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Britain’s war on photography

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:44 pm on 13 February, 2009.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law, British politics, culture of suspicion.
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For some time now I’ve been gathering stories regarding the harassment and general suspicion of photographers in Britain. Note that the basic position in law is that it is perfectly legal in Britain to take photographs in public streets (though some erosion of this is occuring under “anti-terror” laws), yet it seems to me that photographers are increasingly finding themselves challenged by both the police and other officials.

A further issue is that people photographing or videoing protests are increasingly being obstructed or harassed by the police, as are the protestors themselves.

Finally, on February 16th a new law comes into force that the police may use to prevent people filming or taking photos of them. A mass protest against this law and the harassment of photographers has been organised for 11am on this date.

Below is a selection of various stories illustrating the problem, including some stories related to the legal situation and official campaigns that fuel suspicion about photographers:

  • In February 2008, a photographer was detained for taking photos in public street in Middlesborough.
  • In May 2008, alongside some useful coverage of the legal issues, a Spyblog article highlighted several relevant stories:
    • A Metropolitan Police campaign featuring posters telling people to report “suspicious” photographers in case they might be terrorists.
    • One MP, Austin Mitchell, was concerned enough about the increasing harassment of photographers he put forward an early day motion to the House of Commons on the subject:

      That this House is concerned to encourage the spread and enjoyment of photography as the most genuine and accessible people’s art; deplores the apparent increase in the number of reported incidents in which the police, police community support officers (PCSOs) or wardens attempt to stop street photography and order the deletion of photographs or the confiscation of cards, cameras or film on various specious ground such as claims that some public buildings are strategic or sensitive, that children and adults can only be photographed with their written permission, that photographs of police and PCSOs are illegal, or that photographs may be used by terrorists; points out that photography in public places and streets is not only enjoyable but perfectly legal; regrets all such efforts to stop, discourage or inhibit amateur photographers taking pictures in public places, many of which are in any case festooned with closed circuit television cameras; and urges the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers to agree on a photography code for the information of officers on the ground, setting out the public’s right to photograph public places thus allowing photographers to enjoy their hobby without officious interference or unjustified suspicion.

    • BBC Radio 4 also covered the issue, with an informative blog entry on the subject, linking to the BBC news website’s coverage of the issue, detailing people being detained, caution and/or forced to delete their photographs .
  • Also in May 2008, the NUJ sent a letter of protest to the Home Secretary regarding the surveillance and harassment of journalists who cover protests. The British Journal of Photography reports:

    Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, has written to the Home Secretary to protest against police surveillance of journalists and photographers.

    Dear’s letter, sent to Jacqui Smith on 22 May, states that journalists and photographers are being monitored and recorded by the Metropolitan Police’s Forward Intelligence Team (FIT), adding that this surveillance amounts to virtual harassment and is a serious threat to the journalists’ right to carry out their work.

    ‘As you will be aware,’ he writes, ‘the FIT team have a responsibility to provide intelligence to police units in respect of individuals who may be involved in public order issues. “Targets” whose likenesses are retained by the police are given four-figure Photographic Reference Numbers and held on a database.

    ‘Recently, the FIT team has started surveillance of press card-carrying journalists who cover and report on protests of any kind. For example, at a recent lobby against the SOCPA (Serious Organised Crime and Police Act) restrictions on protests on 01 March, all members of the press present were catalogued by the FIT team. Through Data Protection Act requests we have learned that details of bona fide journalists are held on this database with photographic reference numbers.’

    Later in the same letter he adds: ‘Despite repeated requests there has been no legitimate reason given why police photographers should be photographically cataloguing journalists going about their lawful business.’ He then asks Smith to provide more information about the FIT and the guidance it is given.

    Dear has written to the Home Secretary because ongoing concerns he has raised directly with the police have not been resolved, he told BJP. ‘Despite the guidelines drawn up,’ he said, ‘photographers continue to face intimidation.’

    He added: ‘The government must stamp out the routine and deliberate targeting of photographers and other journalists by the Forward Intelligence Team. Such actions undermine media freedom and can serve to intimidate photographers trying to carry out their lawful work. These abuses are the latest in an increasingly long list of infringements of media freedom at the hands of the Metropolitan Police. The rights of photographers to work free from threat, harassment and intimidation must be upheld.’

    Photojournalist and NUJ member Marc Vallee, who was hospitalised after covering the unlawful ‘Sack Parliament’ protest in London on 09 October 2006, added: ‘Press freedom is a central tenet of our democracy and it is extremely unpleasant to have Metropolitan Police FIT officers take notes, film and photograph you when working. It begs the questions what legal, moral and political power such repressive actions are based on. The Home Secretary needs to swiftly confirm that the police have no legal power to prevent or restrict working photographers in this way.’

  • In July 2008, Spy Blog reported on both the Home Secretary’s reply to the NUJ’s letter, where she supported legal restrictions on photography, and the fact that Austin Mitchell’s EDM got 231 signatures from MPs in support.
  • In August 2008, The Register reported some more incidents of people being questioned or arrested for taking snaps of the police, as well as noting the enthusiasm with which the authorities like to film the public:

    Fancy getting your camera out this Bank Holiday weekend? Best be careful who you point it at.

    For instance, don’t go taking snaps of unmarked police cars. This was the mistake made by amateur photographer David Gates, who photographed a Police BMW parked illegally at a bus stop in Portsmouth, Hants. Before you could say “Cheese!”, the Police were on him and asking questions under the Terror Act 2000.

