December 04, 2008 | Graham

A blow to Citizen Journalism

Labor MP James Bidgood is in trouble for taking a photograph and selling it to a newspaper chain in return for a donation of $1,000 to a charity of his choosing. Perhaps I have a tin ear, but what has he done wrong? Or is this an extension of the principles that have led to the Net Nanny State?
Was the taking of the photo what is said to be wrong? Or was it selling (what he calls “passing”) the photos to Newscorp for a donation.
If you read his statement to parliament, it is hard to tell. Here are his words:

Mr BIDGOOD (Dawson) (7.00 pm)—Mr Speaker, on indulgence: this afternoon at an event I took photographs of a serious incident. I later passed those photographs to a news organisation in return for a donation to charity connected to disabilities. My actions were highly insensitive and inappropriate. I am tonight writing a letter of apology to the family involved. I deeply regret my actions and I apologise once again for any offence that I have caused.

How can taking the photos be a crime?
The promise of the ‘net, and the premise on which OLO is founded is that making the news, and analysing it, is not, and should not be, the preserve of professional journalists, many of whom have no expert understanding of the areas on which they report, and operate to commercial criteria which are frequently antithetical to good reportage.
We have participated in a number of citizen journalism projects (YouDecide2007 and that have tried to expand the pool of those who can contribute directly to the news gathering process. If these photos had been sent to me I would have been happy to publish them.
The photos in their own right represent no moral or ethical dilemmas that any other piece of dramatic press footage doesn’t offer. The iconic photo of the Vietnam War is naked 9 year old Kim. Should the photographer not have taken the photo because he was sensitive to her current or potential distress? Should the photographer have tended to her obvious physical needs, rather than take the shot?
Quite clearly we expect news journalists to capture images like this, or we wouldn’t reward them with Pullitzer prizes.
So is the problem that Bidgood is not a professional journalist and that he had other duties to fulfill? If the man trying to douse himself in petrol was in the process, and Bidgood was the only person in a position to stop him, then perhaps that would be the case. But the photos are actually taken after the event, and they include police who are acting to save the subject from himself. Budgood had no higher humanitarian duty that could have trumped his interest in taking the photo.
In fact Bidgood’s case suggests that the distress to the parents should take precedence over everything else. In which case, given many events of historical moment represent distress to someone, should our media only be able to display photos that are uplifting?
Or is the real “crime” that he sought to profit from the photos? Surely not. As far as I know there is no ethical problem with a politician supplementing their income – both John Howard and Kevin Rudd have done it. Bidgood understands photography, and has taken passable photos. Why shouldn’t he sell them (and directing the money to the charity is no different from a sale)? Surely the proposition isn’t that he should have given them to News so that News could profit from them, but no-one else?
As all these questions should, I think, be answered in the negative, it leads to only one conclusion. The high tide of citizen empowerment is being deflected by an opposition and a government who have decided to try to force Australians back into a hierarchical world where select groups have a monopoly on the provision of particular goods and services.
It is this lack of faith in the public which informs the Net Nanny State, and which apparently poisoins much else beside.

Posted by Graham at 9:49 pm | Comments (16) |
Filed under: Media


  1. Graham, I think you have a tin ear. Since I actually agree with all your substantive points, I guess I have one too.
    I suppose the issue is that as an MHR Bidgood was in a privileged position, without which he wouldn’t have been able to take the photo. Yeah I know, it sounds pretty weak to me too, but we’re not in the hothouse of Parliament.
    While I agree that there are plenty in both Government and Opposition who don’t like people to get empowered (why would powerful people need our current political parties?) I’m not sure that’s what is driving this. I think it’s a more prosaic fear of political embarrassment and looking just a bit too mercenary.
    Maybe Mr Bidgood should have sold the photo through the Remuneration Tribunal, after all it’s their job to *stop* politicians looking greedy and insensitive 🙂

    Comment by David Jackmanson — December 5, 2008 @ 12:31 am

  2. Hey Graham,
    Thoughtful post -much thanks.
    I’ve been pondering the issue myself as I’ve watched the sage unfold.
    I agree with most of what you have written.
    But there is also the fact that Bidgood is a politician and I understand that it was Joe Hockey/the political Opposition who first expressed outrage – is this correct?
    So, perhaps the PM insisting on an apology was a bit of a knee-jerk to this. Not an excuse – your point is well made – but an explaination.

    Comment by jennifer — December 5, 2008 @ 8:53 am

  3. Jen, I think I over-egged my last paragraph. It’s probably rather another example of the tendency of the Rudd government to try too hard to please. They’re starting to sound to me like a goodie two shoes operation of teachers pets who wouldn’t want anyone to think badly of them. This is starting to lead to some very poor government, because government is about being more popular than your opponent over the course of your term, not most popular all the time!
    Poor old James Bidgood just committed the sin of getting on the wrong side of the squeamishly moralistic crowd.

