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JS Mill, the Guardian, and footage of the G20 protests

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When, back in 1859, John Stuart Mill wrote that truth – provided it wasn’t suppressed - would eventually triumph, he also added a caveat. As long, he said, as there are people prepared dig it out and make a song and dance about it. Actually, his language was rather more polished than mine, he wrote:

‘The real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it’ (JS Mill, On Liberty).

It’s that caveat I’m most interested in, particularly with regard to the media coverage of the G20 in London.

The coverage would, of itself, make for a wonderful doctoral thesis: the attempts by government to control the media within the summit by penning all established correspondents within a single venue, while outside there was a morrass of dissonant voices – reporters, protesters, police, onlookers. While all the while everyone was publishing furiously in text, audio, photographs and video, across multiple platforms and thousands of outlets.

But within the multiple major narratives and thousands of individual stories was one particularly tragic one. A man trying to return home from work who, trapped in the protests, died of a heart attack.

The initial ‘truth’ of how Ian Tomlinson died was shaped mainly by the police. The police said they were told a man had collapsed, they found and examined him, contacted an ambulance, and moved him because bottles were being thrown at them by protesters (from Guardian, 8-4-09).

But we live in a different media age. Not just an age of mass reporting but an age of mass recording. Most people now carry a mobile phone that can certainly take still photos, may well be able to film video, and record audio. Now, if you are at a newsworthy event – and a G20 protest most definitely counts as a newsworthy event – then the chances are you will be recorded many times, by many people.

And you can publish what you have recorded, without fear of suppression, to the world. Technologies like AudioBoo allow you to audio record and then, with a couple of clicks, upload it to the net. If JS Mill were alive today, you figure he’d be pleased.

So, given people’s ability to record and publish you would assume that, amongst the millions of still photographs and the thousands of videos that someone, somewhere, would have recorded the death of Mr Tomlinson and, as important, the minutes leading up to his death.

But how do you find it? How do you track down something you don’t know exists recorded by someone you don’t know how to identify? Here’s where we come to Mill’s caveat. You need someone willing and able to take alot of time, and a media outlet willing to provide the oxygen of publicity. The Guardian did this with the story of Mr Tomlinson. It found it, published it as their lead story, and gave it the context with which people could appreciate its authenticity (article and footage here)

Would the ‘truth’ surrounding Mr Tomlinson’s death have come to light had it not been sought out by journalists, and then published as the lead story in the Guardian? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

Good journalism has always been about digging out information, authenticating it, and contextualising it. But in our new media world where every voice can, theoretically, be not only heard but recorded and published, our need for journalists – who can, in Mill’s words, ‘rediscover’ the truth, is greater than ever.

Written by Martin Moore

April 9th, 2009 at 7:18 pm

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