Politics

First, they came for the photojournalists...

Just as the idea of printing a text press release verbatim is abhorrent to most professional print journalists, the prospect of media organizations using the carefully-managed photographs released by Prime Minister's Office is equally appalling to professional photojournalists. This week, the PMO went one step further: a video press release.

'Video press release' steps up lingering battle between PMO, Parliamentary Press Gallery

In this official handout photograph from the Prime Minister's Office dated Aug. 18, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several members of his cabinet are seen reaching for items on a tray. What are they reaching for? Do they eat whatever was on the tray? The PMO says it was seal meat, and yes, they ate it, but no photojournalist was given access to the event. (Handout/Prime Minister's Office)

On several occasions, the Inside Politics blog and its predecessor have mentioned the latest front in the runs-hot-and-cold battle  between the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the Parliamentary Press Gallery: the distribution from the PMO of  "photo releases" — professional photographs from the prime minister's official photographer sent via email to anyone who wishes to use them for news or other promotional purposes.

The photographs, naturally, are flattering  to the prime minister, and they are deliberate — selected and distributed in a fashion consistent with the PMO's desired message(s) of the day.

Just as the idea of printing the text of a press release verbatim is abhorrent to most professional print journalists, the prospect of media organizations using these carefully-managed photographs is equally appalling to professional photojournalists.

This week, the PMO went one step further: issuing video press releases at the start of Stephen Harper's trip to China.

Word of this new video release was circulated to the Press Gallery and other media organizations the same way printed press releases and the now much-maligned photo releases are -- by email. Not as an attachment, which would have been too large for most people's inboxes, but as a message promoting a link to the place on the PMO's official website  where this new video can be downloaded for use.

Less discussed, but also worth observing, is that the PMO has for some time also included audio releases (.mp3 files) on this website. These audio files could be used by radio stations who would like a clip of the prime minister at an official event, but can't afford to have a radio reporter working on their behalf day in, day out here on Parliament Hill. 

The PMO also has been in the podcasting (audio and video) game dating back to Harper's first months in office, although these clips were never publicized as 'releases' per se. For a curious and brief period during the summer of 2006, media reports heralded that podcasts from Stephen Harper sat in the top spot on Canada's iTunes  download site.

The PMO is very fond of its new multimedia releases. I spoke to the Prime Minister's chief spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, about this earlier this fall.

"We wish we would have started [these] earlier," he enthused. "A picture is worth a million words."

He went on to say, "we don't see a difference between a press release and a photo release."

I followed up with Soudas about these new video releases this week. In a brief email message from China, he appeared to characterize them as the next logical step. "Ultimately, it's important to inform all media across Canada in every possible way - written, photo, audio and video releases."

The initial distribution of the photo releases caught some media organizations off-guard. Some discovered they lacked established policies and procedures for their use, compared to professional photojournalists' images. The CBC, and others, now have set policies to remedy this situation, and generally avoid using a PMO photograph unless nothing else is available, and then only if it's clearly identified as the PMO's work.

But the photos have been used, in a variety of contexts — even by the CBC. 

Initially, some mistakes were made.  Photos were used with incorrect attributions, which made them seem like photojournalism versus the photo releases they really are. On at least one occasion, a PMO shot went out on a photo wire service without being properly attributed to the PMO.

I'm not aware of any objective tracking of their use, but it would be interesting to know what kind of "pickup" they get across the board.

I asked Soudas if he knew how prevalent their use had become a couple of months ago, but he did not offer any specific information he might have from their own tracking. However, I can only assume they feel it's worth it to continue.

He maintained this week that the feedback he's received about these releases has been "overwhelmingly positive."

An 'access and control issue'

Up until now, professional photojournalists have led the charge in raising concerns about these multimedia releases. Canadian Press — as the only photo wire service that normally covers the prime minister's every public move (other photojournalists cover him  selectively, of course) — took a lead role in complaining officially to the PMO in the form of a letter.

"It comes down to an access and control issue," Graeme Roy, the director of news photography for Canadian Press told me earlier this fall. "I don't think anyone prints press releases verbatim. These handouts are along the same lines. It's poor journalism."

Soudas, too, at several points, talked about this as an access issue, offering that all journalists should have the opportunity to report on what the prime minister is doing.

"There are reporters outside of Ottawa," he said, in what could be taken as a slight dig against those of us here in the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

So what's the main complaint from the professional journalists? Not that these photos are distributed per se, but that sometimes, the PMO's photographer is given access and/or a camera position that the news photographers cannot get. In news photography, one's angle and one's access is the difference between a fantastic shot that tells a story and just … a shot. And when this happens, the temptation for news organizations to run the "official" photo, which could be better, or different, is greater.

