On Monday, Nicola Sturgeon confirmed her reputation as the UK’s best politician by uniting the British media with a singular pro-Sturgeon vision. She gazumped Downing Street’s Brexit* bill, due to pass in the House of Lords, by announcing indyref2 and getting her own visual message on the front page of almost every national paper.
By excluding all independent photographers from this historic, twice-in-a-lifetime speech The Scottish Government sent out their own photographs and the newspapers happily gobbled them up. Would the national press publish verbatim a government press release? Of course not. So why have they done so with their photographs? And who kept the togs out, anyway?
When indyref2 was announced, I was on assignment in Paisley and was alerted to the news by some SNP activists hanging ‘Yes’ bunting from their office, minutes after the speech had finished. I then heard that colleagues in Edinburgh had been excluded from attending the event. The two moments together triggered flashbacks and I recalled how in that very same room Alex Salmond had announced his resignation in 2014 while barring sections of the media from attending. Pro-union journalists were excluded and The Guardian declined to attend because the Scottish Government were seeking to hand-pick a journalist. The public know that happened because the government excluded writers on that occasion and the writers, naturally, wrote about it. No one, as far as I know, has written about this latest press exclusion because it was against the lowly snappers.
The other difference is the government openly admits they didn't want photographers there in the first place- "they weren't invited". When the motley crew turned up in the hope of getting something inside they ended up outside with the saddest group shot of 2017. A significant branch of the media was left out.
The official excuse was a problem of "space" in the room, the same reason its worth noting used at Salmond’s resignation for the journalists. Could they not have found a bigger room in the past two years or go on the street like their counterparts do in London? The stately interior is small with its gold framed mirrors (important visual cues) but they managed to fit seven film crews, over 30 writers (some papers had two) and one government photographer. If they could fit one photographer in, why did they not use an independent photographer to avoid claims of stifling press freedom? Or at least the avoid devaluing photography as a 2nd class medium.
Having a pool from AFP, Getty images, PA or Reuters is standard practice. To give credit to these agencies who had photographers standing outside they did not syndicate the government-approved photos because they classed them as ‘screened’ images. The agencies saw the issue where the newspapers did not. The papers took them straight off the Government's flickr account. The problem was clearly not space and it could be accused of control.
The following day, to her credit, First Minister Nicola apologised personally to the two photographers allowed into her cabinet meeting. What or who was she apologising for?
An official response later given to me by the press office admitted there was "a fault on our part" and they are "taking action to get it sorted".** Indeed they are meeting with the photographers to discuss how to work this out.
I know this could appear trivial in the context of countries splitting apart but how a government operates day-to-day is a microcosm of what happens at a higher level.
As a photographer it reveals two things to me:
First, governments know the power of the image to shape public opinion and the need to control that image. They want us to see some things and not others. Nicola Sturgeon, like Alex Salmond, is a master of the photo op to control her image. She is the prime administrator of selfies, getting her message out one phone at a time. Without visual journalists showing us what politicians do no-one would really know. I would love to think its because photographs are so powerful that photographers were kept outside, could we spin it as a compliment? The Scottish Government does respect the power of photography to the extent they actually paid a professional photographer even if they didn’t respect a free press to do their job.
Assuming we get in the room, our job is to ask ourselves- what do they want us to do here? How is the subject seeking to control our images for their benefit?
Secondly it shows, sadly, that people in the newspaper business don’t always recognise that photographs carry the same power as the words. On Monday night I imagine the editors needing to fill cover space and it made sense to show the story of the day even if it was the government-approved story of the day. The Times at least ran a Scottish Government byline to inform us to read the image with caution. If you think a simple image of a woman speaking cannot convey that much information, think how long it takes to update your Facebook profile pic. A simple headshot can mean a thousand different things depending on what you want to show.
The greatest editors and writers I have worked with have recognised the value of the photographer as a news gatherer, a fact-finder and a visual communicator. An equal to investigate and not just some monkey to fill a space or adds a splash of colour to the page. We sometimes invite that cliché. The lack of any protest from the papers when their photojournalists were excluded seems worse than the act of itself.
Sturgeon understands the vital role of the media in telling the story she wants told. On Monday, she managed to get the papers to publish her message on their covers without anyone questioning what the photos might actually say. More worrying is the Scottish Government can exclude photographers without any obvious push back from the papers (like not publishing the photos). Whether it was an intentional plot or a stupid blunder becomes less relevant when you consider that no-one seemed to care the photographers were shut out and they just published the government's photos anyway.
*Brexit means the UK will leave the EU. Indyref2 is the sequel vote proposed to get Scotland out of the UK but remaining in the EU.
**CORRECTION Friday 17 March 2100 GMT: Following further communication with the Scottish Government they did not dispute the facts of the article except the claim of an earlier version of this blog where it was suggested a junior civil servant was blamed for the mistake. They expressly denied that any junior civil servant was singled out for blame but acknowledged that mistakes had been made collectively. This assertion has now been removed due to a lack of direct evidence. They reiterated their desire to find a constructive way forward working with press photographers.