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Picture messaging flops but the amateur paparazzi thrive

By Clayton Hirst and Malcolm Fitzwilliams

19 September 2004

It was hailed as the "next big thing" in mobile phone technology, which was supposed to revolutionise the way we communicate with each other and make millions for the phone operators. But picture messaging - the practice of sending photographs between mobile phones so often depicted in advertisements featuring David Beckham - has flopped dramatically. The number of picture messages sent each month has almost halved within a year, a report by market analysts Continental Research claims.

The downward trend undermines predictions made from the outset by phone operators who said picture messaging would become as big a hit as text messaging.

Stephen Pentland, a mobile phone expert at technology consultancy Spectrum Strategy, said users preferred taking pictures to sending them: "The idea of sharing, and, in particular, sending pictures, just hasn't happened."

But the conclusion of the report, which is due to be released tomorrow, belies the fact that mobile camera phones - estimated to total 7.5 million in the UK - have created niche markets for an army of amateur paparazzi, with users becoming the latest scourge of the rich and famous.

People are using the phones to snap themselves, their friends and any passing well-known face. Some users are even becoming celebrity "stalkers" to cash in on their new hobby.

The trend is most in evidence in celebrity magazines, which are being bombarded by snaps of the stars sent in by opportunist readers. Maxim, Loaded and Heat all have sections where these pictures are published.Heat says it receives several hundred each week. The tabloids have entered the fray with the 3am Girls using picture messages in the Daily Mirror.

The amateur paparazzi don't just do it for fun. Some can get good money for their pictures from the magazines and tabloids. Heat pays up to £200 a picture, with a free camera phone thrown in for good measure.

A recent issue showed radio presenter Sara Cox leaving the BBC Radio 1 building in London; actress Meg Mathews on her way to the cinema; Lenny Kravitz emerging from a Paris hotel; and pop star Lee Ryan dancing on the top of a bar at a night club. Maxim has a "Look Who's Stalking" section, and the latest issue has snatched pictures of singer Rachel Stevens, actor Ben Stiller and comedian Johnny Vegas. Readers also received a free phone with an in-built music downloader in return.

Heat writer Isabel Mohan defended picture messaging as a straightforward alternative to autograph hunting. She said: "People just like to see celebrities going to places where they have been. A lot of people are really obsessed with famous people. And it is a surprise sometimes, to see a celebrity person not looking their best."

Some celebrities are refusing to take the advent of the digital Peeping Tom lying down. Leah Wood, daughter of Rolling Stones rocker Ronnie Wood, launched her career last year in a pub in London at a gig where photography was strictly banned.

Bouncers were reported to be wiping clean any camera phones that were used in contravention of the ban. Some fans who took pictures were evicted. Those who managed to avoid detection later messaged their pictures to the tabloids.

The London-based Mobile Entertainment Corporation plans to launch a website that will trade in celebrity snaps and offer subscribers a picture-messaging service that tracks a chosen favourite celebrity every time he or she is spotted in public.

There may be legal problems with this, based on Mr Justice Lindsay's High Court ruling that Hello! magazine infringed the commercial value of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas's celebrity and had not acted in good faith when it ran unauthorised pictures of their wedding in 2000.

Publicist Max Clifford says camera phones are a growing menace to anyone who values privacy. "It gives those that want to take advantage of the camera phone greater potential than ever for making money. It is instant, easy, and celebrities almost don't realise they are being photographed."


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