The Woolwich Foot Tunnel is a public space, managed by Greenwich Local Council, and is nearly 100 years old. Its entire purpose is for pedestrians to walk from one side of the river to the other, but imagine my surprise when I went down in the lift with my camera, to be questioned by the lift operator as to my intentions. He said (with no real pride) I needed the permission of the local council to take photographs in the tunnel, and true enough here’s their blurb:
Photography is banned in both the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels. Flash photography can trigger adverse effects to those who suffer from epilepsy and related medical conditions.
Commercial photography and fiming may take place in the tunnels subject to obtaining the appropiate licence from the Greenwich Film Unit.
They have ‘banned’ photography in the tunnels because they don’t want to get sued on the off chance that a pedestrian has an epileptic fit from a flash? First off it’s pointless taking photos of the tunnel with a flash – all the mood comes from taking photos in those tunnels without a flash (which I confirmed I would do, to his satisfaction). But have we really come to a stage in civil society where photographers need the permission of local government to take pictures in public spaces on health & safety grounds? I dare the council to reply, showing any evidence of the dangers of flash photography, collated anywhere in the world, to justify such a ban.
I took this photo without the permission of Greenwich Council. The lift operator said the reason for the ban was the Council’s fears of photos being used in a manner derogatory to them. Ironic really.
Proof yet again that the people tasked with keeping us safe are actually just plain stupid:
There were 3 Mancunians called Shoshin busking in Briggate [Leeds] making a rather pleasant kind of urban sound. I stood and watched for a while, made a donation and took a few pictures. After a while they were approached by an official in a red jacket who told them they had, had complaints about the music being too loud. He also told them that they weren’t allowed to have leaflets available to the public or sell CD’s.
He walked off and stood watching with a PCSO. He returned shortly afterwards. I continued taking pictures. Red decided that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of him and the PCSO doing their job, I explained that I was and took another picture to prove it. He then instructed the PCSO to get my details and began ranting about terrorists and not wanting his picture in the paper. The PCSO asked me to come on one side and talk to me which I did. He then began babbling about terrorists, asked me for my details and asked me why I had an attitude! I told him I would not give him my details. I told him that as he is a public officer I had every right to take his picture whilst doing his job, because unlike other countries law enforcement officers are accountable here. He told me that he didn’t want his picture in the newspapers because of the terrorist threat. That makes absolutely no sense to me. I told him he should go back to his station and look up the advice given to Chief Constables in relation to the harassment of photographers. He of course had never heard of this.
It’s quite a good demonstration that in many cases there aren’t orders, there isn’t a culture; Britain’s surveillance society is just a bunch of old fashioned, stupid jobsworths abusing their authority with powers they don’t even need.
It’s cast iron proof that we need to be extremely careful about what powers we give the police. They keep insisting they need to lock people up without charge for 42 days, that the DNA profiles of people unconvicted of or innocent of a crime should be retained for years, despite it already having been proven that there’s no advantage in doing so, even that photographing police officers should be a crime. And all the while they keep protesting that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, that these powers won’t be misused or abused, yet Bob Patefield’s video shows the exact opposite – multiple police officers flagrantly abusing their authority because of legislation which allows them to. It couldn’t be simpler.
Of course these police officers could have spent time looking for pickpockets, for muggers, for violent drunks or wife beaters, but why should they when they have the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Police Reform Act covering their backs? Are they reacting to a moral panic which only the police seem bothered about? Did all police at some point decide that photographers were either terrorists or paedophiles, and needed to be stopped? This wasn’t after all one of the high profile stops in London a couple of months ago – it was in the north of England. Perhaps it was just a case of how the police operate when they have laws which allow them to abuse the innocent.
It was heartening to attend the Mass Photo Gathering in January, organised by I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist, which demonstrated just how angry and fed up people are by this abuse, but it’s certainly not ended. The police’s insistence on extra or additional powers can’t ever be taken at face value; there has to be a proportionate need for them. After all how often do terrorists use DSLRs to scout targets which can be seen clearly on Google Street View? And how many amateur photographers really go around being ‘anti-social’? Good grief.