    Then there’s the sorry tale of Andrew Carter, who spotted a police van ignoring no-entry signs to reverse up a one-way street to reach a chip shop, and felt it was his public duty as a citizen to record both the van and the officer involved, PC Farooq.

    For his pains, Mr Carter was abused, had his camera knocked to the ground, arrested, bundled into the van and finally held in police cells for five hours.


    At present, Britain boasts 4.2 million cameras – that’s one for every 14 people - or allegedly one-fifth of the CCTV cameras on the planet. It is estimated that you are likely to be caught on camera on average 300 times a day. The total number of cameras is predicted to double (to 8.6 million) by 2018.

    More recently, Police and Parking Enforcement Officers have begun to be kitted out with mobile cameras – so they can record every tiny detail of interaction with the public.

  • Also in August, Spy Blog, commenting on a report in the Sunday Telegraph, suggest the use of “sousveillance” to counter the harassment and surveillance of photographers and journalists. From the Sunday Telegraph article:

    When Graham Rigg heard the wailing sirens and saw the flashing blue lights of the police car in his rear-view mirror he pulled over to let it pass. But when it performed a spectacular handbrake turn beside him, hemming his vehicle in, he realised it was him they were after. His mind raced: was it something about his driving? Was his tax disc out of date? Even if it was, why were the police hunting him down so dramatically? An officer got out of the car and called out to Rigg: ‘Switch off your engine and get out of the car slowly.’ The traffic on the South Shields one-way system slowed to a crawl as drivers watched the spectacle. ‘I felt like some sort of terrorist,’ Rigg remembers. Had the war on terror really come to this ordinarily quiet North-Eastern town? And if it had, why was this 51-year-old father and Neighbourhood Watch chairman its latest target? As Rigg tentatively approached the police officer, the picture started to become slightly clearer. ‘They told me to get my equipment out of the boot,’ he tells me. ‘They somehow knew I had a camera and they wanted to look at my pictures.’

    The police were responding to a 999 call from someone who claimed to have seen Rigg taking photographs in a public park earlier that afternoon. They had tracked him from a control centre on a series of CCTV cameras before sending the squad car out to apprehend him. It was true that Rigg had spent the afternoon taking pictures - for his blog - but he had been at the seafront and nowhere near a public park. The police were uninterested in his protestations. ‘I showed the officer the pictures on my camera’s viewfinder in the interests of bringing the matter to an end,’ he says. ‘It was just some shots of the sea wall and some blurred snaps of the fairground rides. No one had been around because it was hailing that afternoon.’

    Shaken, confused and embarrassed by the incident, Rigg was eventually given back his camera and allowed to go home. It wasn’t until later that day that he reflected on the experience and began to feel angry. ‘Even if I had been taking pictures in a public park, what gives them the right to track me across town on CCTV and fly into full emergency mode?’ he says. ‘It became clear that they suspected me of being a paedophile just because I was taking pictures in public. But why didn’t the person who called 999 take the time to approach me first and ask what I was doing? The notion of presumed innocence seems to have disappeared. So has the notion of neighbourliness - everyone seems to be living with this irrational fear of paedophiles and terrorists.’

  • The National Union of Journalists released a video, in September 2008, documenting some of the harassment journalists are receiving when covering protests.
  • Henry Porter, writing in January 2009 covers further examples:

    I meet a lot of nice, intelligent people these days who say they aren’t aware that their lives have become any less free. Maybe your life is unaffected, I say, but a lot of people are now experiencing Labour’s authoritarian laws. Then I choose a story such as this one from yesterday’s papers about the artist and photographer Reuben Powell who was arrested and held for five hours under terrorist laws.

    I point out that Reuben, who was photographing the old HMSO print works in London, was doing nothing wrong but he had everything to fear from the police who treated him like a criminal, fingerprinted him and took his DNA. But for the action of Simon Hughes MP, a member of the one party that seems to understand the threat we face from the police state – the Liberal Democrats – Mr Powell would have spent a lot more time in custody.

    I would add that this is a far from unique event in Britain. I have it on the authority of a policeman of my acquaintance that most of the stop and searches under terrorist laws are inspired by the need for local police commands to meet targets each week, which means that the public is being needlessly harassed while no significant gain against the terrorists is being achieved. In the case of Reuben, the police had only to ask themselves if the former HMSO print works were a likely terrorist target and if a terrorist on reconnaissance would be carrying sketch pad, rubber and craft knife for sharpening pencils.

    Oh but this is just a one off, they say. Well, actually it isn’t. Photographers, artists, naturalists, trainspotters, journalists are being routinely harassed and persecuted up and down the country. Today, there are reports of a Tory MP, Andrew Pelling, who was arrested while taking photographs of a cycle path. People’s fundamental rights are being eroded and nobody seems to give a damn.

    Except Norman Baker, another Liberal Democrat MP, who has discovered that the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2004 has been used to stop a staggering 62,584 people at railway stations, while a further 87,000 were stopped by police under rules which allow them to ask people to account for themselves. (What nonsense it is for the government to continue to insist that ID cards will never be demanded on the street.)

    Among those most frequently stopped are trainspotters. A 15-year-old boy in school uniform was accosted last year and made to sign a form under Section 44 of the anti-terror act. (Plainly part of any New Labour’s modernised tyranny is form filling. We have form 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act which is being issued to football fans, form 696 required by the police for those staging live events in London, and this week we had first sight of the 53 questions to be issued to all people travelling abroad.

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