Free the News!

I’ve written before about the problem of discussing public affairs in videos when you can’t legitimately reuse portions of the RTE news- the primary source for any current affairs videos.

Eoin O’Dell has started the ball rolling to try to persuade RTE to release the footage of the upcoming debates in a format which would allow the populous to edit, share, comment on, recut, parody or otherwise mess about with them.

He’s received a quite a warm reception so far (one of the the advantages of his innate respectability) from Peter Feeney, RTE’s head of Public Affairs. If, as seems to be on the cards, RTE does let license payers at their footage it will be a triumph for the commons and for open discussion of public affairs.

If RTE is willing to go down this route, I think that the set-piece leader’s speeches should be just the start. Why should RTE want to stop its license payers (the citizens of the nation it exists to serve) from using or reusing its news footage for non-commercial purposes? As the National Broadcaster it has an opportunity to make a real contribution to the free and open discussion of civic matters. I can think of no reason it shouldn’t license its footage so that we could make what use of it that we wanted, provided that it was clear that (a) the resulting video was not the product of RTE and (b) that the video would be for non-commercial purposes.

I’m never happy though, am I? Because I have a final section of my wish list. I’d argue that it would be entirely within the bounds of RTE’s mission as National Broadcaster to release their unedited, unbroadcast footage on the same terms.

Unbroadcast footage is the hidden treasure of a TV news business. This would have numerous advantages- firstly we could all see exactly what decisions have been made in the editing suite. We could directly see that what we were shown on the broadcast news is a fair representation of any given event.

Secondly, we could decide that we’d like to recut that footage to make our own points- to change the emphasis of a report, or highlight an aspect unstressed by the reporting journalist. For example, in early reports on the clash between Vincent Browne and Bertie Aherne, FF’s election strategist PJ Mara was reportedly shown telling Vincent Browne to fuck off from the shadows. In later RTE news reports this footage was removed. It is fair to say that this kind of reaction is of legitimate public interest. Why should it disappear forever?

This kind of release would also mean an end to claims by interviewees that they have been misrepresented- all they would have to do is show us the cut they would prefer. Indeed it raises the wonderful possibility that entire alternative news shows could be assembled from the participants’ points of view to enrich the public debate.

Finally, more stories and events are recorded than ever make it to the screen. And of those that do make it for every 30 seconds we see of an interview on the news, there will be 20- 30mins of unused footage. For someone who’d like to find out more, that kind of in-depth treatment would be particularly valuable.

The only objection to this final suggestion is the cost of hosting and bandwidth such a huge amount of video footage. It is outside my area of expertise to suggest a solution to that (maybe a time limit on automatic access to the footage or a deal with a state funded body such as HEAnet who are used to these kinds of issues) but I’m certain that if the only objection were technical, it would be quickly overcome.

I’ll be forwarding these suggestions to Mr. Feeney and to Eoin O’Dell (in case he’d like to raise them as part of a wider discussion). In the meantime, why not add your name to the petition Eoin has set up calling on RTE to free the debates.


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