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Police, Cameras, Pixellation

Are police becoming more sensitive over their privacy?

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Comment Is pixellation the new chic? Or is it destined to be the death of creative photojournalism? Are pixellated police the inevitable upshot of our obsession with security? Or a sign that the forces of Law and Order are getting just a little above themselves?

Let’s start with pixellation in general. There can be little doubt that this annoying habit – and in that, we include the little black squares that balance precariously between nose and forehead - has been on the rise in recent years, fuelled first by public paranoia over paedophiles, and more recently by security fears.

Newspaper reports of school outings now regularly appear with half the subjects’ faces blacked out, depending on whether parental consent has been given for "little Johnny" to appear in the press. Most of the villains on reality TV shows appear with a blur where their faces would normally be, to avoid impinging on individual privacy – and to prevent the possibility of prejudicing any future trial.

This is supported by the Press Complaints Commission, who last year ruled against the Barking and Dagenham Recorder for its cavalier use of pictures that breached the right to privacy of individual suspects.

Celebrities, too, have been getting in on the act, with little Romeo Beckham gracing the pages of Hello Magazine as long ago as 2004, wearing blue jeans and jumper, and a pixellated face.

Nor can we overlook the announcement, last week, that new women's magazine, Filament, would in future be concealing any erections that happened to, er, arise on its pages behind a coy black cutout stating that "this may be offensive to women". It says it has been forced to do this by printers who are worried that, amongst other things, the real deal would cause offense to "women's groups".

However, it is in the realm of policing that the most serious questions begin to be posed. When our infamous too tall photographer was stopped and arrested in Chatham High St, his blog on the matter originally included photos of the arresting officers. A day or so later, the officers’ faces had been pixellated out. No reason was given on site for this action, although the fact that one of the local PCSO’s is reported as having told him not to take any more photos of police officers may have had an impact.

Kent police are no strangers to anonymity. Back in 2003, a site called Canterbury Parking Clowns was closed, allegedly following a call from an officer from the Kent constabulary who advised that he was acting on behalf of a senior officer "who was concerned about the site's content". At issue was the question of whether publishing photographs of local parking attendants with negative and derogatory captions was likely to threaten their safety.

Publicly the police denied any interference.

It was also in Kent where FitWatch activists, Val Swain and Emily Apple claim they were arrested and handled violently by police officers after attempting to photograph an officer not wearing his shoulder number: the evidence appears in a police video in which police faces have been pixellated out, apparently by the police themselves.

Back in London, the Met has asked that photographers co-operate with CO19, the Metropolitan Police's Specialist Firearms Command, by agreeing to pixellate the faces of police marksmen. Head of CO19, Chief Superintendent Bill Tillbrook, claimed that publication of such pictures created a security risk and instanced cases where police who had been identified were subsequently subject to abuse.

That appears to be the general police line, at senior level. According to ACPO, there are no general guidelines, whilst the official line from police forces we have spoken to suggests that they would only request pixellation where security was an issue.

It is to be hoped that where it does occur, it is done better than this sorry attempt by Downing St, who appear to have requested the blacking out of an individual’s features when they appeared in an article in The Sun – whilst leaving the individual quite untouched on the same photo on Flickr.

Many forces are quite happy to publish pictures of serving officers on their websites. It is therefore to be hoped that this anonymised photo of two officers dealing with an everyday road traffic incident is merely a quirk of the local Southport media – rather than a coming trend. ®

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