Do you think it’s an act of insanity for a police officer to stop and search someone taking a photograph of a sunset? Tell that story to any reasonable person and they’ll say you made it up, but the truth is stranger than fiction. Matthew Parris recounts the story:
He [BBC photographer Jeff Overs] was there [Andrew Marr Show] to describe an attempt by the Metropolitan Police to stop him photographing a sunset over St Paul’s Cathedral. The officer had been acting, she said, under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. She’d been stopping loads of people taking pictures that afternoon “and nobody’s complained”. I mentioned that I’d been moved on from among the pigeons in Trafalgar Square when recording (into something no bigger than a Dictaphone) for a radio programme about wild animals in London. Mariella said she thought it was sinister.
I think it’s worse than sinister. It’s plumb stupid. Is there anything you could call a presiding human intelligence at work in our counter-terrorism operations? Has nobody in the Met heard of Google Street View? Do senior officers talk to junior officers about priorities, and if so, do they think it likely that al-Qaeda would use operatives carrying professional photographic equipment, rather than disguised as tourists with mobile phones? Do they think that if an officer has reason to suspect someone of taking pictures for the purposes of terrorism, the appropriate response could ever be just to tell them to stop?
For those of you eager to find out what the plods are and aren’t allowed to do as regards photographers and Section 44 have a read of this:
* If police stop and search you, the first thing you should ask is on what grounds they are conducting the search and under what powers.
* Police are able to conduct searches under a number of different pieces of legislation but they usually use either the Public Order Act, the Criminal Justice Act or under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
* Unless you are stopped while driving a car, you do NOT have to give your name or address.
* Police officers are obliged to ask for your given ethnicity. Once again, it is up to you whether you choose to answer or not.
* If police use Section 44 of the Terrorism Act they are entitled to view any images you have taken but they are NOT allowed to delete them. They can only do so with a court order.
* Under Section 58a of the Terrorism Act, police are only allowed to stop a photographer taking pictures of officers if they reasonably suspect the photos are intended to be used in connection with terrorism.
* Whether you are stopped and searched, or merely stopped and accounted for, the police officer should hand you a record of your stop.
Yet of course abuses under Section 44 continue. Take photographer Jerome Taylor:
I was on the South Bank of the Thames trying to compose a shot of the Houses of Parliament last week when two police officers stopped me.
Despite living in London for the past five years I had never photographed the Houses of Parliament before. I wish I’d never bothered. Just as I’d finished fine-tuning my first composition, two officers appeared. “Excuse me, sir,” said one. “My colleague and I would like to perform a stop-and-account on you. Don’t worry, you haven’t done anything wrong.”
For the next 10 minutes I was questioned about my evening and asked to give my height, name, address and ethnicity – all of which was recorded in a form that will now be held at the nearest police station for the next year. The form explained why I had been stopped: “Using a camera and tripod next to Westminster Bridge,” it read.
When asked about Taylor on the BBC, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), Britain’s for-profit advisory quango for the police said:
On BBC One, [Chief Constable Andy] Trotter reaffirmed that the two police officers should not have used Section 44 powers to stop Taylor. ‘It’s hard to understand why Jerome was stopped,’ he said. ‘There was no need to do a stop-and-search in that case.’
He added that it was not ‘an offence to take a photograph in a public place. ‘These powers were brought in to protect the public, not to oppress,’ Trotter told BBC One.
Trotter’s comments only reaffirmed guidelines issued by the Home Office that specifically say that photography is legal in the UK and that powers given by the Terrorism Act 2000 shouldn’t be used to prevent photographers from taking images in public.
ACPO says Section 44 was brought in to protect, not to oppress, however yet again when push comes to shove, the police (and Met in particular) do everything in their power to oppress. Matthew Parris is right later in his article when he says all the surveilling a terrorist need do can be done in complete privacy on Google Earth – it’s not just absurd to suspect numerous, clearly law-abiding photographers of terrorism, it’s just plain stupid. But hey that’s the standard of policing we have in this country. They have guidelines from the Home Office and ACPO not to behave like this, yet they persist with next to no accountability.