‘Truth is the first casualty of war’.

So the saying goes.

It’s always been that way.

Leading up to and then during the first world war citizens were fed a series of lies, usually centred around atrocities committed by the ‘enemy’ as governments prepared to unleash hell on the world:

As one British general pointed out after the war: “to make armies go on killing one another it is necessary to invent lies about the enemy”. These atrocity stories were then fed to newspapers who were quite willing to publish them. British newspapers accused German soldiers of a series of crimes including: gouging out the eyes of civilians, cutting off the hands of teenage boys, raping and sexually mutilating women, giving children hand grenades to play with, bayoneting babies and the crucifixion of captured soldiers. Wythe Williams, who worked for the New York Times, investigated some of these stories and reported “that none of the rumours of wanton killings and torture could be verified.”

The outcome of all this lying was that after the war citizens became more savvy, less trusting of overt propaganda. Newspapers were weary of the most extreme propaganda that didn’t come with evidence and  when TV came into popular existence broadcasters signed up to the principle that their reporting should be impartial.  The public developed a false sense of comfort that it was harder for people to lie to us and get away with it.

Along came the internet and with a it a massive proliferation in both the amount of material published and also who could do the publishing. The internet is a propagandists paradise:

  • Social media means that well constructed propaganda can spread faster than Road Runner on steroids.
  • Newspapers looking to profit are less interested in verifying whether massively popular videos are fake then they are in the page views they bring.
  • But propagandists don’t have it all their own way. When a video/picture/article  is published on-line that is in some way fake before too long someone will be shouting about it in the comments section.

Here’s what I mean:

A week ago a friend shared a video by The Syria Campaign on his Facebook page. The video starts with the words:

‘What you are about to see is shocking. This happened this week in Syria’

The film shows a boy being shot, then heroically  getting up and rescuing a girl, whilst still being shot at. You can see it here.  

The Syria Campaign’s version of this film has been shared several hundred times and has over 10000 views. The original version of the film, which was not made by The Syria Campaign, was first posted to  Youtube and  had over 4.1 million views. The film  has been shared widely by newspaper websites (Daily Mail, Telegraph, Independent) who in the first instance showed no interest in verifying whether the video was real. The Telegraph embedded the film and included this commentary

The Telegraph cannot independently verify the footage but it is thought the incident took place in Yabroud – a town near the Lebanese border which was the last stronghold of the moderate Free Syrian Army. Experts tell the paper they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

At the end of the film The Syria Campaign asked us to share the story and sign a petition. This was my response to them on November 11th

Apart from the too clear sound, the obvious special effects and the movie staging, you don’t fall forwards like you’re in a Hollywood movie when shot, then get up unbloodied and keep walking. Despite this three days later the BBC was reporting that the film might well be legitimate.

In an interview Amira Galal from BBC monitoring Middle East  said “we can definitely say it is Syria and we can definitely say that it’s probably on the regime frontlines, was almost certainly shot on the front lines in Syria…I think it would be very difficult to give a definitive opinion about whether it’s fake or not.”

Ten hours later the BBC put out another story stating that the film was indeed a fake, made by Lars Klevberg, a 34 year-old film director based in Oslo. He says he deliberately presented the film as reality in order to generate a discussion about children in conflict zones:

“We shot it in Malta in May this year on a set that was used for other famous movies like Troy and Gladiator,” Klevberg said. “The little boy and girl are professional actors from Malta. The voices in the background are Syrian refugees living in Malta … By publishing a clip that could appear to be authentic we hoped to take advantage of a tool that’s often used in war; make a video that claims to be real. We wanted to see if the film would get attention and spur debate, first and foremost about children and war. We also wanted to see how the media would respond to such a video.”

Pretty soon afterwards the story that the film is fake became the most shared article on the BBC website. In a further twist the Youtube channel (Shaam News Network) on which the video went viral has been suspended.

What interests me most is when and how some NGO campaigns reached the point where they are willing to trick people  in order to get them to sign a petition/get behind a cause?


What is the validity of a petition signed by people under false pretences?

Surely The Syria Campaign not only loses any moral authority it might have gained through its important work but also torpedoes their own objectives by seeking signatures this way?

The Syria Campaign gave me this response before the video was outed as fake:

As far as we’re concerned, the video depicts experiences that are real. Though the video hasn’t yet been verified, we know incidents like this occur every day.’

In other words kids are getting shot in Syria so what difference does it make if this is fake but it makes you think about all the awful things that are going on over there?

The Syria Campaign continues to share the video, despite protests such as this.

This strategy of bending the truth to fit your cause is well trod. Afterall it’s what we often do when we debate a subject.  I would go as far as to say not only is it acceptable, to a greater or lesser extent, but it’s expected.

