This article first appeared on the Huffington Post Blog.
Charlie Brookers’s latest episode of Black Mirror : White Bear being broadcast on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm got me thinking. Here’s the text :
My seven-year-old walked in to the bathroom with an iPod and took a picture of me in the shower. She thought it was hilarious. As I lectured her on privacy and the risk of embarrassing pictures ending up on the internet her five-year-old brother collapsed in hysterical laughter at the idea of showing the world what I really look like. I now live in fear. Thus end all tyrants these days, apparently. Whether Saddam Hussein’s hanging or the brutal mob killing of Colonel Gaddafi it will be caught forever by someone with a mobile.
We’ve all got TV cameras in our pockets these days and television sucks up the material with glee. From filming a knife-wielding man tasered by police outside Buckingham Palace to the helicopter crash in London ordinary people are newsgathering extraordinary events everyday. Everyone’s a journalist now: bearing witness and reporting it on Twitter and YouTube. If smartphones had been around in the sixties there would be no “magic bullet” theories about the JFK assassination because the Zapruder film would have been just one of a thousand videos online.
That means the journalist’s dilemma of when to record, what to record and when to help is now everyone’s. If you saw somebody hurt in front of you in a riot what would you do? Call 999, film it or put the phone away and help? The smartphone era seems to be accompanied by a stronger instinct to record than anything else.
Perhaps many of us always preferred to watch than to get involved but I never understand why people stand filming with mobiles at museums and music gigs. The point, surely, is to be there. Watch it through a screen and you will have detached yourself from the experience – whether that is your child’s golden moment at school or the arrival of the Olympic torch in your village.
If you fancy yourself as a journalist you will also have the dilemma of fairness. If you film the riot and capture the police dragging away the young woman did you see what happened earlier? Was that her throwing a petrol bomb? There are perils too. You can forget that you are actually there and in danger yourself. If you point a phone at rioters or muggers don’t be surprised if they attack you. If you point it at police don’t be surprised if they arrest you. And if you wander around holding out your £500 device is it any wonder if a mugger snatches it?
Of course in a conflict zone or a revolution the smartphone is much more than something to gawp with. The marchers in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the rebels in Syria or the protesters in Iran were not capturing the moment for themselves, but to tell the world and to inspire others. This was the proof of what was happening when the regimes’ official news agencies would deny protests had taken place, or play down the scale of unrest or civilian casualties. It showed people in one city what could be achieved if they did the same. And it had a profound impact.
More strangely, perhaps, soldiers and militia also film what they have done in war. There is amateur footage of alleged atrocities dating back to Bosnia in the 1990s. The most extensive examples from recent years come from Sri Lanka, where Channel 4 gathered mobile phone footage of atrocities by both government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.
The dilemma for big news brands is what to broadcast and what to believe of this smartphone video. Our reputations rest on the authenticity of material we say is true. Viewers expect it to have been cross-checked and authenticated. Sometimes that can be done by going to the primary source, the person who shot it. Sometimes it can’t, and the warning “cannot be independently verified” stays in the script. But only after other checks have been made to see if the video tallies with still photographs, witnesses and other sources. As we’ve all found out more than once governments and corporations can be relentless in their attempts to discredit your journalism. So you had better be sure of what you have.
It might be tempting to wonder if the smartphone will eventually replace the TV camera altogether. Just as you might wonder if social media and the internet will do away with news programmes in the end. But just as citizen journalists don’t all have the storytelling, fact-checking, truth-pursuing skills of the professionals, great pictures in a great moment are generally the preserve of the great video photographer with high quality equipment. As a viewer I know that I can read Twitter, the news websites and browse Youtube but I still want the crafted, well written news programmes at the end of the day. I still want people I trust and have watched for years putting things in context, telling me the background, asking the tough questions, holding people to account. New technology and the smartphone doesn’t threaten TV news. It just makes it better.
The challenge to our own lives might be another matter. My wife came back from watching the kids in a school performance last week. “Did you film it?”, I asked. “No”, she replied, “I watched it”.