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

Police, camera, (illegal) action

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Equally, those who wish to carry out what is a perfectly legal activity begin to feel intimidated. Not just by officials – but by the wider public as well. So they self-censor. They skulk. They begin to buy in to the view that there is something odd about wishing to take photographs.

As Austin Mitchell puts it: "We are seeing a lot of isolated incidents creating a pattern that will in time lead to an inhibition on taking photos. Photographers need to assert their rights under the law as it stands. Or they will lose them."

Guidelines have been negotiated with a number of Police Forces (Nottingham and the Met) as well as ACPO. In theory, Police should be well aware that they have no powers to remove cameras or take film without a court order.

Campaigners on the other side are far blunter and increasingly bitter. They point out that Police who seize items are guilty of theft - a criminal offence. Where journalists and members of the public come into contact with the police, they are urged always to keep their cool. The bottom line, however, is that attempts to remove film or camera should always be resisted.

When white is black

It is accepted that most police understand and play by the rules: but a consensus is growing that there is a small but determined minority who have no interest in doing so. The Humberside incident does nothing to reduce anxiety on this front.

We should point out that reports of the language used during this incident are based solely on statements from Mr Carroll. But broader points, such as the grounds for stop or the “voluntary” nature of the seizure have been confirmed by Humberside.

If private individuals were as cavalier with their language and statements to the police as Humberside appear to have been, they would run the risk of being charged with perjury. At the very least, their statements would have been produced in court to demonstrate that they were unreliable witnesses.

On the strictest of strict interpretations, the police did not "seize" Stephen Carroll’s film. They were merely incredibly unhelpful in their use of language, to the point where he was intimidated into "volunteering" his film.

Any similarity between this incident and the remarkable confessions that used to take place in the back of police vans before suspects arrived at the station is purely coincidental.

The grounds on which Mr Carroll was stopped are also interesting. The reference to "sensitive buildings" suggests that the police were trying to situate this stop in either official secrets or terror legislation. Specifically, s. 44 of the Terror Act 2000, where the police carrying out the stop "consider(s) it expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism".

The reference to photographing young people appears to be pure flannel, as we are not aware of any law that would prevent Mr Carroll doing this.

Meanwhile, a seriously worrying aspect of all the various guidelines – as well as the new BFP Blue Card – is that they appear designed to attack the general right to photograph by dividing us all into photographic sheep and goats.

Or rather, the accredited and non-accredited. According to John Toner of the NUJ, this is certainly not the intention: "by and large, the public have exactly the same rights as professionals – although in some instances, police may decide to extend some additional professional courtesy to professionals".

A spoof from 1 April this year warns us all where this might go. It reports the Met piloting a scheme to issue fluorescent waistcoats and RFID chips to the accredited. What a giggle.

Having said that, the accompanying quote is either very funny or chillingly accurate: "photography presents a unique problem for law enforcement", mutters a non-existent spokesperson for the Met, "because it is not illegal".

Er. Quite. ®

[For a handy guide to the real guidelines, click here]

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