Here are a few extreme examples:

Several years ago a well respected advocacy organisation put out a video of a woman (shot in shadow) calling for the Syrian soldiers to put down their weapons. The video appeared embedded on a UK newspapers website, with the accompanying text that the film was the direct plea of a Syrian mother and was shot inside Syria.

Infact the video was shot in London; a second woman’s voice with a more authentic accent was dubbed over the original woman’s voice and the script was not written by a Syrian mother but an American living in Beirut.  Pure propaganda. At roughly the same time this video was released the founder of the advocacy group gave a high profile interview in which he stated  they were playing a ‘verification’ role for citizen media coming out of Syria.

Recently Oxfam ran an online ebola campaign on Facebook using a picture of an MSF medical worker, taken in one of their clinics,  helping a child:



The backlash in the comments was swift and severe.

Oxfam realised their mistake, put out a sincere statement apologising and eventually took down the offending post.

I appreciated Oxfam’s response and it made me have more respect for them. It wasn’t the first time something similar has happened though. A few years back Save The Children ran a print advert calling for donations that featured a picture of a half dead child being cared for in a an MSF hospital in Dadaab, Kenya. Had they published the picture in the same way on their Facebook page I suspect they would have faced a similar backlash.

(Please note duckrabbit have worked for and trained the staff of both Oxfam and MSF. I’ve witnessed  the terrific work they both do on the ground. A donation to either of them is well spent)

Another large charity recently ran a fundraising campaign which showed a successful generic African woman whose family they claimed they had helped climb out of poverty. It was a conceptually interesting TV advert but it wasn’t a winner as a fundraiser. So when the same woman appeared in online advertising we were asked to give money to help bring her and her family out of poverty. The same ethnic woman was presented to audiences in diametrically opposite ways to try and have the same impact, raise more money.

Maybe we should be forgiving of charities, PR and advertising agencies, advocacy organisations and journalists who fake (or twist) stories to get our attention. Do audiences really care? Doesn’t the end justify the means? This is certainly how some people responded to the suggestion that it was wrong to fake the Syrian boy hero. Maybe they are right. If the Oxfam post raised much needed cash for the fight against ebola isn’t that a good thing?

But I think it’s also true you are less likely to change your point of view if you feel the person trying to persuade you is in some way deceiving you.  There’s a failure in communication if we are talking about whether a video is fake as opposed to the suffering of the people in Syria or the 1800 kids that are not actors who have been shot dead during the war.

And one question leads to another. If you are really helping people; if your cause is just; if you want an honest relationship with me, why do you feel the need to make stuff up?

One possible reason that NGO’s pump out so much overt marketing propaganda is because there is more of a budget for spin then authentic storytelling.

In NGOS often the marketing and fundraising departments have more money and power than the communications teams.  They are judged on short term goals that largely revolve around growth of revenue and brand reach. The pressure is immense. People’s jobs are dependent on them bringing the cash in. Very few of these people will have ever lived or worked in the places the charities are set up to benefit.  This is even more true in the agencies that they contract who belong to the Band Aid school of advertising:

Make shit up (There is no peace and joy in west Africa this Christmas). Put a famous face (or 30) to it , and screw the unintended consequences (we maintain a colonial relationship with black people who live in poverty).

The better communications departments  in charities are themselves masters in spin because newspapers and broadcasters are so susceptible to it. If you want to get the media’s attention just make up a figure about how many kids might be catching ebola a week by Christmas. The higher the number the better, even if it’s based on tenuous research.

I don’t blame them.  It’s a game and if you pay me I too will play it to win. But not by faking it.  And not because it can’t be justified, but because I’m not cynical. The charities we work with have a very positive impact on the lives of the people they serve. The sector as a whole just needs to invest in better ways to tell those stories of change.


Of Immediate Concern

Want to see your pictures in print?


GREAT! -  because duckrabbit is toying with the idea of running a photo competition and to print the winning images online and in a magazine, with a small prize for the best one. Before we launch it though we thought we’d run the concept past you for some informed feedback.

So here’s the deal: you send in your pictures (and you’ll need to include a 70-word story about each individual picture too.)

We will not pay you a fee if your image and words are published, but it is a fantastic opportunity to see your photographs in print!

We take your pictures and in return you grant us non-exclusive rights to do what we want with them, including commercial use, and you agree that the provision by us of the opportunity for you to give them to us is sufficient reward.

Yes that’s right, our generous gesture of providing a facility for you to give your work to us is your reward!

We thought you’d like that gesture.

