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Home Office guides plods on photography

'There are no restrictions, but...'

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Terror Laws due to be passed this autumn, could provide Police with a new and significant power to stop individuals taking photographs.

This follows reassurances from Home secretary Jacqui Smith that there is "no legal restriction on taking photographs in public places", which is why she will shortly be issuing police with updated guidelines on ... how to enforce legal restrictions on photography.

Our Jacqui hasn’t completely taken leave of her senses. The real question is whether this particular bit of bureaucratic madness represents an official lightening of the stance on photography – or a tightening up.

To begin with, some restrictions do exist – most notably the Official Secrets’ Act 1911, which makes it an offence to take photographs of certain prohibited places (like dockyards and power stations). However, it seems unlikely that she has instructed the National Police Improvements Agency (NPIA) to carry out such a far-reaching exercise just to remind local coppers of their duty to keep an eye open for spooks.

Over the last couple of years, there has been increasing pressure on the humble photographer. First the public suspected them of being paedophiles, then covert terrorists.

The official police line has been reasonable. ACPO and some regional forces (including Nottingham and the Met) issued guidelines that make it very clear that the police have no general legal right to remove cameras or film, or stop individuals from taking photos.

However, the Met blotted their copybook with a campaign urging the public to be on the alert for terrorists with cameras. Matters were not helped during the summer when Jacqui wrote to Jeremy Dear, secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists that there is "no legal restriction on photography in public places".

However, she qualified this by adding: "Decisions may be made locally to restrict or monitor photography in reasonable circumstances. That is an operational decision for the officers involved based on the individual circumstances of each situation".

This is a very odd formula. If there is no legal restriction on photography, then it is not entirely clear what powers the local Chief Constable would use to enforce this non-existent restriction.

The most recent use of this formula – "no restrictions, but..." – surfaced in a parliamentary answer to Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve, who was asking about the right of police to stop and search individuals under s.44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

There have been a few high-profile cases in which the Police appear to have used this power in circumstances where suspicion of Terror was unlikely to be justified - and a very few cases where it appears to have been used to put pressure on photographers. But it's still only about the grounds for stop and search.

The NPIA would not be drawn on precisely what its Practice Advice would cover, stating that it "will help the police service maintain and enhance good community relations and increase public confidence when undertaking counter-terrorist operations". The full guidance is due to be published in November.

Far more worrying is s.75 of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, even now tracking its weary way through the Lords. This makes it an offence to "elicit or attempt to elicit information about" members of the armed forces, intelligence services, or policemen, where this information could be of use to a terrorist.

Names? Addresses? Photographs? Since almost every other item of anti-Terror law has eventually been broadened out beyond its original scope, there must be some concern that once in place, these new powers will be used to make life uncomfortable for anyone wishing to photograph police at demonstrations. Or just police anywhere?

After all, if you are out demonstrating, you probably have a political axe to grind, and as far as New Labour are concerned, the dividing line between political activism and involvement in Terror is increasingly fuzzy. ®

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