Sliding doors of media – videojournalism
In the film Sliding Doors (1998), Director Peter Howitt imagines the different paths of fate from the accidents and choices we make.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s love life and the man she has fallen for becomes the focus of this romantic comedy based on the premise what if life’s trajectory took an unexpected turn.
More recently this theme surfaces in Matt Damon’s Adjustment Bureau. This wonderful allegorical treatise on life is difficult to understand, because in life whatever we do appears deterministic. It is difficult to assume a change in the future from different choices.
If you weren’t reading this now and were doing something else would your future be irrevocably different? If you’re a football fan consider whether if Spain, Italy or England had progressed beyond their group stages, would the tournament be different?
It’s hypothetical because obviously they didn’t. But sometimes, as Edward Lorenz noted in his 1972 text to American scientists, labelled ‘Chaos Theory’, the flutters of a butterfly do create waves that affect a different causality and chain of events thereafter.
For that split moment you’re closing the door on your apartment or car, you subconsciously register and see how you’re about to lock yourself out. Thwump. Too late ! And there you can see your keys out of reach and the day ahead of you going horribly wrong because of cancelled meetings and the next attempt to call a locksmith.
In law, a more recursive rationale is the aphorism, ‘the fruit from the poisoned tree’. This holds that any evidence from a source which is deemed unreliable destroys the whole logic of any evidence built on the initial testimony. It’s simple unreliable. In a way it’s a Sliding Door. A different choice affects the future in a profound way and if that choice can be demonstrated to be erroneous, anything plucked from the tree is inherently maligned.
This narrative has a compound and spectacular outcome for one of the 21st Cs most talked about media forms. In 1994 Ken McCarthy, a marketer came up with the idea that an efficient way to measure the impact of online data is to record the number of clicks a site receives. It worked fantastically for ads and as a result caught fire, and everyone adopted the method.
Now, everyone measures the power of your website that way, except as spammers and denial of service renegades have shown, click throughs aren’t really an effective and bullet-proof way of measuring online successes. Twenty years on, though we’re still using clicks as Tony Hale writes in What you Think You Now About the Web is Wrong, for Time magazine. But Hale notes there are new more proficient ways being devised. But this isn’t the spectacular feature I’m referring to, though yes it’s profound.
How they got it wrong
Twenty years ago, the first murmurings of videojournalism could be heard in the UK and since then, more so in the 2000s as institution after institution, academic after academic, and practitioner after practitioner present their case for videojournalism, one of the enduring questions is what is it?
If you work in the media, you’re likely have your own view. But a simple question gets to the heart of this gordian knot? How were you informed about videojournalism?
The question seems absurbed because like turning the tap clockwise for water, this media form has become so naturalised as to avoid such fanciful angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin examination.
What is it? Well videojournalism is a prototypical example of fruit from the poisoned tree – A Sliding Door. Unlike some research which appears abtruse because of the difficulty of finding a source, videojournalism’s age means it is relatively easier to find its well, and what it is and not, particularly in the UK.
In the same way we can trace film to the Lumieres, documentary to Grierson, and cinema verite to Robert Drew, videojournalism’s start point in the UK is well documented.
While the rhetoric for this explanations is detailed unequivocally over a 100,000 pages of the thesis: The Cinematography of Videojournalism – towards a creative approach. Redefining Videojournalism, here I present a brief history of how we got videojournalism spectacularly wrong and why it matters.
Ask several experts what and how videojournalism is in the UK and they will most likely cite it started at the BBC. UK academics Steve Hill and Paul Lashmar do this in 2014 in their book Online Journalism: The Essential Guide stating videojournalism started in 2000. This is a Sliding Door moment, a fruit from the poisoned tree because they’re not alone.
The BBC practised videojournalism in 2000 but as the evidence from this BBC magazine shows, the BBC was doing videojournalism in 1996. So there’s clear cut evidence that at least for Hill and Lashmar in their next edition they might want to update this. In the BBC article, unless you know what you’re looking for, the senior producer interviewed about videojournalism is Tim Woolgar.
Woolgar’s backgound is fascinating. He is presently the heavyweight champion of chess boxing and the key promoter of the sport in the UK. But how did he become part of the BBC videojournalism team of 1996? In 1993, Woolgar answered this advert in the Guardian.
It was for a cable outfit, Channel One, looking to launch videojournalism in the UK. Tim was one of the successful candidates picked from 3000 applicants. So the advert that appeared in 1994 shows irrefutable evidence that videojournalism did not start with the BBC, even in 1996.
In fact this Guardian newspaper entry is the first time the word ‘videojournalism’ appears in the newspapers. There’s a caveat here which I’ll reveal at the end of this article.
Woolgar, 2nd from right, back row at Channel One, 1994
Does the fact that videojournalism first appeared in 1994 matter and what’s in a name? Well, it matters if you walk down the aisle of your supermarket and grab a packet of Cornflakes only to find out when you get home and open the box it’s full of flakes of corn. Or that you’re bidding for a commission to produce a documentary on driving and the lack of driving licenses, only find out at the production meeting day what they said they wanted was a document of your driving license.
1994 and 1996 and 2000 are all Sliding Door moments and affect different futures. More poignantly they present wholly different forms of a a new style of film making, as remarkable as David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge.