Now if we think that none of the pictures are REALLY good, we wont award that prize we mentioned earlier, but we’ll still keep your images and the rights we previously described, and publish them anyway, so you still get to see them in print or online. Good eh! I know, it’s a pretty wizard wheeze. Almost, dare I say it…philanthropic!

Now, as we only want non-exclusive rights you can still use your pictures yourself, but you will have to agree that we may sell them to others as we see fit, and you’ve also got to agree that you will not use your pictures in any way that conflicts with our use (which might be commercial). So……you might find that if you DO actually use them in the same specific market as we do, and we deem it to “impair” our use, that such use will be considered to be a breach of our agreement and you might be liable to….er…maybe compensate us, but we’re not sure so we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Oh and we also reserve the right to change the Terms & Conditions too, if we want to, so don’t get too hung up on them just now because they might be different next week, but you’ll still be bound by them – you’ve got to agree to that too.

We know, we know, it’s a lot to take in, but that’s ok this legal malarkey is complicated so don’t worry too much just remember the bottom line is that you might get to see your pictures in print – and how cool is that!

Now, does that sound like a good deal or what! We think it’s totally genius. We get a stack of pictures. You get the warm glow of satisfaction from seeing your pictures in our website and magazine. And we get lots of opportunities to use them in any other ways we want, including selling them to others. And if there’s any problems you might even get to pick up the tab for our legal defence. Yay. We love it!

But (aye, we know, there’s always a but!) we must confess, we didn’t come up with this idea ourselves. We’ve copied it.

From the BBC.

Well from their BBC Wildlife magazine and website publishers The Immediate Media Co. who are licensed by the BBC to do all this stuff on their behalf, apparently.

So that’s ok then isn’t it?

Here’s the real deal:

bbc logo comp

Here’s a link to the competition rules (link), and this is the specific ‘no prize’ bit:

18. The promoter reserves the right to withhold prizes if, in the opinion of the judges, the quality of entries falls below the standard required.

So you could in effect enter with the understanding that a prize is on offer. But if its decided nothing is good enough to warrant actually handing it over, it wont be. But they still keep your work (and publish it). Hmmm.

Now what do you think the BBC ‘s responsibilities actually are with regard to their dealings with their ‘customers’? Here’s their Code of Conduct specifically covering competitions:

bbc code conduct

So, as they say themselves:

When the public engages with us through interactivity they will be treated with respect, honesty and fairness. We will handle all interactive competitions and votes with rigorous care and integrity.

BBC competitions and votes will not be run in order to make a profit. The only time BBC competitions or votes will be aimed at raising funds will be for a BBC charitable initiative.”

Does taking (some of) the intellectual property rights in images (which then become a commercial asset of a BBC licensed company, and can be sold for profit, in return for a prize that may be withheld) breach these guidelines? Duckrabbit is not a solicitor so we have no idea. But you don’t need to be legally trained to comprehend the morally dubious nature of this ‘transaction’.

The Immediate Media Co. is licensed by the BBC to undertake all this on their behalf, and here’s their T&C’s regarding what they want (and a quote of our favourite section):

“……and in consideration of us making available to you the opportunity to upload any user Contribution (which you acknowledge as a sufficient benefit to you), you irrevocably and unconditionally grant us free of charge a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sub-licensable licence of the entire right, title and interest in and to such user Contribution…..”


immediate terms 1

Yes you read that correctly: “in consideration of us making available to you the opportunity to upload any user Contribution (which you acknowledge as a sufficient benefit to you)” .

We’re perhaps incredibly dim and missing something fundamental here: but in what conceivable way is a benefit obtained by giving something away and receiving  nothing in return?

Now consider for a moment Section 14 above: are you wondering what might constitute an action on your behalf that could conceivably  “interfere with or impair” Immediate’s rights that you have so generously granted them?

Well, how about you offering your work for payment (or even for free!)  to a third party, a party to whom Immediate also want to sell your work? Yep that would probably do it. (But remember duckrabbit is no legal genius so this is only our face-value interpretation and opinion.)

Note in Section 13 above the word “commercialise” – which implies they will sell, and so it follows that anything that you do with your work which conflicts with their attempt to make money from your work is probably a conflict.

So what might happen if you did sell to a competitor and it all went pear-shaped some time later when the competitor finds out that Immediate were also using the image in a way that conflicts with their use (we’ve seen this happen) and decided to sue Immediate (or even you, although you did not know that Immediate were going to use it when you sold the-right-to-use in good faith to the third party)?

Ah don’t worry, Immediate have covered themselves on that score too:


Simple interpretation:  you pick up the tab.

