Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Peter Principle: I Make the Daily Mail

Being a columnist myself I understand the job's special requirements: the ability to feign outrage at the drop of a hat and the ability to churn out copy on deadline. I'm going to assume both things explain how a Daily Mail columnist came to mention me in that paper yesterday.

His name is Peter McKay and he visited the Reuters Fellows last month. Yesterday's column isn't online, so I'll quote the pertinent item in its entirety:
"Speaking to a group of foreign journalists at the Reuters' Institute in Oxford, I told the story of covering many years ago the homecoming of a 'lost' trawler in Aberdeen. A big story because everyone thought the crew had perished but, badly damaged, the boat had taken shelter until a North Sea storm died down. Then sailed home without knowing there had been a fuss about them. I said we'd asked the skipper to take the boat out of the harbour and sail it back in so that we could get good 'Ghost ship sails in' pictures instead of boring shots of it tied up. Being an idealistic young lad, I told my audience, I wondered if this artifice was ethical and decided it was. But a Washington Post journalist on the course said his paper would never countenance such a deception. The pompous idiots do, however, publish mock-up pictures every day of President George W. Bush 'in conversation' or 'sharing a joke' with distinguished visitors."

I'll get to that last sentence in just a bit, but first let's focus on the rest of the paragraph. McKay did indeed tell that story. But, according to my notes, he left some details out. McKay said he and the more senior Daily Express reporter he was working with paid the skipper to sail back. They'd missed the actual return and wanted a photograph that could be described as the ship making landfall for the first time. Having missed reality the first time around, they decided to manufacture it.

"Most news has been devised," McKay said. He explained that the structure of a story has been decided ahead of time and the journalist then sets out to assemble the elements that make the finished product possible.

McKay seemed reluctant to entertain the notion that journalism has an obligation to be anything other than entertaining. "Newspapering is a business," he said. It's "absolutely wrong," he said, to think that newspapers have any sort of duty to society.

Well, fine. At least you know where Peter McKay stands. Somewhere in the 1950s, but there you are. Now let's deconstruct that last sentence: "The pompous idiots do, however, publish mock-up pictures every day of President George W. Bush 'in conversation' or 'sharing a joke' with distinguished visitors." Pompous idiots? I don't think I was especially pompous or idiotic that afternoon. In fact I had just complimented--well, not complimented exactly, more remarked upon--the Daily Mail's hard-hitting coverage of women's breasts. I stand in awe of it. (From yesterday's Mail: "Christina Aguilera looks bustier than ever." Something to do with lactating, apparently.)

Next, does The Post publish "mock-up pictures"? Um, I don't think so, but to be sure I asked the Post's assistant managing editor for photography, Michel DuCille, if we did. Of course not, the Pulitzer Prize-winner said in an e-mail.

And would a Post photographer do as the inventive McKay did years ago: incent an Aberdeen fisherman to putt-putt around a harbor for the benefit of a photographer looking for his money shot? "We absolutely would never do that," DuCille wrote. "If we can't capture the real thing we don't recreate it. It is simply not the truth. Photojournalism must speak the truth."

DuCille sent along the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics. One part reads: "While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events." Sounds pretty straightforward to me.

Frankly, I can't quite understand what McKay is referring to. The Post doesn't do anything "every day" except print the weather forecast. Faked or PhotoShopped pictures of George Bush? Every day? Sharing a joke with distinguished visitors? McKay has something in mind but I can't for the life of me tell what it is. I don't think he can, either. When I e-mailed asking him, basically, WTF?, he responded with: "I am researching the WP's mock-up pictures situation." Let me know what you find out, Peter.

The thing is, I agree with some of what McKay said that afternoon, comments that were only occasionally punctuated by the tiresome "I long for the good old days" nostalgia that afflicts so many journalists. For example, he said: "If the public are interested, it's in the public's interest." This was by way of defending the Mail's take-no-prisoners approach to just about everything it covers. Which makes McKay's admission that the Mail has been sitting for months on a story involving the royal family very odd. There's some scandal, apparently, involving a minor royal. But McKay said the palace requested the paper sit on it and the Mail complied.

You'd think he would be right on it, with a camera in one hand and a wad of cash in the other.

The Money Shot
Here's the point in this post where I have to get all serious for a moment. I do not agree with McKay that most newspaper stories are decided ahead of time then assembled in IdentaKit fashion. Of course, I can only speak for The Washington Post. The best stories--the best columns, even--are the result of following the reporting where it takes you.

I won't even speculate if the unease and distrust many consumers feel for the media these days stems from the feeling that all journalists subscribe to the McKay model: loose with the facts in pursuit of a "better" story. The thing is, I'm not sure even he agrees with that. I suspect that deep down in his leathery Fleet Street heart McKay thinks that I'm right, which is why as a cub reporter he questioned his actions on that quay and why, a full month after we spoke, our little exchange still rankles. Or does that sound a bit pompous?


Ken said...

Christina looks bust lovely.

Anonymous said...

