Thursday, December 15, 2011

The End of History?

In 30 years as a freelance photojournalist I have never hidden behind a hedge with a long lens, or importuned anyone on a doorstep. I have no interest in celebrities. Nevertheless, some of the suggestions being bandied about inside and outside the Leveson phone-hacking inquiry, if implemented, could stop me in my tracks.

Much of my time is spent documenting the society I live in. To do that I often photograph in the street and other public places, and my focus is almost always on people. A privacy law that required me to ask for permission from anyone who enters my frame would make that impossible.

In France. which already has legislation that includes a right to privacy, even when ‘in public’, street photography is still permitted – but publish and you may well be damned. In recent years a couple of court rulings have gone in favour of the photographer’s right to freedom of expression, but earlier ones have gone the other way – prioritising the subject’s ‘image rights’. Initiating legal action depends on the resources of the litigant; the outcome on the whim of a judge. Who wants to make that calculation before pressing the shutter release?

Were similar privacy legislation to be introduced here, many aspects of the social history of this country would no longer be legitimate subjects for the camera. An important element of the free public discourse that is an essential feature of an open society would be lost, and the damage would be felt by everyone – from professional photojournalists, to kids posting their smartphone snaps on Facebook.

Almost all the obnoxious behaviour that is being crawled over by Leveson is already illegal. Harassment is illegal. Phone-hacking is illegal. Bribing a police officer is illegal. They are offences that can be dealt with by enforcing existing law. The rest is the result of a profit-driven debasement of popular culture that goes way beyond Leveson’s remit. The NUJ has an excellent Code of Conduct which all of its members are obliged to abide by. Why not apply the same code to the publications for whom we work?

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