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The movie business

Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 15:12 UK time, Tuesday, 6 June 2006

The issue of how broadcasters deal with the huge increase in "user generated content" or "citizen newsgathering" has been highligted again by the Forest Gate incident. It has been sniffily reported that some TV producers (apparently working for rival broadcasters) were offering members of the public cash and contracts for their mobile phone clips. People are obviously getting wise to the notion that their material could earn them a bob or two.

This is not a new occurance however. Newsgatherers have always been prepared to pay money for what we formerly termed "amateur video". It has netted us crucial pictures which we have used in the coverage of stories such as ferry disasters, the aftermath of explosions etc. As we wish to be able to hold the copyright for such pictures in order to be able to cut them into packages which are then passed on to our partners, we tie the deal down with a contract.

Along came the BBC News website which made a point of asking the public to send in their pictures, for which they were quite clear they would not be paying. Apart from anything else, they didn't have the budget, but in addition it didn't really fit the spirit of the new medium with its greater emphasis on interaction with the audience. So in effect we had two different systems for handling material provided by the public.

What has significantly changed the way we deal with these issues is the enormous growth in UGC content. With so many digital cameras and mobile phones out there it provides us with a huge increase in picture gathering capability and has proved enormously valuable: the 7/7 London bombs, the Buncefield fire and the recent Cleveland Explosion are the most notable recent examples.

We cannot be in the business of buying all the content provided by the public. There is simply now too much of it and most of it is not worth the expenditure. But there is nonetheless still a competitive market for really special material and the BBC should be part of that market in order for our journalism to remain of the highest quality.

Whether we pay the public for the material, and how much, is up to the judgement of producers on the ground who can see the pictures and the Newsgathering editor at base. Their decision would be based on the value of the shots as far as telling the story is concerned, the price, and how much we think it appropriate for a publicly funded broadcaster to pay.

A major consideration when dealing with this material though are the safety issues around it, and our responsibilities to the public. Our professional crews are fully safety-trained and have an understanding of the risks and precautions that need to be taken when covering stories such as oil depot explosions. The public might not. When appealing for this material from our audience, we need to ensure we are not encouraging them to put themselves in any danger.

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