Taking pictures of policemen cannot be illegal
tony at tlio.org.uk
Mon Feb 16 16:29:57 GMT 2009
Why can't we take pictures of policemen?
Counter-terrorism laws are being abused by the police and from today
they get stronger, says Philip Johnston.
Last Updated: 6:10PM GMT 15 Feb 2009
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Soon to be rare? Police now have the power to stop people taking their
picture Photo: Paul Grover
In that brief time not long after he became Prime Minister, when
Gordon Brown was regarded as a serious political figure and one
refreshingly less artful than his predecessor, he delivered a speech
at the University of Westminster on liberty. It was an erudite and
thoughtful exposition of this country's difficult, and sometimes
bloody, attempts to come to terms with the countervailing demands of
individual liberty and state power.
I recall being impressed that a prime minister was making such a
weighty and thought-provoking speech. I even kept a copy, though it
can be found on the Number 10 website; and after last week's decision
to ban a Dutch MP from visiting Britain because of his views on Islam,
I thought it apposite to read it again.
"Too often in recent years the public dialogue in our country has
undervalued the importance of liberty," Mr Brown said. "Now is the
time to reaffirm our distinctive British story of liberty to show it
is as rich, powerful and relevant to the life of the nation today as
ever; to apply its lessons to the new tests of our time."
Yet, not for the first time, what the Government does bears no
resemblance to its rhetoric. From today, new counter-terrorism laws
come into effect that will entrench a growing tendency by the police
to prevent anyone taking photographs in public, especially if they
(the police) are the subject. There has been a worrying increase
recently in police arresting or seeking to prevent what is a lawful
Andrew Carter, a plumber from Bedminster, near Bristol, took a
photograph of an officer who had ignored a no-entry road sign while
driving a police van. This might have appeared a somewhat petulant
thing to do, but taking a photograph in a public place is not a crime.
Yet the policeman smashed the camera from Mr Carter's hand, handcuffed
him, put him in the back of the van and took him to the police
station, where he was kept for five hours. When he returned to answer
bail the following week, he was kept at the station for another five
hours. He was released without charge, despite an attempt by the
police to claim some spurious offence of "assault with a camera".
Whereas in the past the police have not had the power to prevent
photographs being taken of them, from today they have. Under the new
Counter-Terrorism Act it is an offence to take pictures of officers
"likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of
terrorism". This is such a catch-all measure that it can be used
and, in view of recent trends, will be used to prevent photographs
to which the police object merely by invoking counter-terrorist
requirements. While it is important for officers involved in such
operations to maintain anonymity, many photographers fear these powers
will be abused.
In an article in the British Journal of Photography, Justin Tallis, a
freelance photographer, recounted how he was threatened while covering
a protest against the BBC's decision not to broadcast a fundraising
film for Gaza. He was approached by an officer who had just been
photographed. According to Tallis, the officer tried to take his
camera away, but gave up as other photographers captured the incident.
A few weeks ago, an amateur photographer was stopped in Cleveland by
officers when taking pictures of ships. The photographer was asked if
he had any terrorism connections and told that his details would be
kept on file. According to the Government, while there are no legal
restrictions on photography in public places, "there may be situations
in which the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order
situations or raise security considerations".
The problem is that there are so many instances of counter-terror laws
being invoked to stop perfectly innocent activities, such as
trainspotting or bird watching, that many photographers do not believe
There is a wider issue of creeping censorship which a new
organisation, the Convention on Modern Liberty, is seeking to
highlight with the publication today of a list of examples of this
insidious development. They include a demand by Suffolk police that
Facebook shut down a page dedicated to an over-zealous traffic warden
because it contained "hurtful criticisms"; proposed curbs on financial
reporting during the banking crisis; a ban on students filming an
interview in Parliament Square; the threatened arrest of two
evangelical preachers for committing a "hate crime" by handing out
Gospel leaflets in a predominantly Muslim area of Birmingham; the
occasions when the police have reprimanded people for wearing T-shirts
carrying political slogans; and, of course, the ban last week on Geert
Wilders from showing a film on Islam to a group of parliamentarians.
In his speech on liberty, Mr Brown said: "The character of our country
will be defined by how we write the next chapter of British liberty
by whether we do so in a way that respects and builds on our
traditions, and progressively adds to and enlarges rather then reduces
the sphere of freedom." At least it sounded good at the time.
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