Picture Manipulation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:44 pm on 30th March 1994.

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Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Denton and Reddish 4:44 pm, 30th March 1994

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require news media to prepare a code of practice to cover the principles by which pictures may be edited, altered or changed using computer techniques and to record clearly when old film is being used and when the person presenting the film was not present during its filming. In a democracy, it is essential that accurate information be available to everyone. Rightly, at present, there are many worries about our mass media. In the Bill, I want to draw attention to an important matter, more in the hope of stimulating debate about it than, at this time in the Session, hoping that it can become an Act of Parliament.

Most people are aware of the old adage "the camera never lies". It seems to me that many people still believe it, in spite of the fact that many of them are aware that over the ages pictures have been faked—for example, the photographs of the Cottingley Fairies which were authenticated by no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Many pictures of the Loch Ness monster have clearly been faked and there is a very interesting series of pictures that show the way in which photographs of the Russian revolution changed as political correctness within the Soviet Union changed.Most of us have had similar experiences with family photographs. Perhaps there sits on the mantlepiece a photograph of Uncle Albert with a broad grin on his face, yet we know that, except for one picture, he almost never grinned in his whole life.

Most people also know about photo opportunities. My constituents are well aware that Members of Parliament, in particular, and royalty try to contrive to be photographed in the most desirable, but not always the most accurate, circumstances. We remember the photograph of the Princess of Wales at the Taj Mahal. She was supposed to be "all alone", except anyone who thought about it for a second or two realised that several hundred photographers were present also.

In spite of the evidence, most people believe pictures, particularly those accompanied by a well-respected voice on television, far more than they believe the written word. Sadly, few people realise just how easy it is to alter pictures or make them actually misleading. As I have said, it has always been possible to fake photographs and film. However, with the aid of computers and electronic images, what was often a slow, laborious business can now be accomplished in a few minutes. There are programmes such as Photoshop for still pictures and anyone who watches commercial television can see how computers are being used to adapt pieces of film for television adverts. Certainly within the next three or four years, it will be fairly easy to run a piece of video film through a computer programme and change the nature of it entirely.

Certainly in the last 12 months, I have seen a considerable number of examples of the way in which newspapers, in particular, have adapted and distorted pictures. In preparing for this debate, I took the trouble to write to a series of national newspaper editors and television companies. Almost all of them acknowledge that there is a problem. Of course, most of them claim that they would not dream of adapting or distorting a picture in their publications or on their programmes, but they were then very keen to point out how some of their rivals were doing this.

I make it clear that I do not have any objection to a newspaper morphing the face of a politician or a football manager with a turnip to produce a cross between a human face and a turnip. I do not mind if a picture editor decides to slip a photograph of someone from the past, such as W.G. Grace, into a picture of the present English cricket team. I would not have minded if I had looked at the morning newspapers today and seen the Prime Minister's image taken out of political pictures and put into cricketing pictures or seen the English cricket captain put into political pictures. That is all fair and reasonable fun. I have no objections to photomontages or when people say that they are using library film on television.

The reason for my Bill is that I object to the fact that pictures are altered—although the readers are not aware of that fact—and may thus have a major impact on the way in which readers respond to the pictures. As a hypothetical example—I am not claiming that it has happened, but everyone will understand the problems involved—let us assume that a prominent person has acquired a black eye and is photographed with it. How colourful, painful and bloody it looks in a newspaper picture may well decide how much sympathy or disgust the public feel. Substantial problems can arise when the photograph is taken, depending on the film used by the photographer and the camera angle, but once the picture ends up on the picture editor's desk, he or she can still change its appearance to make the wound look more gory and much worse, using a few movements of a programme such as Photoshop. That can make the picture far more dramatic and can change people's perception of the black eye, which might have been caused legitimately by a bang against a door, but, when processed, looked as if it had been caused by something more significant.

The same applies in child abuse cases, as we have seen several times lately. After the case and someone's conviction, a picture appears in the newspaper. It is extremely easy to make the bruises or other injuries shown in the picture that bit more graphic, with a little work using something like Photoshop.

As I only have 10 minutes, I must move quickly to the problems of moving pictures, which are often also distorted. During the summer recess, I rang one of my colleagues in the shadow Cabinet as I wanted a word with him, only to be told that he was away on holiday. I had no objections to that, but when I turned on the television news at six o'clock and saw him at a meeting of the shadow Cabinet my first reaction was, "I'm not going to vote for him again." When I checked the picture very carefully, I realised that the television company was using a piece of film showing a shadow Cabinet meeting several months before. Had I been one of my hon. Friend's constituents, I would have been annoyed to have seen him on television after being fobbed off by someone who said that he was not available.

I understand the problems for television companies and for politicians. The companies are reluctant to show people at what they call business, such as walking through doors or along the road, or clearing their desks. However, if they continue to use film from the past, without saying that it is library film, they are in danger of producing a false impression and there are many examples of that.

I have considered the regulatory processes—the Press Complaints Commission and organisations set up under the Broadcasting Act 1988 do not really regulate such matters. That is the point of my Bill—to deal with that problem.

If newspapers change the slogan on a T-shirt, for example, to that proclaiming one newspaper to another, when it was not changed, or if they take out the background in a picture of Nelson Mandela because it suits their presentation and if library film is continually presented on television as if it were current film, it will discredit the media and a lot of problems may result.

People in this country have a right to know that pictures used in the mass media are what they are represented as being—accurate pictures of what is happening. I also argue that if material used on television does not show something that the person doing the voice-over saw taking place, that should be made clear. If old films are used, that should also be indicated.

If we do not observe those standards, we are on a slippery slope towards unsatisfactory mass media. I hope that the House will give me leave to introduce the Bill and that it can further the discussion of what is and is not reasonable when pictures are changed in print and on television.