Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Security Cameras

Big Brother is watching… and maybe broadcasting to the Internet, too. In a move some might describe as bizarre, invasive, paranoid and offensive, the CEO of SKYY has installed a CCTV security camera in the newsroom and MCR, or master control room, in the station to monitor the activities of his employees.

The CCTV system has been in place watching the front door and perimeter of the building as a security measure against break-ins and thievery. Now the gaze has been pointed inwards, at staff, interns and one Obruni NGO volunteer.

The expensive camera in the newsroom is placed at the top of the wall facing the workstations like an unblinking eye. Painfully obvious and obtrusive, you can’t help but notice it as soon as you walk in the room. You are being watched.

The video feed goes to a multi-paneled LCD screen in the CEO’s office, visible from the vantage point behind his desk. Covering almost every angle of the SKYY house, the CEO can see the comings and goings of all visitors and staff.

In attending an editorial meeting, the CEO flippantly remarks that the camera can be used to broadcast to the Internet, so that he can watch from home, or on one of his many trips to China. He alludes to the fact that the camera also has audio capabilities.

Without a hint of irony the CEO tells the newsroom that the system is also great if you are a jealous husband who doesn’t trust his wife. You can see for yourself if she is cheating on you. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that a paranoid husband might drive his wife into the arms of another man? The paranoia itself could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The reporters are clearly not happy with this new addition to the newsroom. They question if the CEO realizes that being watched won’t make them do their jobs any better. If anything, it serves as a disincentive to spend any time in the newsroom at all. How are they to work with someone constantly watching over their shoulder?

I also question whether the CEO realizes the optics of spending the money on a system to watch his employees, whom he pays so little, if at all. A recent story on the National Health Insurance Scheme, which requires employers to contribute on behalf of their employees, discovered that SKYY was one of the worst offenders in not paying the mandatory fees. The newsroom, by and large, runs on the free labor of long-term interns, long ago promised staff positions with no results, fresh interns and the minimal salaries of workers in the national service program. Those with a salary know that journalism, as a career, doesn’t pay.

The newsroom staff at SKYY are regularly berated by the CEO for their poor quality work and general laziness. Threats of firing or demotion are nearly a daily occurrence. The staff work about 12 hour days, 5 days a week, with half days on the weekend. In asking for a day off, perhaps either Saturday or Sunday, they were given a designated day off a month, so that only one employee is missing at a time. Employees often come into work on their day off, if any loose ends need tying up.

The CEO occasionally attends editorial meetings and immediately becomes the focal point, telling the reporters what to do and how to do it. He gives his perspective on each issue, and often dictates how it is to be covered. He harshly and openly criticizes the reporters and the way they do their jobs.

The newsroom produces news bulletins at regular intervals in the day for both radio and television, in both English and Akan. For the most part the dozen or so member crew pulls it off without a hitch, but if any problems arise the CEO is sure to find out.

The journalists are expected to produce as many stories as possible, with extremely high expectations of what is possible. If a journalist goes out to cover a story with a car and camera, they are expected to come back with more stories discovered en route or while coming back.

Resources at the disposal of the journalists are limited. It is a daily struggle for each of the reporters to organize a camera, car and driver to go out to cover stories. There are three cars for the use of employees of SKYY, used by the entire staff. There is perhaps one car available at a time, and once full, the rest must wait hours for another to arrive. Once the car is full with a driver, cameraperson and two or three reporters it goes out for a 2-3 hour journey to cover as many stories as possible.

Recently, a dictum was brought down stating that, from this point on, no ‘free’ stories are to be produced. Only stories paid for by those being covered will be acceptable. The newsroom is a revenue stream for the SKYY group of companies. Covering news conferences, public relations events and the like nets SKYY some pretty serious cash. The reporters are given a percentage for their work, and the cameraperson gets a small cut of that. Some people who want a story covered will pay for the coverage. The journalists are asked to negotiate the amount. If it is a planned event, the journalist is to send it on to the appropriate sales person back at SKYY.

Along with the order for a greater influx of cash came the threat of tracked sales performances. Each reporter, if the need arises, will be monitored by the amount of money they bring in each month. If that amount is not of a certain amount, one might call it a quota, then that person faces unemployment. None of the reporters blink at the pronouncement. This is a practice that goes on in other media houses. They strategize amongst themselves to work in advance of an official quota being established.

Within this stressful environment some of the reporters have begun turning on their own. Editorial meetings become opportunities for personal attacks and threats. Turning on a journalist who is apparently not pulling their weight by not delivering a desired level of quality, or number of stories, is part of basic survival in an environment of conflict.

Power struggles erupt as rumors of certain journalists having side-deals with the CEO circulate. The news director does his job, but knows his power is limited in dealing with insubordination. He asks his team to respect him and his role. When mistakes are made he is the first called to task.

Another rumored threat circulating is that the CEO will close the newsroom entirely and simply air news produced by other networks. The heightened sense of paranoia rises to a fevered pitch.

Journalism is a difficult field subject to harsh criticism from many directions, from ownership to management, fellow journalists, the audience, regulatory bodies and government. A newsroom can be a snake pit filled with fangs and venom. Pursuing stories can be like skipping through a minefield. When the pressure starts to build you can bet an explosion is just around the corner.

By placing a camera in the newsroom to watch for idle hands, by threatening to fire individuals or even shutting down the newsroom altogether, ownership creates an environment of fear, anxiety and anger. It shows quite clearly that they do not trust the hard working journalists, or news directors, to do their jobs.

Ownership is pitting the journalists against themselves, forcing them to fight for their job’s survival, in a management style that would befit Machiavelli. All while being caught on camera for their viewing pleasure. Big Brother is watching, and manipulating… and maybe broadcasting to the Internet, too.


Doug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Spying on one's employees is an infringement of their Human Rights.

Kevin Hill said...

Is it spying if it's done out in the open? Is this just the kind of surveillance we put up with in a wired world?

Anonymous said...

We accept a certain loss of privacy in exchange for security in public places in the west. However, a newsroom is not a public space.