Labor MP James Bidgood is in trouble for taking a photograph and selling it to a newspaper chain in return for a donation of $1,000 to a charity of his choosing. Perhaps I have a tin ear, but what has he done wrong?

Was the taking of the photo what is said to be wrong? Or was it selling (what he calls “passing”) the photos to News Ltd for a donation?

If you read his statement to parliament, it is hard to tell. Here are his words:

Mr BIDGOOD (Dawson) (7.00 pm)—Mr Speaker, on indulgence: this afternoon at an event I took photographs of a serious incident. I later passed those photographs to a news organisation in return for a donation to charity connected to disabilities. My actions were highly insensitive and inappropriate. I am tonight writing a letter of apology to the family involved. I deeply regret my actions and I apologise once again for any offence that I have caused.

How can taking the photos be a crime?

The promise of the ‘net, and the premise on which Online Opinion (and Crikey) is founded is that making the news, and analysing it, is not, and should not be, the preserve of professional journalists, many of whom have no expert understanding of the areas on which they report, and operate to commercial criteria which are frequently antithetical to good reportage.

We have participated in a number of citizen journalism projects (YouDecide2007 and that have tried to expand the pool of those who can contribute directly to the news gathering process. If these photos had been sent to me I would have been happy to publish them.

The photos in their own right represent no moral or ethical dilemmas that any other piece of dramatic press footage doesn’t offer. The iconic photo of the Vietnam War is naked nine-year-old Kim. Should the photographer not have taken the photo because he was sensitive to her current or potential distress? Should the photographer have tended to her obvious physical needs, rather than take the shot?

Quite clearly we expect news journalists to capture images like this, or we wouldn’t reward them with Pulitzer prizes.

So is the problem that Bidgood is not a professional journalist and that he had other duties to fulfill? If the man trying to douse himself in petrol was in the process of doing so, and Bidgood was the only person in a position to stop him, then perhaps that would be the case. But the photos are actually taken after the event, and they show police who are acting to save the subject from himself. Bidgood had no higher humanitarian duty that could have trumped his interest in taking the photo.

In fact Bidgood’s case suggests that the distress to the parents should take precedence over everything else. In which case, given many events of historical moment represent distress to someone, should our media only be able to display photos that are uplifting?

Or is the real “crime” that he sought to profit from the photos? Surely not. As far as I know there is no ethical problem with a politician supplementing their income — both John Howard and Kevin Rudd have done it. Bidgood understands photography, and has taken passable photos. Why shouldn’t he sell them (and directing the money to the charity is no different from a sale)? Afterall Tony Abbott is a News Ltd columnist, his skill being words, not photos. Surely the proposition isn’t that Bidgood should have given the photos to News so that News could profit from them, but no-one else?

As all these questions should, I think, be answered in the negative, it leads to only one conclusion. Bidgood should be exonerated, as should the news organisation that bought the photos from him.

Those who should be in the dock are the members of the government and the opposition who have been so quick to condemn him. Bidgood is just the latest in a long line of moral panics with little consistency between any of them. As one of my colleagues suggests, he is being used to demonstrate to the world the virtue of his accusers. “Thank God that I am not like that man there…”.

One piece of collateral damage of these panics is the independence of thought and action that Australians pride themselves on. Another is the potential of the new media (in its broadest sense of not just the Internet, but the accompanying digital technologies that make recording and publishing the news so easy) to bring greater openness and accountability to our society.

With the contraction of ownership and budgets in the mainstream media we need to use the new media to compensate for the reduction in diversity and variety of points of view. The citizen, whether they be politician or not, with their digital camera, or with their blog or their Facebook or Twitter account, who is there on the spot, is now an indispensable part of the news gathering and publishing business. They have a right and a duty to say what they see, and not to be confined by opaque and arbitrary protocols of mob rule. It is bizarre that after the openness of the 2020 Summit, the government should find itself agreeing with the opposition in the matter of the Bidgood affair. But perhaps not so bizarre given their plans for a Great Firewall of Australia.