Thomas Sutcliffe: Ethics aside, citizen reporters get scoops

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The Independent Online

When ITV scheduled I Was There, a review of the year which sidestepped the traditional suppliers of news coverage in favour of "citizen journalists", they can't have known that the year's end would bring the most macabre example yet of this growing trend - the mobile phone footage of Saddam Hussein's final drop.

Setting ethics and human nicety aside for the moment this was surely the biggest scoop yet for "user-generated content" - as amateur news footage is also sometimes known.

Here was a major global news story, to which the more conventional news gathering operations had no access. And here was a person uninhibited enough to pull out a mobile and record the critical moment.

The result was a piece of footage that bypassed all the usual liberal anxieties about corporate agenda setting and editorial gatekeepers.

No squabbles here about the hidden bias of metropolitan news editors or the hypocrisy of taste and decency guidelines. If you want to see this event and you have an internet connection, you can. You are your own Ofcom, and any subsequent feelings of outrage or distress will have to be submitted to your conscience alone.

I'm usually lousy at prognostication - but I think it's safe to prophesy that 2007 will see a lot more from amateur news photographers and cellphone journalists. For one thing the traditional news broadcasters are eagerly encouraging the process.

"News can happen anywhere at any time. We want you to be our eyes," says the BBC web page that encourages people to send in pictures and video footage of news events, openly acknowledging that while news crews are good at getting the aftermath only victims andbystanders are in a position to record the "moment disaster struck".

"In contributing to BBC News," it adds, "you agree to grant us a royalty-free, non-exclusive licence to publish and otherwise use the material in any way that we want, and in any media worldwide."

Channel Five News, which also invites amateur contributions to its news reports, will offer you a cut of the profits: "at least £100 plus your name on air", it promises, acknowledging the vanity publishing element of such journalism. What's more you get a cut of any worldwide syndication earnings - 33 per cent after expenses.

Such developments are, naturally enough, presented as an editorial improvement. They notionally counter the traditional "top down" delivery of news and make news operations more "accessible" and "responsive" (always assumed to be a good thing).

And it isn't hard to think of examples where "citizen journalism" - or a kind of higher curiosity - has produced significant stories.

The beating of Rodney King, filmed by a passer by on video, would be one case in point - a bit of amateur footage which not only helped generate a huge news event (the LA riots of 1992) but also focused attention on a genuine scandal.

With all the talk of CCTV it's sometimes forgotten that while they are watching us we can now watch them too.

The downside with "citizen journalism" though is that it necessarily skews the definition of news towards the contingent and the unexpected - the spectacular event that no news diary can schedule ahead of time.

And since photographs and footage of such catastrophes are so compelling to most of us, the increased supply of them is likely to distort news bulletins and coverage towards the visually dramatic and away from the unphotogenic cogs and levers which actually move the world.

The problem with citizen journalists - just like all us citizens - is that they're incorrigible sensationalists.

Ennobled through design

I had mixed feelings about the knighthood conferred on James Dyson. On the one hand I was as susceptible as anyone else to the David and Goliath charm of his story, in which the bullying tactics of market leaders were overcome by entrepreneurial grit and ingenuity. I also met him and liked him a lot. On the other hand I own a Dyson vacuum cleaner - and it's among the most ergonomically infuriating things I've ever had in my house. Fitting the hose back around the cylinder generally involves a Laocoon-like death struggle and finding the right button to press seems to involve the denial of natural instinct, rather than the enlistment of it that is the mark of good design. Then again persuading people to pay a hefty premium for an appliance this aggravating deserves recognition.

* The Government's decision to raise the age at which you can legally buy cigarettes appears to be another marker of their determination to meet targets on smoking reduction. But, as sincere as they are about weening their citizens off the evil weed, I'm willing to bet that government policy has actually been responsible for a marked dip in New Year resolutions to quit. Traditionally January 1st is a good start date for clean breaks - adding a bit of calendrical top spin to the fragile will of nicotine addicts. This year though there's a far more attractive red letter day - July 1st when the ban on smoking in public places eventually comes into effect. If you have to prohibit yourself from smoking you need all the help you can get from factitious temporal watersheds. But if someone else is going to do the prohibiting for you why jump the gun?