    Comment by Graham Young — December 5, 2008 @ 9:56 am

  4. I am outraged at Bidgood’s actions at selling someone else’s personal tragedy and vulnerablity to make a profit.
    Why did Mr Bidgood not first run to the man’s aide?
    Shame on Bidgood; Shame on Rudd.

    Comment by Pathmaker — December 5, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  5. The usual conflict between journalistic or political ethics and personal morality. It’s not wrong but it is just offensive.

    Comment by Kevin Rennie — December 5, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

  6. It was only after he was caught out selling the photos that he decided (or it was decided for him) on the donation to charity.
    Surely, Graham, his first duty would have been to use his phone for calls rather than photos. Calls for help.
    Perhaps you should change the title to
    A Blow to citizenship.

    Comment by Taluka Byvalnian — December 5, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  7. Who was he supposed to ring Taluka? The police were already there.

    Comment by Graham Young — December 5, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

  8. What is wrong with the viewing public’s citienship? Why would we find photos of people setting themselves on fire something we might like to purchase? Where is the respect for human life?

    Comment by Suzan — December 6, 2008 @ 4:36 am

  9. Graham,
    As I said in your chat room, I think the LEGALISTIC citizen photo journalist stance misses the point. Likewise your photo is both CONTEXTUALLY irrelevant and misleading to the issue at hand. There is a world of difference between a child on fire because of a military action in a foreign country (international event) and graphic representation of a highly personal issue here. Simply not comparable one is journalism the latter opportunism. I would even debate that the latter is even news merely cynical sensationalism to sell advertising. Bidgood’s status gave the story that ‘extra’ authority for front page coverage. Ask yourself was his picture necessary for the story? Of course not it was a ‘grabber’. The news adage ‘if it bleeds it leads’ comes to mind.
    The real (parliamentary) issue is/was that Bidgood’s actions showed a significant lack of judgement and sensitivity. Particularly as one whose job it is to gain and maintain the confidence/trust of ALL of his electorate’s constituents especially those at breaking point end of a crisis. It’s all about trust in one’s elected representatve.
    Even I as a thinking person (and if I was in his electorate) would be reticent in seeking his assistance if the issue was one that required sensitivity.

    Comment by examinator ant — December 6, 2008 @ 7:19 am

  10. Graham
    On the journalistic side, I don’t think Annabel Crabb agrees with Bidgood’s journalistic endeavours : from today’s SMH: Now, thanks to his freelance photographic activities, he is in a whole new world of pain.
    In the fourth estate, of course, we win awards for taking pictures of suffering people that we sell for money, but let’s not confuse this debate with anything quite so irritating as consistency; Bidgood’s a ghoul and he must be made to pay.
    Bidgood would probably take out the silver medal in Labor backbench trouble-making this year (Belinda Neal has claimed gold and until we can find someone game enough to argue with her, that’s the way it’s going to stay).

    Comment by Taluka Byvalnian — December 6, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  11. Why all this intense dissection of the simple act of taking a photograph?
    Any action which ocurs in a public area, any person in that area at any time is visible to any other person in the vicinity, and its image may be preserved.
    What the hell is the difference between recording an image on a photgraphic system, and recording it in one’s mind?

    Comment by Ian Nance — December 6, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

  12. You don’t think Annabel has her tongue in her cheek do you – “anything as irritating as consistency”?
    And with the deepest of respect for Miss Crabb, I’m not sure that her position represents the definitive truth on the issue, just because it is hers.

    Comment by Graham Young — December 6, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  13. His only crime was getting caught and the amount of $1000 which is dirt cheep for a photograph of a citizens public attempt to torch themselves on the front lawn of parliament house.

    Comment by Dallas Beaufort — December 7, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

  14. Isn’t the idea that it’s a ‘personal’ context (and therefore different to a ‘news’ event) by commenters, actually belied by the fact that the guy was trying to set himself on fire to protest the decision of a Minister of the Government? The point of the man’s extreme actions is to garner publicity for his cause? He’s doing it out in public, near parliament. So I think ideas of a morality revolving around ‘personal privacy’ are also way off the mark.
    I don’t think he did anything legally, morally, or ethically wrong. His only mistake was a lack of political foresight that the self-appointed guardians of public morality would start baying for blood.

    Comment by scot — December 8, 2008 @ 10:29 am

  15. Graham said “The police were already there.”
    Just watching yesterday’s Insiders and Malcolm Farr said that at the time Bidgood took the photos, the police had the matter in hand.
    From reports I had before that I believed that wasn’t the case.
    So, apologies, Graham.
    However, Malcolm stated that Bidgood previously was a photographer (I wasn’t aware of that either) and first of all asked for the money for himself. The DT people said no, later Bidgood came back to them and said he would give the money to charity.
    Each story has it’s twists and turns, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Taluka Byvalnian — December 8, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

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    Comment by KeeleyV — November 8, 2012 @ 8:57 am

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