Photographing democracy

“What’s that, there, in your hand?” -Nothing, I say quickly, transferring it to a trouser pocket. “In your pocket – what is it?” -Er, nothing. “It had better not be a camera, or you will leave now.” -Definitely not that!

It was though. Just a smartphone. But a camera all the same. And I’d been taking a picture of some green benches, with nobody sitting on them. It was during the interminable Parliamentary hols, but yes, there I was. Doing the unthinkable. Making an image of some public objects, paid for with public money, and dedicated to the undertaking of public works.

This isn’t the post to delve in detail into all the ins and outs of photography in private and public spaces, and of course the Guardian of the Chamber was entirely within his rights to crack down like that. But it shows the intense sensitivity relating to photography within our home of democracy.

Much of this ground was trodden, very heavily, during the introduction of television cameras to sittings of the House. And the legacy of that debate is still seen in some of the restrictions around use of the TV footage. You can’t edit it, and you can only use it for news or educational purposes. Have I Got News for You? Not with this content, you haven’t.

I mean at a real stretch, for a bit of a laugh, you might see a documentary maker pitch: “The Right Horizontal Member – an educational guide to MPs’ sleeping positions on the hard benches.” But yeah, not really. That’s the heart of the matter. We’re being told to treat this Mother with some dignity. Keep a veneer of respectability about the proceedings. And it’s easy to slip up here. The issue with stills, either as photos or frames taken from a video stream, is that they tell a particular story, frozen in time, and sometimes relieved of context.

But just as art galleries have begun to crack under the strain of a million iPhones, so it seems the cameras are making their way in. Our elected representatives have been at it for quite a while, with sometimes spectacular results. Sneaky twitpics from the benches go back years now, and sometimes the camera slips right behind the scenes.

All this is no doubt causing big headaches to the Serjeant at Arms and the enforcers of Parliamentary discipline. And that’s just coming from the hands of the members. But what of my lot – the photographers?

How does the role of a documentary, or press, photographer sit with the wish to keep Parliament seen as it would wish to be seen?

Recently, professional photos have been popping up, taken from the galleries, and with the evident blessing of the authorities. The glorious example in this piece shows just how powerful they can be.

Friend and top news photographer Joel Goodman was straight on to this. What’s going on here then? What are the rules? Can anyone join in? (He was also quick to spot that when the Chamber was cleared the [deputy] Speaker was explicit in restating the rules. Clearly any pretence that it doesn’t now happen regularly is just that: pretence.)

So to his question: should professional photographers have access, or not? And what if any conditions or regulation should be attached to this? There’s a world of difference between officially-commissioned (or -sanctioned) PR photography, and free journalism.

He asked where the rules for all this were to be found – but (unsurprisingly) has received no response. Somebody somewhere is no doubt trying to draft something that will defend the current position.

But is it defensible? I think not. Joel’s right. The cameras are already in – so let’s see them used as well as they can be, and free of any whiff of ‘control’. Access will need to be regulated given the interest in the content and the limitations on space, with some sensible form of accreditation and rota. But all the machinery to do this already exists and is regularly used where press meets the Palace.

Will this mean that photographers and agencies will start to compile archives of “disrespectful” imagery? Of members dozing after a heavy lunch? Caught with jowls swinging during a particularly florid ejaculation? Er, to coin a phrase…have I got news for you? This already happens – from TV grabs, or from a million other places where our representatives have cameras trained on them. Will it shatter the institution? Er, no.

The alternatives are to ban it completely (not going to be possible, and, given some agencies already have access, sending completely the wrong message in an environment where Parliament needs more than ever to work on building trust with the public), or continue with limited, controlled coverage that is wide open to accusations of sanitisation and patronage.

Disclosure: I was some years ago a member of the Speaker’s Advisory Council on Public Engagement with Parliament, holding a general interest in ‘openness’ in relation to Parliamentary activities, but I have never been involved in discussions on photographing the proceedings of Parliament.

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