The war on photographers - you're all al Qaeda suspects now
Police, camera, (illegal) action
Analysis When you hear the phrase "helping police with their inquiries", does an image of dedicated selfless citizenry instantly spring to mind? Or do you wonder whether the reality is not slightly more sinister?
How about "voluntarily handing over film to the police".
Stephen Carroll is a keen amateur photographer, with an interest in candid portraiture: "street photography", he calls it. In December 2007, he was in the centre of Hull taking photos.
Unfortunately for him, his actions were spotted by two local policemen. They stopped him in the middle of Boots and asked him to accompany them outside. There they told him that he had been taking photographs of "sensitive buildings". One said: "I am taking your film".
Mr Carroll requested an explanation. He asked whether he was "obligated" to hand over the film. In vain! Every time he asked, back came the same response: "I am taking your film". Robocop is alive and well and apparently working in Humberside.
When he eventually handed over his film, he was asked to turn out his pockets and to show what other films he had on him.
The police filled out one of their ubiquitous forms – this one labelled "Stop and Search" – and went on their way. On the form, quite clearly written, are the words: "seized films".
What are we to make of this? A statement from Humberside Police re-iterated that Mr Carroll had been photographing sensitive buildings. In remarkably bullish mood, they added that they "would expect other officers within the force to act in the same manner if given a similar situation."
But what situation?
According to Mr Carroll, the police subsequently amended their story to say they had stopped him because of concerns that he was photographing young people. They did not mention this at the time because they were worried he might be embarrassed.
They also told him that, contrary to what was said at the time, they had received no complaint from any member of the public. Nor had he been subject to a "stop and search" - merely a "stop and talk".
This is seriously alarming stuff. It is bad enough on its own – but coupled with a long catalogue of other incidents that have been reported recently, it begins to look like a pattern.
There is the Ipswich photographer, Phil Smith who went out to snap ex-EastEnder Letitia Dean turning on the Christmas lights in Ipswich. He was stopped by two Special Constables: told he needed a licence; that photographing the crowd was against the law; and finally required to delete the pictures already taken.
Then there’s the freelance photographer who attempted to photograph the tragic aftermath of a young woman killed by a falling tree at Tower Bridge in London. According to Jeff Moore of the British Press Photographers Assocation, Police at the scene were very intimidating: they demanded that she hand over her memory card or else they would confiscate her cameras and she would probably never get them back.
Amateurs and professionals alike are becoming seriously worried. Chris Cheesman, News Editor of Amateur Photographer, is compiling a list of incidents where Police or other officials have threatened photographers.
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.
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]