It’s not every journalist who’s prepared to put up with abuse, baton beatings and death threats in their search for a story – but then Jason Parkinson is getting used to being literally “on the front line” when the tear gas starts flying.
From the G8 and G20 protests to climate camp sit-ins and clashes between the English Defence League and the police, he has spent the past few years chronicling the protest movement at home and abroad as well as pursuing his own uncompromising brand of investigative videojournalism – whether exposing the plight of homeless veterans on the streets of London or paramilitary massacres in Mexico.
He has specialised in providing footage to Associated Press Television News, Sky News, Channel 4 News, More 4 News and the BBC, as well as writing for The Guardian, Sunday Herald, Big Issue, Open Democracy, Socialist Worker and Morning Star. But if that makes him sound like a man with a clear political agenda, he’s anxious to refute claims of bias or attempts to categorise or stereotype him.
“I’ve never liked any type of bullying, whether it’s by a government or a corporation,” he says. “But I would consider myself incredibly objective. I’m not out there to catch the police doing bad things – these things have always happened. I see incredibly good policing too.”
His uncompromising stance has helped to make him enemies on both sides of the barricades – culminating in a death threat being issued by the EDL following his coverage of their protests in Leeds last year.
“If you cover the big political movements a lot of the activists get to know who you are – but people can be very sensitive to criticism,” he says.
And while there have been times when he has been equally unequivocal about the inappapropriate use of force by the police, he’s also admiring of the way many officers cope in difficult situations – especially when dealing with the EDL’s ultra-violent approach.
“In difficult situations like that, you gain a respect for what they are trying to do and what they are training for, and you see them in a different light. But it’s not about whether certain groups have taken a dislike to you – it’s because you have an interest in the story, why people have come out on the street to protest about stuff and letting the camera tell the story.”
True, his interest in the protest movement stemmed from an unfortunate personal experience during the May Day riots in London back in 2000 where, as an innocent bystander, he found himself being baton charged by police.
“I went back in 2001 and saw it at first hand,” he says. Yes, at such events there will be displays of unaceptable violence on both sides, he believes – but reports filed by the conventional media about such protests have not always accurately reflected the truth on the ground.
So what prompted him to embark on the LSJ’s distance-learning freelance and feature writing course?
“The idea was to head along the road of getting some qualifications,” he recalls. “What the course did was set me off in a clear direction. It just set out in an easy way how to build your contacts, know the basics behind the law and tackle different sorts of writing.”
He emerged with an honours diploma in 2004 and his first real job as a videojournalist involved covering the G8 protests in Edinburgh in 2005 for the Sunday Herald newspaper.
It’s all a far cry from his previous career in the computer games industry – although in many ways the move to videojournalism was a natural progression. With a wealth of experience in video editing, it was perhaps only natural that he should turn to a camera rather than a notebook to document things when he started retraining as a journalist.
“When I was young I was always drawing and I became obsessed with comic strips as a kid. That links in with the video stuff. If you want to tell a story using pictures or video, you have got to make it look good in terms of composition.”
The move towards camera rather than print journalism wasn’t intentional, he insists – and he still enjoys writing and scripting his monthly social comment packages for the Associated Press’s Horizons features department, like his recent feature on homelessness among veterans.
After five years in the business, at the age of 40 he’s now self-sufficient as a journalist, even if in the early days that meant supplementing his income with second jobs – as a rickshaw driver, gardener and care worker (although typically the last of those jobs ended with an expose about private health care for the elderly).
“I’m very happy with the work I do now,” he says. “I’m able to do most of the things I want to cover – and when you get out and see things going on at first hand that’s a driving force. And if something smells wrong and looks wrong, it probably is wrong.”
His worst professional moment – and the only time he felt uncomfortable behind the lens of a camera – was in Mexico in 2006, filming a village which had been lain waste by paramilitaries.
“The village had been there for four centuries and it was just gone,“ he recalls. “The whole place had been bulldozed. There were just pieces of the villagers left all over the places. There were 12 families there and only one female survived. They were cut up using machetes to save money on ammunition.”
Yes, he gets “very cynical” sometimes, he admits. “You see the worst sides of human behaviour. But you see amazing camaraderie too.”
From anti-capitalism protests to international immigration policies, from the war on terror to the rise of the far right in the UK, if there are banners being raised and people taking on the politicians or big corporations, the likelihood is that Jason’s camera will not be too far away.
“I was out covering the protest about the closure of the accident and emergency unit at the Whittington Hospital in north London.
“When you looked back up Holloway Road you saw a crowd of 5,000 people out on the street – now that’s a community coming together on an issue that's important to them.”