Over the past weeks, the world has reeled to the pictures of US troops abusing Iraqi prisoners and the beheading of US contract worker Nicholas Berg.

These events were recorded by participants or bystanders. The images were posted on the internet, making them directly, freely and immediately accessible around the world.

In other words, journalists played no part in recording or interpreting the images.

No editor intervened on how the pictures should be handled, or even published, on the grounds of taste.

Government censors and spin doctors were impotent. 

It may seem new, but bypassing the traditional channels for spreading the news has a time-honoured history.

News by fax

During the 1989 pro-democracy movement in China, for example, activists and supporters disseminated news by fax, completely sidestepping state TV, radio and newspapers.

News of the Tiananmen Square
protests were sent out by fax

"What's changed, though, is the technology," said Steve Vines, publisher of a Hong Kong weekly news and political satire magazine, Spike.

"The technology is cheaper and faster than ever before, and the internet has a global outreach."

At a stroke, the main barriers to publishing - cost and geography - have vanished and the result is explosive.

No one can agree whether the potent combination of digital camera and internet amounts to democratisation of news, an opportunity for crude propaganda or a titillating exercise in schock and gore.

What is clear, Vines said, is that unfiltered, uncensored images are now starting to drive the menu of the mainstream news outlets.

"If shock pictures appear on the internet, that gives the mainstream media the justification for showing them as news. I am damn sure that they wouldn't have done, if they [the pictures] hadn't appeared on the net first."

Daily quandary

Antoine de Gaudemar, editorial director for the left-of-centre French daily Liberation, said "the uncontrollable proliferation" of images of executions, massacres and torture on the internet placed editors in an almost daily quandary.

A tape of Berg's killing was
broadcast on an internet site

For de Gaudemar, the pictures of the prisoner abuse could justifiably be published "because they reveal a hidden, almost pornographic, truth about the occupation of Iraq".

On the other hand, the beheading was "abject propaganda", said de Gaudemar. "To show it would have been to take part in a morbid auction" of values.

The march of technology is bound to make such problems even more poignant.

Salam Pax's diary

Web-logging, in which internet users post their observations, experiences and thoughts on websites, first became a news source for conventional media after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The next step is Vblogging, for video blogs, with images derived from digital cameras, webcams, mobile phones and palmtop computers, which are becoming evermore versatile and cheap.

The blog by an unidentified 29-year-old man, who goes by the name of Salam Pax, was seized upon for its vivid description of daily life as the war unfolded. The diary is being turned into a film.

The next step is Vblogging, for video blogs, with images derived from digital cameras, webcams, mobile phones and palmtop computers, which are becoming evermore versatile and cheap.
 
The next step is Vblogging, for video blogs, with images derived from digital cameras, webcams, mobile phones and palmtop computers, which are becoming evermore versatile and cheap.

"Those with a desire and a little technology [will have] the chance to write, shoot, edit and distribute video journalism on their own, even from the field," says the website of Forbes magazine.

So the challenge to traditional journalism as the determinant of what is news and how news should be filtered will only intensify.

And the debate about whether undigested news is objective, useful and moral is bound to sharpen.