The Writer and the Cameraman

The revolutionary commentator?

By Toby Coaker

The column or opinion piece is regarded as one of print journalism’s exclusive qualities. A commentator’s erudite ramblings distinguish his or her work from that of their fettered broadcast contemporaries.

What does Steve Richards (The Independent) do differently from, say, Adam Boulton (Sky News)? The freedom to challenge a decision, person or event, criticise, condemn, promote controversy…When he remains loyal to the ties of his employment, Boulton must purely observe – a commentator yes but one who, by law, must let his pictures, rather than his mouth, do the talking.

So what happens when the two are fused together? When our idiosyncratic life analysts are handed a video camera? The best example is OpEd Live.

A novel concept installed on to The Times’ ‘pricey’ new website, it’s an attempt to give online users a more creative and original style of journalism. We are told in an introductory video that OpEd Live offers viewers ‘Times Columnists… but free range’. Commentators are allowed to use the props of life to supplement a critical piece that can now be seen by the eye – not just visualised in the mind.

Let’s examine a few examples:

In his critique of the digital switchover, Matthew Parris’ props are his digital radio and a sledgehammer. It is hardly surprising that we witness the latter destroying the former in a climax of Parris’ discontent with the unreliability of his modern wireless.

Less predictable, however, is the opinion we form of the journalist as he tries to translate the eccentricity familiar in his writing, on to the screen. The explanation as to why he might wish to destroy his radio is interesting (it is all part of a rant against the digital switchover and his affection for the soon-to-be extinct analogue radio), yet the destruction itself appears to offer nothing more than base, visual entertainment.

Does video therefore add clarity to an argument, or destroy the subtlety that gives writing its charm?

Take another example –

Hugo Rifkind and his football

In ‘Hugo Rifkind is bemused by football’, it’s hard not to cringe watching the unashamedly middle class Hugo stride across a soccer pitch whilst explaining why he ‘just doesn’t care very much’ about football.

Rifkind spends the majority of the video talking with a ball held close to his chest – his voice passing underneath the obligatory shot of celebrating goal scorers and pap-hungry WAGs. The visuals are there to enhance his accompanying written piece, yet I fail to see any worth in the creation of this video at all.

Even more bemusing is watching David Aaronovitch pant about Wikileaks whilst on a run across Hampstead Heath. Ok, there are some attractive location pans here, but an appreciation of this is quickly over-shadowed by a shot of the columnist stretching against a tree at the video’s end.

Again, how do these visuals create a more stimulating experience for the consumer beyond what they could ingest on paper?

Of course, I am being hypercritical of what is clearly the offer of a more enjoyable and stimulating mode of journalism. Yet I just can’t visualise this format becoming a widespread asset within the industry in the future. There are many more ‘opeds’ available – exclusive to The Times – so go and have a look for yourself. Perhaps you might think differently?

I apologise if you do not subscribe to The Times and are thus unable to watch the accompanying videos.

One Response to The Writer and the Cameraman

  1. Pingback: A Comment on the Future « VideoJournalismOnline

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