Oh and they have a Privacy Policy too. Here’s what the actual competition T&C’s says:



Now you might imagine that the word ‘Privacy’ in ‘Privacy Policy’ er….suggests that you might expect….some….privacy perhaps?

Well sorry to get your hopes up. The Immediate T&C’s are rather less concerned with your privacy. In fact you have very little it seems:


Yep they even want the rights to your name, biographical details and everything else AND in fact any information that they retain about you is “considered non-confidential”.

There’s a bit of confusion evident in all of this though.

The ‘Your Photos Terms & Conditions’ for the competition (here) makes no mention of the potentially more draconian Immediate Media Co. Terms and Conditions (which are here). But the page on which the Your Photos competition T&C’s are written has at page bottom (here) a link directly to the Immediate Co’s T&C’s page which makes it quite clear that anything submitted through their site is subject to the far more comprehensive terms hidden in the background. Which set of T&C’s take precedence is anyone’s guess. And by using their service you agree that the T&C’s may be amended whenever Immediate wish, and you’ll be bound by the changes, but if its the ‘hidden’ terms only that are amended, how will that affect users if the more visible terms on the competition page are not amended?


updated terms

Do you think they are unaware of the implications for users of all this?

Nah – they actually use the word “exploitation” and make a clear distinction between “exploitation” and “use” in their terms (see (g) below) so that’s pretty definitive.

imediate exploitation

But of course we might be totally misunderstanding the intent of all of this, in which case we’d be delighted to be corrected.

As the BBC guidelines note:

BBC competitions and votes will not be run in order to make a profit. The only time BBC competitions or votes will be aimed at raising funds will be for a BBC charitable initiative.

Will The Immediate Media Co make any money from all of this, from “exploiting” user submissions for “commercial” gain as their T&C’s state it is within their rights to do? We have no idea, but if they do, maybe, just maybe they are making a generous donation of all the proceeds to Children in Need, and are getting the same warm comforting glow as the rest of us?

Anyone know?

More articles from John Macpherson

I first met Rhonda Wilson a few days after one of Rhubarb Rhubarb’s (the photo development company she set up and ran with Lorna) yearly portfolio reviews. Every year they opened their doors for interested people to come down and look at the work on review (and meet the photogs).

I rarely go to private views/meet the photog events because I find them quite intimidating. There can be more ego than art on show (or fists if Anastasia Taylor Lind is about) and you get a better chance to look at the work when everyone around you is not looking at everyone else wondering if they are worth talking to.

For once I  made the effort and I’m glad I did.

A few days later I emailed Rhonda (who I’d never spoken to) to say I liked a lot of  the work but why was the room exclusively full of white people? We live in Birmingham, afterall, one of the most multi-cultural cities on the planet. I expected the usual guff but instead Rhonda replied that she thought it was shit (the lack of diversity in the photography world) and would I come and meet her and the rest of the Rhubarb crew?

We hit if off, but then you would have to make a real effort to not hit  it off with Rhonda. Her energy and enthusiasm was infectious. She had crazy dreams and many of them, by the force of her nature, came true.

In the early days of  the company we did quite a bit of work together.  I always felt that not only did she appreciate what we were trying to do at duckrabbit but she also had our back. She supported us. That meant a lot.

This evening it’s with sadness that I read Rhonda has died.

That double take moment. Fuck. Really? Yes.

I would like to think that when I die I will have done more good than harm. I don’t think I’m there yet but I can look to Rhonda for inspiration. She gave so much to so many for so long. She may not have been a great photographer but she was one of photography’s greats; she was great for photography. An egalitarian eye open to all.

God bless you Rhonda. You were art and the best of you lives on in all whom you encouraged.


A glimpse of autumn

I like Autumn. Sometimes it is a slow slide into Winter, with Summer hanging onto Autumn’s heels keeping it mild despite the evening frosts. Other times Autumn has barely begun when an impatient Winter sends freezing blasts to rattle the branches and swirl leaf blizzards all around, with snow on the high tops, and sometimes down to lower levels too. Autumn, it would be fair to say has ‘character’ in the north.

So here are few images from a couple of different Autumns, from the mild and inviting, to the harsh and snow-blasted. Some are simple images, other maybe a little more complex, but all are pretty much straight from the camera. There is no Photoshop trickery other than curves and levels, contrast and cropping. The ‘movement’ in images is a result of either keeping the camera stationery and allowing details in the landscape to move – trees in wind, water running, clouds passing or alternatively the camera being moved as the shutter button is pressed, and sometimes a combination of both to see what the result might be and whether it reveals anything more of the complex character of this season. Sometimes this experimentation works, sometimes not, but it’s always good fun to try and all part of the continual learning curve.

