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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

In the developing world censorship causes journalists migraines. In the developed world governments have found an equally efficient method of stopping information from getting out, and it causes journalists there mere headaches, but it’s painful nonetheless. It’s called information control.

Requests for an interview are forgotten or deliberately delayed. Freedom of information requests are delayed by other deadlines. Sources in the police and government departments won’t talk, but refer you to a central media unit. Senior managers get reports from the field that you are asking questions, and move to intervene.

No wonder people are turning off the news, when the public sphere is inundated with news that merely conforms to a script. And news companies are struggling, which means there’s less money for in-depth reporting. This short-termism begets cynicism in the audience, who turn to other forms of entertainment, such as celebrity journalism.

Freelance photographers, for example, are doing it hard, according to an article on the NineMSN website. At the annual prize-giving do in Southern France, festival director Jean-Francois Leroy says that “The years 2008 and 2009 will be marked with a black cross in the history of photojournalism”.

Across the world newspapers and magazines are going out of business, hit by competition from free content on the internet and by a slump in advertising revenue during the broader economic crisis.

Photoreportage on conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan is time consuming and costly, while offbeat subjects in far-flung exotic locales must compete for editors' attention with paparazzi celebrity journalism.

Leroy points, however, to some bright lights. This year, it is Italian photographer Massimo Berruti, who spent his own money to go into Pakistan “and came back with a report that will blow you away”.

In the world of video documentary there’s the story of Carmela Baranowska, who took a video camera into ‘Taliban Country’ while embedded with the US Marines in 2004. But Baranowska’s story is also one where we get to see authorities clamping down in the most defeating ways on journalistic freedom. Her footage is gripping, showing a local warlord working with Marines to discover hidden guns in a remote village. But to get footage, Baranowska was forced to abandon the protection of the military and find her own way into the conflict zones.

As a result she was quickly removed from Afghanistan, flown home, and quizzed strenuously by managers as SBS, who were embarrassed by her intransigence. They were more worried about their liability and spooked by the press coverage Baranowska had attracted, as she recounts in Overland Literary Journal.

I was extremely tired and very confused. Why all the fuss? I was back, I was alive, and I had broken a good story. But SBS was politically spooked. Management told me that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had received an email from the US military complaining about my behaviour. What exactly did the email say? I never found out. But DFAT, ever the loyal US ally, set to work with bureaucratic precision. I later learned that DFAT was ringing SBS weekly to complain about me, something that only stopped shortly before I won a Walkley.

Baranowska won her Walkley Award in 2004. When she saw the small news item announcing the movement of Marines toward Afghanistan, she decided to do the story because she thought it would make good video.

Life is rarely like a film script but I knew enough, as a documentary filmmaker, to find an ‘embed’ with the marines extremely attractive. When one is filming, one needs to have material to film. The marines were the first to fight. They usually lived in the worst conditions, ate bad food and achieved more with less money. They were aggressive. They did things. In both a profound and a banal sense, they were photogenic.

The result is fabulous watching, but not only did she have to fight a controlling military, she also faced pressure from the people who sent her there, and the Australian government. She was an outcast, but she went on to win the prize. We are the richer for her entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile the news media are in a quandary. If they want to attract and keep viewers, they need compelling content. But to make it costs money. As a recent tweet in my feed said: “Yep @ireckon back to the business of producing content...and finding new ways to monetise..:>)”.

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