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London Bombing Pictures Mark New Role for Camera Phones

James Owen
for National Geographic News
July 11, 2005
 
The images that defined the media coverage of the July 7 London terrorist bombings, which claimed more than 50 lives, came not from professional news crews but from everyday people.

Commuters caught in last week's attacks used camera phones to take images that were relayed across the world, providing hundreds of eyewitness pictures. It was a first for such a major breaking news story. Now police investigating the bombings hope this same technology can help bring the killers to justice.

There are parallels with the news coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster last December, when amateur video footage captured waves triggered by a massive undersea earthquake. But media commentators say the London bombings mark a "tipping point" in the news-gathering process.

Monday's issue of London's Guardian newspaper referred to the "democratization of the news process" and described the use of camera phones during the attacks as "the true birth of the 'citizen reporter.'"

The BBC said it received around 30 video clips from members of the public and more than 300 e-mails containing an average of three images each on the day of the attacks. TV news channels, meanwhile, aired cell phone video footage within half an hour of the explosions.

U.K. networks such as Independent Television (ITV) issued requests for phone footage from London viewers who had witnessed the bombings and the ensuing chaos.

Home Video

Stuart Thomas, editor of ITV London News, told the Reuters news service, "Two years ago the only place you got home video from was air show disasters and weddings. But now a large proportion of people in this country are carrying a camera with them all the time."

Many newspapers used cell phone images on their front pages in Friday's coverage of the bombings.

London's Evening Standard ran cell phone pictures of commuters as they struggled to safety and of a bombed London bus moments after it was ripped apart by explosives.

"This is the first time mobile phone images have been used in such large numbers to cover an event like this," said Evening Standard production editor Richard Oliver. "Last week's events show how this technology can transform the news-gathering process. It provides access to eyewitness images at the touch of a button, speeding up our reaction time to major breaking stories."

"News outlets are bound to tap into this resource more and more in future," he added.

The website Technorati.com, which tracks blogs around the world, is reported to have spotted the first cell phone pictures of the London bombings within minutes of the attacks, as images were posted on blogs. Site founder David Sifry described the media's weaving of amateur phone images with professional footage as a "seminal event."

Terrorists used cell phones to detonate explosives in the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, which killed 191 people. It's possible that terrorists used similar tactics for the London attacks. But police say cell phones could now be used as weapons against terrorists, by providing vital clues to their identities.

Police Appeal

Detectives on Sunday appealed for video footage or phone images taken near any one of the four London bombing sites.

"These images may contain crucial information which could help detectives in what is a painstaking and complex inquiry," said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of London's Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch. Images should be e-mailed to images@met.police.uk.

Sales of imaging phones are growing 40 percent annually. Around 260 million camera phones were shipped worldwide in 2004, according the communications consulting firm Strategy Analytics. The phones outsold digital cameras by almost four to one.

In the U.K. an estimated 93 percent of the population uses cell phones.

"The majority of handsets now sold are camera or video capable," said Toby Robson, spokesman for U.K. network operator Vodafone, which has 15.2 million customers. "A very large chunk of those will have video cameras," he added.

He says the technology makes it possible for almost anyone to serve as an amateur photographer or reporter. "The first footage I saw on Thursday was mobile phone images," Robson added. "If 93 percent of the population has access to a mobile device, potentially that's a huge organic intelligence-gathering machine."

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