Alice Jones: Beware the duplicity of images

A US politician can be made to look like Jack Nicholson in The Shining
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The Independent Online

There's something deeply odd about Grazia's admission that it had airbrushed Kate Middleton's waspy wedding waist for a cover story in May.

Deeply odd not because the princess clearly didn't need retouching – as an enchanted global television audience of two billion can attest – but because of the Frankenstein-style process that led, claim the magazine's staff, to the virtual liposuction.

All manner of amputations and arm-cloning went on, to which one can only ask... why?

We wanted, they said, "a great image of the duchess on her own, but all the photographs had the duke in too". Inconsiderate, Wills, very inconsiderate.

"So we asked our reproduction house to remove him from the picture. This would have left the duchess with only one arm, so they copied over her arm to complete it." Yes, that's definitely a lot less weird than just printing a picture of the couple.

I wonder how the future King of England feels about being cropped out of history when he is, if we're honest, the only reason Kate Middleton was on the cover in the first place. But that's by the by and he'll probably get over it.

Grazia claims that all the fiddling about, sticking Kate's lace-wrapped arms on back to front, or whatever it did, led to an "inadvertent" slimming of her waist. It says it "did not purposely make any alterations to the Duchess of Cambridge's image to make her appear slimmer, and we are sorry if this process gave that impression". Which is irritatingly mealy-mouthed when you consider that the magazine has run recent features headlined "Should airbrushed images come with a health warning?" and "FINALLY! Debenhams ditches the airbrushing!"

Grazia is part of an industry, after all, that has been caught out stretching Kate Winslet's legs on a computerised rack in the name of a hot cover look. And which, month in, month out, digitally enhances already beautiful stars to sell things and make the rest of the world feel so bad that it goes out and indulges in more retail therapy. It's dishonest, isn't it? And while it's cynical and damaging when it comes to celebrities and fashion, it can be misleading and downright sinister when it comes to current affairs.

This week Michele Bachmann appeared on the front of Newsweek under the measured headline "The Queen of Rage". In an extraordinary image, the Republican presidential hopeful is blown up against a lurid teal background, mouth half open in a pearly rictus of surprise and fervour, eyes maniacally staring, as if possessed. She looks like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. It's not clear whether the art department had had its wicked way with it but Newsweek has form. Two months ago it splashed with a picture of how Princess Diana might have looked at 50 and before that it put Sarah Palin in running shorts and bunches. "The out-of-context Newsweek approach is sexist... shows why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, gender, or colour of skin. The media will do anything to draw attention – even if out of context," said Palin at the time. It has been noted (on that no male Republican candidate has been ridiculed in such a way, so it's not only biased, it's sexist.

Editor Tina Brown's response to complaints – "Michele Bachmann's intensity is galvanising voters in Iowa right now and Newsweek's cover captures that" – is as disingenuous as Grazia's. These magazines understand the power of images and the power that comes with the ability to make them tell the story you want.

Take the rioters. Oh how we LOLed at those Photoshopped images of hoodies ransacking Barbie doll displays and looters looting lutes that popped up online before the smoke had cleared. The real images they're based on are powerful: for many, the summer of 2011 will forever be associated with the picture of a youth wearing a grey Adidas tracksuit, black gloves and face mask, striding through burning Hackney that appeared on the front of Tuesday's Independent. It didn't need manipulating to tell its story. But even reportage photography can tell different stories from different angles. Cropped or with eyes intensified, images can be treacherous.

TV is not allowed to edit dishonestly. Radio phone-ins are policed more heavily than Tottenham High Road. So why are pictures – arguably the most powerful of all storytelling tools – often exempt from the rules?

Websites such as feature Photoshop clangers where third hands have crept in, races have been changed and thighs shaved to Twiglets.

And I wonder if we'll look back at this manipulation of reality as a technological hiccup – like the Sinclair C5 or MiniDiscs – but I fear not.