it is a means of excluding the bad boys who might give offence or unflattering coverage.

In many ways these are the easy issues, where indignant criticism may be made, directly based on well-established rules of reportage (the aspiration to independence, objectivity, and honest analysis), but trends over recent years have started to raise more subtle questions. Perhaps the most insidious form of control comes with the growth of the photo opportunity as a standard source of media fodder. It is a presentation technique honed to perfection by PR companies, political parties and many others, and swallowed hook, line and sinker by the media machine that has allowed itself to become flabby and lazy, disinclined to question and argue with what is shown. Ideas are predigested, requiring little or no further interpretation by the consumer; information and attitudes are channeled precisely according to the requirements or the originator. To the media, hungry to fill space cheaply, it is a gift; but to the reader it can be very misleading, often creating an illusion of actuality, where in fact it might be little more than manipulated propaganda.

It is an illusion that is completed by the surrounding context, which may be news or analysis, giving a specious seal of authenticity to everything that appears alongside. Examples abound in a daily round of people and organizations working the media machine to their own advantage. How the media responds to these pressures is the starting point for the next part of this series, which will look at various forms of self-censorship.

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