Let's face it; sometimes it's frustrating for news organizations. They've sometimes paid considerable travel costs to send their photographers on a trip, or chosen to dispatch a scarce resource across town to cover an event on a busy day, only to realize they've been denied entry to the place where the best action happened. They might get a staged handshake, while the official photographer inside had an action shot, or a more candid and interesting image, thanks to his/her privileged access.

Among ourselves, jokes are made about behind stuck with only the approved handout shots from the Kremlin, or similar.

"If there's no valid reason why our photographers were excluded, we won't use those photos," Roy said of CP's policy on the releases. "We won't use handouts in situations where we were denied access."

Why are news photographers' photos seen as more valuable? It all comes down to why photojournalism exists: to document what really happens, not what someone else wants the public to see. Photojournalists are the public's non-partisan witness to what really occurs, versus having to take an official's word for it.

One recent example Roy shared:

During last summer's Arctic cabinet meeting, the PMO distributed a photo of cabinet ministers around a tray of seal meat. The PMO version of events was that this was the Harper cabinet enjoying the local fare. No news photographer was given access to this scene, however, so we have no idea whether the ministers really did sample the seal meat, or just posed with it. If a real photojournalist was there, we would have known for sure, and there could be action shots of the eating, if it did occur.

I asked Soudas earlier if the goal was to replace — or make redundant — professional photojournalists.

"Of course not," he said, and added he was looking forward to discussing the concerns of CP and others, although he declined to say what specific response he would have to  their letter.

"We see it as co-operative, a way of working together."

And it seems that co-operation is sometimes evident. Last week at the Commonwealth Summit, a Canadian Press photographer gave the PMO a picture that was distributed as a photo release after a restricted photo opportunity with Queen Elizabeth.

'The media can't have it both ways'

Soudas did have a complaint of his own to share with me.

"The media can't have it both ways. They can't criticize us for not providing enough information, and then criticize us for providing too much information."

Still, it's harder for photojournalists to fight for the access they need, when some continue to use the PMO photos instead of paying for the professional photojournalist's alternative. It comes down to another sort of "solidarity against the common foe" situation for the Press Gallery.

When I spoke with Roy from CP, he emphasized the need for professional media to stick together on this issue, and he said the majority of CP members were behind the position they were taking on the use of these photos.

"I believe some people didn't fully think out the ramifications [of using these photos]," Roy said. "People have different views on the severity of the issue, and different ideas about how the world works."

Up until now, those of us who work in television have not been involved in this skirmish, at least directly. Still photos are one thing, but our business is built on moving pictures and sound.

Prehaps this video release means that now we too have been engaged.

Watching the short inaugural PMO video release, it appears rather amateurish and inferior to the professional product shot by our CBC camera at the same scene — a short excerpt that was used for a voiceover on one of our newscasts shows that our videographer had a much better (closer) angle on Harper and his wife mounting the stairs. The PMO video is also silent (without an audio track) as near as I can see. (Mind you, on an airplane tarmac, the mics don't pick up very much other than the roar of the engines, as you can hear in the CBC footage.) Normally, broadcasters avoid running silent movies and want the natural sound from the scene.

But the fact that this video doesn't challenge the CBC's footage for quality is not the point.

It will be interesting to see how common these video releases become, and whether — as with our still photojournalist colleagues — examples emerge of the cameraperson for the PMO getting access to scenes our professional videographers are denied.

These releases give video of the prime minister, which used to be the exclusive domain of the television networks, to anyone with the means to download and play it. It's expensive to purchase television footage, and even more expensive to acquire and maintain the infrastructure to shoot and distribute your own broadcast-quality footage on a regular basis, so this "free" PMO video puts footage in the hands of people for whom it was previously inaccessible.

It's no secret that the Harper government is particularly keen to reach out beyond the "mainstream media" — particularly to ethnic media outlets that in some urban centres have very large audiences the government is keen to reach.

Recently, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's press aide, Alykhan Velshi, noted the following on Twitter: "Omni Cantonese edition tonight: PM China visit, Finley/Kenney FCR announcement, Ambrose action on CN strike. No Afghan detainees, no 10%ers."

It's an implicit criticism of the kind of stories other news outlets were focusing on that night, and an allegation that the mainstream media was out of touch with the interests of this group of viewers. (Or, at least, out of synch with the government's preferred message.)

I haven't done the kind of audience research it would take to know if these smaller outlets more accurately reflect what some people are interested in than the mainstream media does.

But I do suspect the photo releases, and now the video releases, are most likely to be used by smaller, independent media outlets who can't afford full-time staff here in Ottawa. And I suspect the PMO doesn't really care if these video releases are boycotted, used very sparingly or in limited contexts by the major news outlets.

We aren't their target for these releases. Their goal is to go around us, and broadcast their carefully selected messages using every medium at their disposal.

It's legal, but the PMO shouldn't expect us to like it.

What do you think? Should professional media organizations use handout photos from the PMO?

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