Autumn is also the red deer rut, and the tail end of the stag hunting season and the start of the hind season, so I’ve put in some deer pictures. The deep reverberating roar of rutting stags is a very evocative sound in the Highland glens during the autumn, and on a dimming evening as the mist slides in, can be profoundly eerie, and once heard will never be forgotten.


Sky, birches and pines, Rothiemurchus © John MacPherson



Birch and reeds, Strathspey © John MacPherson




A splash of light, Inverpolly, Sutherland © John MacPherson



Glen Grudie, Beinn Eighe NNR

Wild light, Glen Grudie, Loch Maree, Wester Ross © John MacPherson




Woodland in mist, Strathconon © John MacPherson




Birch leaves swirling in peat-black river, Strathfarrar © John MacPherson



Sleet shower blurs the Monadhliath Mountains © John MacPherson

Sleet shower blurs the Monadhliath Mountains © John MacPherson



Abstract woodland  © John MacPherson

Abstract woodland, Strathspey © John MacPherson



Loch Mallachie © John MacPherson

Loch Mallachie, Strathspey © John MacPherson



Loch an Eilean © John MacPherson

Loch an Eilean, Rothiemurchus © John MacPherson



Trout rise in woodland pool © John MacPherson

Trout rise in woodland pool, Rothiemurchus © John MacPherson



Beech woodland © John MacPherson

Beech woodland, Rothiemurchus © John MacPherson



Pine reflections, Loch Mallachie, Strathspey © John MacPherson



Light on woodlands, Strathspey © John MacPherson



Grass details in golden light © John MacPherson

Grass details in golden light, Loch Pityoulish, Strathspey © John MacPherson


Peat stained water, Glen Feshie © John MacPherson

Peat stained water, Glen Feshie © John MacPherson


Rain softened landscape, Sutherland © John MacPherson

Rain softened landscape, Sutherland © John MacPherson


Bracken and birches © John MacPherson

Bracken and birches, Glen Feshie © John MacPherson



Beech woodland© John MacPherson

Beech woodland, Rothiemurchus © John MacPherson



Birch leaves swirled by river © John MacPherson

Birch leaves swirled by river, Glen Feshie © John MacPherson



Blur of birches © John MacPherson

Blur of birches © John MacPherson


Stalkers training day on the hill © John MacPherson



Red deer running © John MacPherson

Red deer running © John MacPherson


Stag crossing a burn © John MacPherson

Stag crossing a burn © John MacPherson


Red deer carcass extraction using a pony © John MacPherson


Maple trapped by spider silk © John MacPherson

Maple trapped by spider silk © John MacPherson


Maple and water © John MacPherson

Maple and water © John MacPherson

More articles from John Macpherson

Italy (not in b&w)

I posted some b&w pictures from my recent short Italy wander. Here are some in colour. In no order really.


Church light, Liguria © John MacPherson



Venice @John MacPherson

Venice @John MacPherson



Venice @John MacPherson

Venice @John MacPherson



Liguria @John MacPherson

Liguria @John MacPherson



Liguria @John MacPherson

Liguria @John MacPherson



The priest ties his shoelace, Liguria @John MacPherson

The priest ties his shoelace, Liguria @John MacPherson



Liguria @John MacPherson

Liguria @John MacPherson



Liguria @John MacPherson

Liguria @John MacPherson




Liguria @John MacPherson



Evening in Liguria @John MacPherson

Evening in Liguria @John MacPherson



Night time in Florence @John MacPherson

Night time in Florence @John MacPherson



On a train in Tuscany @John MacPherson

On a train in Tuscany @John MacPherson



In the Apennines @John MacPherson

In the Apennines @John MacPherson



A radiator, Venice @John MacPherson

A radiator, Venice @John MacPherson



Florence @John MacPherson

Florence @John MacPherson



Florence @John MacPherson

Florence @John MacPherson



Florence @John MacPherson

Florence @John MacPherson



Florence @John MacPherson

Florence @John MacPherson



Apennine woods @John MacPherson

Apennine woods @John MacPherson


Liguria @John MacPherson

Liguria @John MacPherson


Pisa @John MacPherson

Pisa @John MacPherson


Venice @John MacPherson

Venice @John MacPherson



Pisa @John MacPherson

Pisa @John MacPherson



A gentleman strolling, Liguria @John MacPherson

A gentleman strolling, Liguria @John MacPherson

More articles from John Macpherson

The Italian Job

Just had a few days in Italy. Lovely place, lovely people. Never been before, but will go again. So here’s a visual diary of some of my wanderings. I know I know, self-indulgent. But it’s not about me, it’s about there.
















































More articles from John Macpherson