Exploring new technology with drone journalism

By Greta Hofmann

With the dangers of reporting and documenting conflict or uprisings claiming many lives every year, drones seem to be a practical and safe alternative to otherwise dangerous missions. On Wednesday 20 November, the Frontline Club hosted a panel discussion chaired by Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism  at Cardiff University and a former BBC Global News director. The five-person panel debated the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the field, touching on ethics, law and the safety, as well as the advantages, it brings to journalism.

The panel: Tom Hannen, Professor Robert Picard, David Goldberg, Gerry Corbett, and Richard Sambrook.

L-R: Tom Hannen, Professor Robert Picard, David Goldberg, Gerry Corbett and Richard Sambrook. Photo: Greta Hoffman

The evening started with a demonstration by Tom Hannen, a senior innovations producer at the BBC’s Global Video Unit, who brought along an actual drone and showed the audience how to fly it. He explained:

“We are starting small and simple with this at the BBC, so we’ve been looking at wide open spaces, agricultural stories, all these wide open spaces in a controlled environment. We’re primarily using them for filming features rather than on the ground news gathering. . . . The last thing you want to be doing in a place where people are already shooting is putting a beacon up above you saying ‘We’re just here’.”

The BBC, however, is only one of a number media agencies and private companies investigating the use of drones. This means that there might be a need for new legal guidelines to regulate their use. David Goldberg, a legal and regulatory specialist for Unmanned Experts, addressed this issue:

“What we are actually looking at here is the general right to photograph . . . this is a general right that does not require permission. There was a statement made by Lord Bassam in 2008 . . . saying that the taking of photographs in a public place is not subject to any rules or statute. There is no legal presumption of privacy for someone in a public place.”

Even though the use of drones seems to be legal, Professor Robert Picard, director of research at the Reuters Institute in Oxford and a world-leading specialist on media economics and government media policies, said that there were many ethical issues to be considered:

“We are increasingly offered images from third parties and this is going to create a lot of ethical issues, because we need to think about the conditions under which those visual images were obtained. Were they obtained by violating laws? Were they obtained by breaking expectations of privacy?”

One member of the audience asked what would happen if in the future journalists stepped back from control and the drones would fly autonomously. Robert Picard said:

“They do have that now, primarily in military operations. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. It was one of the great problems the US military had when invading Iraq.”

Gerry Corbett, who works for the Civil Aviation Authority Safety and Airspace Regulation Group, added:

“A general requirement at the moment is that all aircraft have to have a person in charge to control them. . . . The trouble that comes with autonomous unmanned aircrafts is who is responsible for the aircraft at the point when it crashes? The programmer?”