Dominic Lawson: Camera phones aren't just for peep shows

Though unnerved by a world without privacy, I admit camera phones bring more benefit than harm

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There is a Facebook site called Seeing Japanese Tourists Taking Photos of the Most Pointless Things. It has almost half a million followers. This is an ever-widening circle of voyeuristic absurdity: vast numbers of people staring at photographs taken by other people who enjoy stalking Japanese tourists fixated by the need to register their own image of something which is of no obvious interest.

It's a bit like this with the row over the publication of camera-phone snaps of Prince Harry playing strip billiards with some friends and (very recent) female acquaintances in a Las Vegas hotel suite. None of it matters much at all, but public opinion polls are now being taken over the issue: for what it's worth, YouGov in last weekend's Sunday Times recorded that 68 per cent thought it "acceptable for Prince Harry to behave in this way" and 61 per cent thought it was wrong of The Sun "to publish actual pictures of Prince Harry".

There remains the faint possibility that The Sun did not publish "actual pictures" of the third in line to the throne. So fuzzy were they that it would be almost impossible to realise who the naked man was, unless you had not already been told. If they had been produced by the artist Alison Jackson, who specialises in contrived photos of lookalikes of members of the Royal Family, I would have said that she had failed on this occasion.

But I suppose that's part of the pleasure of it for the voyeuristic tendency: the grainier the shot, the more it creates the sense that the viewer is benefiting from an illicit thrill. Nor should we at the posher end of the media be too snooty about The Sun's commercial decision to publish. If news is defined as "the information that someone somewhere doesn't want printed", then for picture-driven publications the same dictum can apply to the visual image.

After Harry's mother was killed through the actions of a drunk driver attempting to evade the incessant attentions of bounty-hunting professional photographers, the popular press – more terrified of being blamed by readers for her death than out of any concern for the feelings of the individuals concerned –declared they would not make her sons' lives as intolerable as hers had become. However, the advent of the camera phone, combined with the development of the internet, has, in any case, rendered the paparazzi irrelevant: or, rather, we are all paparazzi now.

Well, not quite all. I am one of those whose mobile phone does not contain a camera; I have always identified with the man in The New Yorker cartoon, circa 2003, clutching his mobile phone and saying: "Hold on a minute: I think I've just taken a photo of my ear again." But the vast majority of mobile-phone users do have ones with cameras, and – like so many Japanese tourists – they're not afraid to use them, however silly they might look. Actually, like those Japanese, they don't think they look silly: that is why almost all the athletes who paraded at the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games were busy taking photos of the audience on their mobile phones. It looked ridiculous and slightly undignified to me, but then I am about 30 years older than they are.

Prince Harry is of their generation, and, assuming he was sober enough to notice, it still might not have seemed odd to him that some of the guests in his hotel suite were taking photos of each other in various states of undress. This is relevant to the issue of press regulation: the code of practice of the Press Complaints Commission – which the Palace invoked when asking the press not to publish the photos – states that: "It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private without their consent." Yet the Facebook generation of which Prince Harry is a fully participating member (Las Vegas is hardly Balmoral) seems to regard that consent as almost implicit.

As much as a world without privacy unnerves me and as livid as I would be if one of my own children's naked form were displayed across the front page of The Sun for the public's entertainment, I reluctantly admit that, overall, this aspect of photographic technology has brought more benefit than harm.

This has been made especially clear during the recent rebellions against tyrannical governments in the Middle East. The murderous activities of the Iranian regime's armed thugs in 2009 as they repressed demonstrations (including the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan) have been made visible to the outside world, when conventional journalism has not been able to bear witness.

The same technology has also held the law-enforcement authorities in democracies to account. The initial newspaper reports of the death of Ian Tomlinson, during the protests surrounding the G20 summit in London, took the police line that the Met's only role had been to try to save the stricken Tomlinson's life while being pelted with bottles. It was not until the press got hold of a mobile-telephone clip of the scene, taken by a visiting American, that we discovered that Tomlinson had been attacked by a Metropolitan Police officer, and that there had been no "barrage of missiles" at the scene.

So thank goodness for the Japanese electronics industry, which developed the camera phone without a thought in the world other than to make its customers happy.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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