Citizen journalists: Any time, any place, anywhere

Citizen journalists took some of the most dramatic images of recent news events. Are they a threat to the professionals?
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Back in the 1970s and 1980s news programmes would occasionally use viewer-submitted footage. Something happened, someone was in the area with a cine-camera and the result would appear on the air, shaky but viewable, with a caption saying "amateur film".

Two things have changed to make the current wave of cameraphone photographers important; first, the ubiquity of the technology - since many modern phones carry reasonable cameras - and secondly the awareness that an amateur photographer/cameraman can sell the pictures.

It has been said that the emergence over the past year of the citizen journalist - such as the amateur cameraman who filmed the capture of two London bomb suspects and sold the pictures to ITV News, or the holidaymakers who sent phone-camera footage of the tsunami to the BBC and Sky News - has revolutionised news gathering.

But it has also been said that professional photographers and camera operators would be swamped by this new army of citizen reporters, first on the scene at every story, snapping pictures on their mobile phones and sending them off for sale. According to news organisations, though, this scenario is so far failing to materialise.

This is partly because those news organisations are not falling over themselves to pay for amateur imagery. The BBC didn't part with any cash for amateur pictures of the explosions at the Buncefield fuel depot before Christmas, and the Daily Telegraph website's call for contributed photographs from the same disaster didn't make any reference to money.

The Daily Star says it has had very few submissions and hasn't used a thing yet. "There aren't enough people with high-quality phones, it's not something we've done at all," says Kirsty Jarman on the picture desk. Peter Case on the Daily Express takes a slightly more positive view of the citizen journalist. "Sometimes the pictures are good," he says. "The classic was the July bombs in London, there were a lot of pictures floating around." The Express has used some amateur pictures and will continue to do so, he says.

The BBC is happy to receive pictures from citizen journalists but doesn't expect to pay for them. "In terms of the [oil] fires, due to scale and easy access, we had thousands of images sent in from our readers, some very soon after the explosion," says Peter Coomes, picture editor of the BBC News website.

One of the photographers at the Buncefield explosion was student Oliver Steeples. He took a picture and sent it to the BBC at the suggestion of his brother, who sent the e-mail and whose name ended up on the credit as a result. "That wasn't important, it was getting the picture up that mattered," says Steeples. It didn't occur to him to seek payment even though his picture was on the front page of the website for much of the day. "It's not the sort of thing I'd want to make money out of, a disaster like that," says Steeples, showing that many citizen journalists are public-spirited newsgatherers with no wish to be anything but amateur.

This is potentially a significant problem for agencies such as, that have sprung up to help individuals make money from their pictures. Kyle McRae, managing director of Scoopt, believes that if a newspaper or website wants to get commercial advantage from a picture then they should expect to pay.

The reality is that few actual sales of pictures from camera phones have happened. A shot of David Cameron in Tesco raised a four-figure sum on Tory leadership election day but apart from that one of the highest profile instances of citizen journalism making money was Stephen Bell's picture of a crashed stolen car, sold to the Bristol Evening Post for a modest two-figure fee. Bell himself certainly has no plans to change his career. "I happened to be there; if someone wants to compete with the professionals they should get the equipment and insurance, learn the craft and change their job," he says.

McRae says that the cameraphone photographer is complementing rather than competing directly with the professional. "Where we can win is in those situations like the terror attacks, where the professionals just aren't there and couldn't get in."

Roger Tooth, picture editor of The Guardian, feels that amateur photo journalism had failed to live up to its initial promise. "Quite the reverse if the oil fire was anything to go by - the best image of the day came from a professional Fleet Street photographer up in a helicopter hired at great expense," he says.

Money may also tempt people to do something illegal to gain the photo they want, such as trespassing or invading someone's privacy.

Paul Taylor, partner at City law firm Orchard Brayton Graham LLP says that the law would apply to the amateur just as much as the professional. There would be no rights pertaining to the reproduction of a picture but the use to which it is put could be actionable. "If there is inference that it could be libellous, as happened in the Jamie Theakston or Naomi Campbell cases, the courts might find against you; on the other hand in America when the police were filmed beating Rodney King, [the photographer] was seen as some sort of hero."

In other words if you want a ruling to say you've made fair use of a picture for news reportage, it had better be demonstrably in the public interest.

In the wake of the July bombings it seemed as if the livelihood of the professional photographer might be at risk. It hasn't yet panned out that way.

"After the explosions in Hemel we had someone there within three minutes, while the professionals took 10 minutes to get there," says McRae. "Unfortunately our man took 24 hours deciding what to do with the picture, by which time there were loads of pictures around..."