The Digital Journalist
Lifting the Veil

by Peter Howe

I haven't lived in London for 27 years and yet people still ask me which are the best restaurants there. This was an easy question to answer 27 years ago because there were only about four, but today you're getting yourself into a long conversation if you try to provide an answer. So much has changed in that period that I am a foreigner there now. I don't know what the cars that Hertz offers to me look like; I have no idea how the congestion charge works, I just know that it does. If I decide to forego the car and use public transport I am clueless as to how to buy a bus ticket. I didn't even know until a recent visit that sex stores have to be licensed now.

I was there on a book tour, hustling my wares with the determination of a Soho streetwalker, but probably with less financial return. It was while watching the evening news one night that I realized something else had changed during my absence - they tamed the Labour Party Conference. The Labour Party is one of the two main political movements in the United Kingdom, and its annual meeting could be relied upon to be raucous and misbehaved, full of men in flat caps shouting "Rubbish" - the British equivalent of bullshit - at whoever was on the podium speaking and regardless of what they were saying. It was out-of-date, hopelessly ineffective, raucous and irrelevant, and I kind of liked it.

Nowadays, the Labour Party Conference looks like a low-rent version of the Republican Convention (why is it that we Americans always export the worst aspects of our society, instead of the many good ones?). It had an elaborate set in a ghastly Reese Witherspoon pink, and all the spontaneity and exuberance of a gathering of the Mormon Elders. But what was more disturbing was that Tony Blair took yet another page out of the book of his friend and mentor, President Bushwhacker, and decided to squash all dissent, especially over the tricky issue of the war in Iraq. Unfortunately for him and the spinmeisters of the conference, an 82-year-old Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, who has been a Labour party member for 57 years, didn't get the memo. Walter Wolfgang, clearly a scurrilous and dangerous revolutionary, disturbed the well-modulated harmony of the event by shouting out the inflammatory phrases "Nonsense" and "That's a lie" during a speech on the conflict by Jack Straw, the equivalent of our secretary of state. What happened next must have made the old man wonder whether he evaded the Nazis after all. Two huge "party stewards" - a.k.a. bouncers - hauled him from his seat and threw him out, along with a bystander who protested their rough treatment of the frail-looking old gentleman. Not content with that, he was then detained by the police under the Terrorism Act.

We live in an age when it's axiomatic that the first instinct of politicians, confronted by an unpleasant or embarrassing situation, is to lie, which is what happened next. The Labour Party issued a statement saying that Wolfgang had been warned three times before being asked to leave. Fortunately for him the entire incident was videotaped by one of the television cameras covering the conference and showed that his radical behavior was pretty mild, and on a threat level he wasn't even an amber. The footage also clearly showed that he was given no warnings whatsoever before being bundled unceremoniously out of the hall. As the result of constant screening of this incontrovertible evidence, Blair was forced to apologize for the incident and to restore Mr. Wolfgang's conference credentials that had been confiscated because of his deplorably democratic behavior.

The whole incident was another example of the benefits of an increasingly transparent society. Very little happens today that isn't videotaped or photographed either professionally by TV reporters and photojournalists or by security surveillance and amateurs with cell phones or digital video cameras. The downside of this is that the concept of personal privacy may be as out-of-date as that of chivalry. I remember reading George Orwell's "1984" a decade or so before the actual year came about and was appalled by his vision of a world controlled by Big Brother in which personal freedom, especially the freedom to dissent, had vanished. Fortunately that dark vision has not yet come to pass, partly because Orwell could not have foreseen the aftershocks of the communication revolution. It may be that the increased scrutiny to which our daily lives are subjected has caused us to suffer a loss of privacy, but it has also made the lives of those who work in dark places that much more difficult as well. It was a remarkable coincidence that the security cameras on London's Underground system were working perfectly when they tracked the terrorists with their explosive backpacks, but were strangely malfunctioning when the Metropolitan police shot to death an innocent Brazilian in Stockwell tube station.

The danger is not in the greater observation but the control that the authorities try to exert in the name of national security over the outlets for the resulting information. Terrorism is a threat to democracy in many ways, not the least of which is that it causes us to behave undemocratically, and one of the scandals of the last three years is the way that this nation's news media have not held the administration accountable for fear of seeming "unpatriotic." In his book "War and the American Presidency," Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. outlines a compelling case that shows that dissent is patriotic, especially for this country, which was founded on it. If democracy has a future, and that's not something that we should take for granted, it will only be through the expression of dissent, something that has been woefully absent from our newspapers and television screens. Yet despite its extensive and obsessive attempts to control the flow of news, the Bush White House could not stop the images from Abu Ghraib nor from the disaster, both natural and man-made, of New Orleans. What it has done is to set up a climate of fear and suspicion that is affecting photographers and making it much more difficult for many of them to work. I hear more and more of instances of interference with photographers, by the police and other agencies, in the name of security, in which completely illegal restrictions are placed on their activities and about which they can do nothing.

Tyler Hicks recently gave a presentation of his powerful work on Katrina, and although the conditions under which he worked were gruesome, the total chaos had one advantage - no one told him that he couldn't photograph anywhere or anything. The attorney Nancy Wolff, who specializes in photographic issues, has a great piece of advice for photographers on dealing with overzealous law enforcement agents, and that is to carry as many supporting documents with you as you can when shooting on location. This should include such things as assignment letters, press credentials, even previously published work, anything that will show that you're exercising your First Amendment rights and not planning nefarious deeds. It's not a guarantee that those rights won't be violated, but it may well help.

All of us have experienced the dangers of endowing people with a little power, especially in the name of security, national or otherwise. Most of the stewards at the Labour Party Conference, all of whom are volunteers, are probably decent, well-meaning people. It's not actually the presence of the odd bully in their midst that's the most worrying aspect of the incident with Walter Wolfgang, but the fact that the organizers clearly wanted to suppress any protests about the war in Iraq during the conference. I am convinced that this is exactly the wrong way to deal with the threat that faces us, and that an even more open and transparent society, including government, is the most powerful weapon we have against the zealots who oppose us.

As we watch the Bush White House unravel, with all its dishonesty, deception and manipulation, we do not present to the world an image of democracy that many would wish to emulate.

So the next time you see closed-circuit TV, a proud dad with a video camera, teenagers with their omnipresent cell phones, or one Japanese tourist photographing another Japanese tourist (what do you think they do with all those pictures?) be thankful that we live in an age of blanket visual communication that often lifts the veils from the darker corners of our society and ensures that the beating of retired school teachers in New Orleans will not go unwitnessed. Be thankful that as a photojournalist you are an important part of this process, and treat your camera as you would your American Express card - don't leave home without it.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor