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July 10, 2005 9:42 pm

Mobile phone images present dilemma for TV

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Leading TV broadcasters on Sunday predicted far-reaching changes to news coverage after receiving thousands of graphic video images of last week's London terrorist attacks, captured on mobile phones by commuters caught up in the tragedy.

The BBC has received more than 1,000 still pictures of the unfolding events and 300 different bits of amateur video since the explosions, prompting senior executives to reassess internal guidelines governing use of unsolicited material.

Helen Boaden, BBC director of news, said: “No one knows where this is going to take us. The gap between the professional and non-professional news gatherers is getting narrower.”

That sentiment was echoed at Sky News, the TV news outlet for British Sky Broadcasting.

Simon Bucks, associate editor of Sky News, said: “This is probably the first big story in Britain where we have seen this effect, where camera phones allow eyewitnesses a method of recording news and getting it broadcast.”

Detecives hunting the bombers also made a special appeal to the public for any mobile phone images and video footage captured in London on the day of the bombings, especially from those near the site of the attacks. They urged members of the public with such images to email them to Scotland Yard at images@met.police.uk.

Sky News is offering contributors whose material is used the equivalent of a half-day freelance rate, or about £250 ($434, €364), for the copyright to photographic images.

The BBC, however, insists that images it receives are offered royalty-free with a non-exclusive licence to publish the material in any way it wants.

Use of witness images, many of them containing horrific scenes, could spark an internal media debate over the rules governing copyright and decency.

Ms Boaden at the BBC said the publicly funded broadcaster was applying its existing regulations on taste and decency to the bomb images. But other overseas TV companies are not bound by the UK's public service broadcasting obligations on such issues.

The increasing use of mobile phone images follows the global broadcasting of images from the Asian tsunamis last December, which persuaded several broadcasters to encourage more viewers to submit news material. The BBC, like others, set up a special e-mail to handle amateur images from round the world.

Mr Bucks at Sky News said: “It's a democratisation of news coverage. Viewers can contribute their own coverage.”

UK broadcasters including ITN and Channel 4 have received numerous requests from overseas rivals for access to their material.

Ms Boaden said the BBC would also consider requests from the police and security services to scrutinise the material, particularly images that had not been broadcast.

She insisted, however, that the increasing use of amateur footage would not have any impact on news budgets or technology spending at the broadcaster.

In spite of BBC cutbacks aimed at delivering savings of 15 per cent, Ms Boaden said any savings would be reinvested in areas such as new technology and that the overall investment in BBC news was set to increase.

Industry regulators broadly welcomed the selective use of mobile phone imagery by TV news broadcasters. Ofcom, the media and communications watchdog, said the principles used for professional camera crews should be applied to mobile phone pictures.

Officials applauded the availability of such imagery, but said the images would be subject to Ofcom's recently updated broadcasting code.

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