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The war on photographers - you're all al Qaeda suspects now

Police, camera, (illegal) action

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The Bureau of Freelance Photographers (BFP) is pioneering a card - the "Blue Card" - for members to assert their freelance status. BFP chief executive John Tracy says: "With the increasing number of members being stopped by police officers – or more commonly, police community support officers – from legitimately taking pictures, we felt we had to do something".

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is up in arms, too. In March, NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear, staged a one-man protest on the issue outside the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police. The union is sending a delegation to see Home Office Minister Tony McNulty. In the same month, its Parliamentary spokesperson, Austin Mitchell, MP put down an Early Day Motion, which gained support from a further 224 Members of Parliament. This stated that many of the official claims that photography is illegal were, themselves, false and asked Police and Home Office to set up national guidelines on the issue.

So just what is going on? Is photography, along with freedom of speech and other cherished rights, about to go out of the window?

Probably not. The fact that these incidents make news suggests that they are atypical. There are still millions of people taking photographs every day of the week, without the least interference from anyone.

Do you have a license for that camera sir?

The law in this area – with the exception of recent provisions on terror - is much as it was a decade ago. There are some restrictions – though most of these relate to the manner in which individuals take photographs. You are prohibited from trespass, harassment, obstruction: almost never from photography itself.

So what has changed? The answer probably lies in two places: photo panic; and vicious officialdom.

It began with our obsession with paedophiles. Anyone taking photos of children was automatically suspect – and even when they weren’t, our risk-averse culture meant it was better to be safe than sorry.

Here is not the place to rehearse the wealth of "pc gone mad" stories that particular panic gave rise to. It is possible the panic would have subsided: there is no law against photographing children. There are also enough parents who want to be able to create a photographic record of their child's significant school moments for the arguments to pull in opposite directions.

However, since the London bombings of 2005, there is a new impetus to paranoia. The public is scared. The police have responded.

The Met recently ran a campaign that pointed a finger of suspicion at photographers. This cannot help but whip up public fear of anyone with a camera.

The irony, of course, is that anyone taking photos in preparation for a terrorist atrocity would most likely be discreet. They would use small or mobile phone cameras. Yet those who have been stopped have frequently been individuals with serious high-powered SLR equipment. Have the police not thought this through? Or do they suspect terrorists of running some form of elaborate double bluff?

Once an activity falls under the shadow of suspicion, it is inevitable that other officials will get in on the act. They are now empowered to bend the law. Jobsworths of every shade – from traffic wardens to PCSOs to Park Keepers - have attempted to prevent the public taking photographs, for all manner of thoroughly fictitious reasons.

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