I think he must be referring to "photo ops"...those world-leader-chatting-with-the-president in-front-of-the-fireplace-with-the-fern -on-the-mantle-pictures. A la Bush on the aircraft carrier. Is that a "real" photo or a manufactured image that the Post dutifully photographs and publishes?

mark from alexandria said...

There was a pompous idiot in that mix, but I think his name was McKay. However, that does take us to the question of Obama's outrage over the picture of him in what the Brits call "fancy dress." Kudos to the Post for printing an equally "outrageous" photo of Senator Clinton and her daughter in those conical asian kind of sun hats today. I hope Senator Obama realizes that, were he annointed, there would be pictures of him at various economic summits wearing often unflattering shirts typical of host countries. Somehow, Presidents Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II all survived this outrage.

Jo said...

Yeah, I agree with Anonymous -- Peter's got to be meaning the complicity around photo ops, doesn't he? It's not actually a cozy chat that some lucky photographer happened across -- it's a carefully constructed simulacrum of a cozy chat that may or may not bear any resemblance to the actual relationship. (Hopefully, readers pick that up, right?) Though really, I don't know that British papers are any more picky about these than anyone else.

Richard said...

Interesting. The BBC got it in the neck over faking things last year. We all got re-educated. One of the distinctions which are usefully made in these sessions is the distinction between artifice and fakery. Artifice is OK. Fakery isn't. You can't avoid some measure of artifice on telly -- they guy who is apparently speaking earnestly to you isn't. He's talking to a camera. And there's lots more of this, it's central to what goes on: essentially we abridge time. So what is the difference between legitimate artifice and illegitimate fakery? One test is whether the audience will be pissed off if they find out what you've been up to. On that test, would the readership have been pissed off to find that McKay had paid the boat?

I'm not saying it's the only test, but it's a useful one. And is there a distinction between papers and telly? Artifice is less part of your stock in trade. Perhaps, though, photo shoots are acceptable artifice.

Can't see the point of his being rude, though. Bile doesn't add to his argument. Lack of courtesy doesn't make him more convincing.

feckless man said...

I agree that McKay is referring to the staged shots. I'm sure that the Post and every other paper would love to eradicate the grin-and-grabs, but that's the only access they get. It's that or nothing. I think McKay realizes that he threw out a red herring to try to deflect attention from the fact that he has no journalistic leg on which to stand.

feckless man said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ken said...

Keep me abreast of all Christina news, will you?

Anonymous said...

I believe the distinction has to do with who is setting up the shot. Is the "journalist" (I use that word in quotes to refer to McKay, because what he did is beyond the pale) doing the directing or is some paid public relations person? If the grip 'n grin is set up by a pr person, or a political aide, and the photographer shoots what happens (while, of course, trying to get the best angles, tell a story and all the other stuff that makes it such a difficult job) it's legit, if the photographer is directing the action, it's bogus. At least that's my understanding of the rules for photojournalists. And if a photographer arrives after the action has happened, pays the subject to re-enact and submits it as "coverage" I'm pretty sure that's a firing offense at most papers in the country. We learned about several far more benign cases in my INTRO photojournalism class several years ago where the photographers were fired. And no photojournalist I currently know would EVER do that. Even moving a piece of police tape will get you talked about for years: http://photobusinessforum.blogspot.com/2008/02/worth-revisiting-teachable-moments.html


John Kelly said...

Maybe a posed photo is what McKay meant, in which case his use of the word "mock-up" is a little loose. Or maybe it has a different meaning in England, like "pants" or "fanny." So let's say that's what he meant: Every day those pompous idiots at The Post print posed photos of George W. Bush, that is, photos of the president with world leaders that are what could be described as "photo opportunities." Certainly that's not LITERALLY true. But let's say it is. Is there something wrong with that? I think most photographers would not PREFER such pictures. They'd much rather have something candid and unplanned. But there's a difference between taking a photo at an event--I noticed the Daily Mail had plenty of Academy Awards red carpet pictures--and staging an event, which McKay admittedly did.

I think it's an interesting point about the Bush/aircraft carrier photo. Aren't we glad it was taken, since it becomes a sort of public record? It very quickly went from a photo that Bush's handlers probably saw as some sort of message of strength to one of ridicule. It shows how images can have lives of their own.

To sum up: McKay wasn't very clear as to what he meant exactly, his vitriol was miscalibrated, and he professes no regret at staging a stunt that would get him fired from The Washington Post.

AEZ said...

Didn't I tell you he was an a****** as soon as he finished? No further questions, your honor: he made my point VERY clear.

Henry said...

McKay isn't just wrong, he's a hypocrite, staging the shot then pretending to be concerned about the ethics. His rudeness is pretty unforgiveable too considering how much time the Daily Mail spends whining about the decline of politeness and respect.

On the other hand, if the Daily Mail stopped printing photos of fake things, how will they do any Christina Aguilera and Posh Spice boob shots?

Isobel Mckay said...

Hmmmm...that's why you work for voxford and Peter works for the Daily Mail...