In Hockney’s trail blazing book, the talisman painter reveals how the Masters of painting, Caravaggio, Valezquez and so on used an optic device to draw rather than the creative power of their eye and imagination.
The BBC in 2000 acquired a new film form. It had high hopes for the craft, but it also had a limiting output. When the BBC acquired videojournalism it was placed in the newsrooms of its Nations and Regions. No one else wanted it or was ready to indulge it says Vin Ray, who was then a senior executive at the BBC. Videojournalism became an adjunct to the way BBC produced news. The BBC news package easing itself from the 1990s into the 2000s was still beyond reproach.
Largely, videojournalism was the form that yielded the news package enacted by, and here’s the exclusive radical bit for most people, one person.
In 2001 I was invited to speak at the BBC’s inaugural launch of videojournalism. More recently, in my research several figures, from executives who brought videojournalism to the BBC, to BBC practising videojournalists speak about how the practise was changed at the BBC.
Deep breath, so what? The Sliding Door of the BBC in 2000 shows a videojournalism that has only to do with regional news. The Sliding Door in 1996 shows videojournalism had nothing to do with news, but the creation of reality television.
The programme director of Channel One at the time was Nick Pollard, a former ITN Editor whom, after Channel One was Head of News at Sky News for a decade. He gives an insight into Channel One’s practice.
This is profound because there are scores of experts who often advise on videojournalism, that either don’t know its origins, or at worse have never understood its intended purpose by the BBC , and how that differed at Channel One.
The discrepency arises from the simple point that videojournalism in the BBC in 1996 was unofficial and did not have the blessings of a director. In 2000 it did.
But then we get to 1994, the source of .Michael Jackson’s moonwalk myth moment (Mjs MMM). At Motown’s 25th anniversary in 1983 Michael Jackson unleashed a dance routine that was a game changer.
Attendants were on their feet and Jackson treated them to his rebuttal of a libenous paternal claim, to music of course. Billy Jean ( is not mine). But it’s the now famous moonwalk, resigned today to TV heaven that becomes focal point. Jackson’s Moonwalk and the routine came to symbolise brand MJ. Interestingly enough this has its own Sliding Door moment as the opportunity to perform away from his brothers caused all sorts of headaches and could easily not have happened.
The routine however was taught to MJ by Jeffrey Daniels which you can see from this video here on Top of the pops. Incidentally I went to the odd Top of the Pops and Soul Train and I’m told there are videos of me dancing- with the camera hovering around me. However, I digress.
And Daniels? Well where did he learn it from? The streets of New York, in the era of body poppers and the likes of the Rock Steady Crew. The Rock Steady crew of videojournalism are the first Sliding Door.
For them videojournalism was more than the ability to film. Videojournalism was partly a lab and its chief architect was Michael Rosenblum. What videojournalism manifested itself as was a break from the zero stylistic approach of news, to create different styles to make news. While the advert that appeared in the newspaper stated news was the stations output, when Channel One launched it realised it needed more than news programmes to sustain its audience and so introduced a swathe of programmes all undertaken by and delivered by videojournalists working alone or collaboratively. What emerges is a British affair from an American ideal.
This spectacularly variation in factually determining what videojournalism is, is not an uncommon occurrence. The eminent media scholar Paddy Scannell identifies this phenomenon from the French philosopher Foucault, referred to as ‘discursive formation’. It was when an institution gets hold of an idea and repackages it as its own. The BBC itself never states it created videojournalism.Scannel notes, ..’and in doing that, in my opinion, you falsify, you begin to mystify, you actually begin to loose sight of the actual worldly reality of the thing you are trying to engage with’.
But the trajectory of videojournalism from the Sliding Door of 1994, again this appears abstract because its difficult to see that singular path, presents a very different form to what is almost universally practised by the industry. Videojournalism-as-cinema is a direct descendent of the videjournalism of 1994. A post videojournalism form, which offer a greater creative and professional palette to solve problems and present to the audience
There’s two questions that remain unanswered because I have not posed them. That firstly unlike television journalism that suggest a universality predicated on a tacit agreement amongst broadcasters how to make news, videojournalism is author driven and dependent on the ideology of the outfit and practitioner. It’s the reason why Channel One video journalism would be different from the BBC and is also different from the New York Times videojournalists which started in 1996.
Thus, it’s impossible to generalise and speak about video journalism as a unitary form. You could be an expert in videojournalism from the TV News’ perspective and traditional idea of the news package, or you could state you understate the approach from 1994 which involved a myriad of styles, many of which were outside of news.
In the same way that journalism or writing styles in the UK are different to the US, so videojournalism in the US is not comparable to the UK. Several videojournalists from Channel One’s era continue to contribute to British Television and media in ways that are still ground breaking.
Good Morning Britain employs a specialists cameraman/director producer, Ravi Vadgama, a former Channel One videojournalist, and this year Dimtri Doganis was honoured by the BAFTA for his documentary, ‘The Imposter’
Here’s Doganis, stating how his style of filmmaking has developed.
The other major point is how a huge number of cameramen and women from the 1980s state they were videojournalists. Many of them were and are great news and documentary camera men and women. But there’s another Sliding Door that reveals itself which is wholly different to Channel One narrative which I speak about in The Cinematography of Videojournalism – towards a creative approach. Redefining Videojournalism
This underscores a firm untold narrative of storytelling.