On Saturday night, Canadians gathered across the country to watch a broadcast of what was to be the last concert by the Tragically Hip, whose lead singer, Gord Downie, is terminally ill. It was something more than a rock ‘n’ roll concert. It was a national celebration of a band that is deeply ingrained in the Canadian consciousness.
Millions of Canadians watched the show, in their homes or at public screenings. The prime minister attended the concert in Kingston. This wasn’t just an entertainment event. It was a news event. And the media were barred from photographing it.
The Canadian Press, a news agency that provides articles, photos, video, audio content and more to hundreds of media outlets across Canada, was told by concert promoter Live Nation last Thursday that our photographer would not be allowed in. We were told it was because there wasn’t enough space inside the Rogers K-Rock Centre, the 6,000-seat arena where the show was held, to accommodate all the requests. Instead, Live Nation would make photos taken by the tour photographer available to media outlets. (The prime minister’s photographer was also allowed in. Live Nation says it was not aware of that.)
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The Canadian Press declined to distribute the handout photos to our clients. It is our policy that we do not use handout photos when we are barred from photographing an event ourselves.
This policy rests on the principles of editorial independence and access. Photos are an integral part of news coverage. They tell a story and have just as much impact as words do. News organizations jealously protect the editorial control we have over such content, just as we do with our written stories. Our trained journalists decide what to shoot, what to write and what we will make available to our clients. The subjects of our stories and photos do not get to make those decisions. That is the only way to maintain our independence. Using handout pictures produced and controlled by a person or organization we cover removes our ability to exercise that editorial independence. The images become, essentially, promotional material, and we do not distribute such material as part of our news file.
(The Canadian Press does have a contract with a press-release company under which we are paid to distribute press releases to media clients. These are provided through a feed that is in a distinct category from the news feed, are identified as such, and have no influence over our editorial processes or decisions.)
Some will ask, what difference does it make? How would your pictures have been any different than the ones taken by the tour photographer? And they would have a point. Concert pictures taken by different professional photographers are likely to look very similar. But it’s worth asking what would have happened had some unexpected incident taken place — something involving the prime minister, for example. Would the tour photographer have captured it, and would those pictures be made available?
But the main risk in bending on our policy is that it sets a precedent. Increasingly, limitations are being placed on journalists’ access to various kinds of events. If we were willing to distribute handout photos of this one, why wouldn’t we do so for others? Why wouldn’t the organizers of other news events keep us out and control the pictures Canadians can see? Why wouldn’t politicians, always keen to control their public image, do so? If they can keep photographers out, why not keep reporters out, too, and just provide their own written account of the event? As media outlets struggle through difficult economic times and declining resources, the offer of free content becomes more tempting. But the principle of editorial independence is worth defending, even at the cost of sometimes not getting the picture you want.
(Had we shot the concert, the photos would have been made available to our clients as part of their existing contracts. There would have been no additional charge.)
Saturday’s concert was a significant news event, an important moment in the cultural life of the country. Downie’s courage and dedication to his millions of fans were evident throughout. The Canadian Press covered this inspiring story extensively. We would have liked to give the final show the full coverage it deserved. Allowing The Canadian Press, which serves the vast majority of media outlets in the country, to shoot the concert would have preserved the principle of the news media’s independence — without taking up much space.
Stephen Meurice is editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press.
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Editor's note: The headline of this article has been corrected to specify that news cameras, not all media, were banned from the concert.