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Spare a thought for the senior Middle East photographer fired by Reuters after two tampered photographs from a Beirut stringer got through the system during the Lebanon war. Company officials have trumpeted Reuters â€œswift, strong responseâ€ to this â€œunfortunate human errorâ€ and proclaimed that he was dismissed â€œfor his handling of the caseâ€, saying an internal investigation cleared the company of any intention of misleading the public but it had, even so, tightened procedures. So Reuters emerges clean as a whistle.
But does it? And has the culprit been found?
My former colleague had served with dedication and distinction for 23 years in some of the worldâ€™s roughest places, earning citations for professionalism and admiration for his warmth, humour, intelligence and loyalty. I worked with him during the Lebanese civil war. Heâ€™s a man of energy and integrity, someone you want beside you in a war. There wasnâ€™t a blemish on his record. But so what? It seems that in Reuters, if it suits the company, itâ€™s one strike, youâ€™re out.
Not everyone is happy about this, as a Reuters manager wrote privately to him this month:
â€œIâ€™ve been meaning to write for a while to say I think you have been treated very shabbily. I would like to know the name of a journalist working for Reuters for more than 20 years who has not made a major mistake â€“ let alone when someone else has been trying to push a deliberate mistake past them.
When he took over in July 2005 he knew the Middle East well and knew that most Reuters photographers were poorly educated stringers with no professional training or news skills. They could use the equipment, but not in a truly professional way.
He immediately asked London to set up training for photographers. Answer: thereâ€™s no money.
He asked to bring photographers to Dubai to train them himself. Answer: no money.
That meant that on top of his regional management and photo shooting responsibilities he had the enormous burden of editing pictures from 11 countries. He asked for a photo editor to help. Answer: no money. Finally, a Gaza photographer came in January 2006, but up to July he was away four months.
The lack of investment and consequent lack of means of the Reuters regional photo operation meant he worked long hours, had no holiday for a year and often worked weekends. When he was fired he claimed payment for 55 days due and got it.
But by the time he took a holiday in July 2006 he had straightened out the photo operations in Iraq, Saudi and Egypt. However, bureaus like Lebanon were still a mess.
When he was called from holiday to the Lebanon war he learned that several stringers on the front line in the south did not have Reuters cameras. Two office computers had viruses and were infecting others. No FTP server was available for accessing pictures for editing, so photographers were filing to the private email of the Beirut chief photographer. He didnâ€™t have the password so he couldnâ€™t access pictures directly. Add to that the fact that no one in the Beirut photo operation could write acceptable captions, and that he found someone unqualified and unauthorised in the office accessing the pictures, and the nature of the task he faced in the middle of a war begins to emerge.
AFP had sent in three editors to handle the picture flow and AP had an army of foreign and independent photographers, but he was Reuters sole editor, working with 15 locals and three foreign photographers. He had to edit and file all the localsâ€™ pictures. He asked for help but was told other Reuters photographers were recuperating from the Winter Olympics and Football World Cup and were not available.
Outgunned, beset by equipment problems and technical difficulties, swamped by the flow of pictures â€“ many gory to the extreme — he worked all day and into the nights to select, edit, caption and file. Was it possible to have complete oversight in such conditions? Is it surprising two tampered pictures got through? He accepts responsibility for not spotting them, but could he not have expected backup from the Singapore photo desk? And if he didnâ€™t give the right answer at first when the questions began, was he protecting himself or someone else in the bureau?
Was he really responsible for the mistake or for mishandling the case? It looks more likely that he has been made the scapegoat for a disaster that was always likely to happen given the condition of the Beirut photo operation after years of neglect by Reuters decision-makers.