I remember when at university having a heated debate about the ethics of photojournalism. This was the issue. Imagine you are a photographer covering the Vietnam War. You see the slumped body of a dead GI on the road beside a paddy field. The sun is setting. You can’t resist the temptation to reach out and pull up the collar of his shirt to make a tableau of exquisite dishevelment ….and SNAP….in the dying rays of the sun you capture that perfect picture. One beautifully composed frame that says everything you could ever want to say about the horror and futility of war.Now comes the ethical question. Is it morally right to pull up that shirt collar? Some say yes. If that helps to get the point across then it is perfectly justified. The art of photography is act of visual selection. You force people to isolate and focus on what you decided they should focus on. You are using all the tricks of aperture, exposure and depth of field to make them see what you want them to see. Where is the harm in a little set dressing. Is that not just the natural extension of your other camera techniques. Every photo is just a subjective moment of reality captured on celluloid, after all.
But some say no. The point of photojournalism is objectivity. You are there to report the facts not to tamper with them. So pulling up the collar on the dead GI breaks the solemn compact between the journalist and the readership. Your role is to silently observe and document the facts, not to mould reality until it fits the contours of your personal perspective. You must be veracity’s evangelist; the unobtrusive monitor of truth.
Technology changes things. William Russell (1820-1907), the world’s first war correspondent with The Times covered the Crimean war. His dispatches from the front had a huge impact on the public who were shocked and outraged by what they read about the appalling treatment of the troops. A huge public backlash demanded that something should be done. But, of course, there were no photographs. It was artists who visually immortalised the Charge of the Light Brigade. Painted several years after the fact, their heroic pictures bore little resemblance to the reality of what had actually happened. It was not until the invention of light portable cameras that photojournalists could capture the brutal glamour of World War 2 as it really was. Later, TV cameras captured the horror of the Vietnam War and delivered it charred and bloody like a rare T bone steak to the voracious homes of the American public. That public was, yet again, shocked and horrified and demanded that something should be done. The ethics of the new technology were clear: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg.
Now we have newer technology. The internet, social media, mobile phones and twitter. What should a journalist do when observing this vast digital shunting yard of packet switched data? Maybe the same as before: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg. If so, then phone hacking is morally acceptable. Silent monitoring in the background to establish the truth; is that not what we want our journalists to do? Ever since Watergate did we not anoint them as the watchdogs of liberty. Politicians have their secret services to ‘protect’ us. But we want our journalists to keep a check on the politicos. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians? Why, the journalists do. If Secret Services can monitor phone calls, then why not the journalists too.
Ah yes, you might say, but what about the principal of privacy? Is that not an essential human right? To put the question in another way: is information in the ether in the public or private domain? Can cyberspace ever be personal? My answer is this: to believe so is to make a catataxic blunder. Cyberspace occupies a realm beyond the personal. Information wants to be free, and Wikileaks wants to liberate it. Every mobile phone call, text or tweet you make is a geo-located pinprick of emotional luminance. Step back and marvel at that galaxy of starlight. Should not the journalists chart those heavens like the early astronomers at their telescopes. We are stardust, and our mobile phones calls even more so.
To end, we return to where we first started. The quintessential Vietnam movie is Apocalypse Now: a fusion of Joseph Conrad, helicopters and paddy fields. In my view, the information age obliterates the personal, but this is not a bad thing. In the mighty torrential Congo of digital effluvient, we are not battling upstream to a ‘Heart of Darkness’ but downstream to the open ocean and, beyond that, to a glorious far horizon of freedom, which is a freedom beyond bounds…