Henry Porter argues the police clampdown on photographers is part of a broader battle for control of our public space:
Over 300 of Britain’s best-known photographers have signed a letter to protest against the use of terror laws to stop and search by police and the officious regiment of Police Community Support Officers. The letter comes after news that a photographer belonging to the NUJ – Andrew Handley of MK News in Milton Keynes – received £5,000 after being unlawfully held for taking pictures of a car accident.
What both these pieces of news demonstrate is that police nationally have, without proper legislative authority, taken it upon themselves to obstruct the rights of photographers and the duty of journalists to go about their business. As I have said before, there is an ongoing struggle about the control of public space, which has profoundly symbolic importance for a free society. What seems to be happening is that police using terror laws have decided that all public space has been re-designated as state space, over which the police and CCTV systems have exclusive photographic rights.
It’s a well-made and terrifyingly logical argument, and unquestionably connected to the broader issue of New Labour’s systematic drift from accountability and the rule of law. A government dedicated to ignoring the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on its National DNA Database, to trying to lock people up without charge for 42 days, to setting up databases which precriminalise the entire population is the root cause; finding the solution is more difficult. On the one hand Porter is entirely right when he says the police are acting autonomously in how they are increasingly (mis)managing public space; on the other there’s a Home Office which despite its public distancing from the police on this matter, privately relishes it. After all they don’t expect Section 44 of the Terrorism Act (which the police didn’t even ask for), the DNA database, ID card, ISA or any other intrusive legislation not to be used.
Join me at I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist’s mass photo gathering in defence of street photography in Trafalgar Square. It’s on the 23rd January at 12 noon.
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.
Yesterday saw a small but determined flashmob form outside the London offices of libel law firm Carter-Ruck. Carter-Ruck remains at the centre of a legal and political furore over the super injunctions understood to have been used by the firm to try to prevent reporting of its client Trafigura’s involvement in this story, as well as to prevent reporting of the Minton Report (which confirms the waste was dangerous). The participants in the flashmob wore gags to reflect their anger at Carter-Ruck’s sifling of free speech for the benefit of their client, who would rather punish those who reported its wrongdoing than take responsibility, apologise and make amends.
From the British Journal of Photography:
One day after Malcolm Dike took pictures of a sunset from his window, two Community Support Officers questioned him over claims that he could be a paedophile.
A member of the public reported Dike’s actions to the police, as his flat overlooks a youth centre, and it was feared that Dike was taking pictures of kids. ‘It was absolutely outrageous – I have been taking photos for years and never had any problems before,’ Dike told the Daily Mail. ‘My home overlooks the Oasis Youth Centre and apparently whoever complained was afraid I might have been taking photos of the children. That was completely untrue, of course, but the police have no right to come round here asking questions anyway.’
I’m floored. This paranoid, busybody behaviour is setting us against one another in ways we’ve never previously conceived. In the last 10 years many of us have come to the opinion that photographers are either terrorists or paedophiles, and that photography should be tightly controlled (or prohibited) – all without a shred of evidence to back such attitudes up. We prohibit photography on public land, we assume that anyone photographing a building wants to blow it up (and terrorist photography scouts are an as-yet undiscovered phenomenon), and anyone with a camera near children wants to take sexually objectifying pictures of them. I’m fed up with said ‘member of the public’ and sickened by the tin-pot police substitutes who actually gave this more than a second’s thought.
In response to the growing (see previous post) restrictions on photography in the UK, a petition was placed on the Number 10 website saying:
On the 16th of February, the Government passed a law (in the Counter Terrorism Act) making it illegal to take a photograph of a police office, military personnel or member of the intelligence services – or a photograph which “may be of use for terrorism”. This definition is vague at best, and open to interpretation by the police – who under Home Secretary guidelines can “restrict photography in public places”. We call for these vague restrictions to be lifted, as they can easily be mis-used by the police.
Basheera Khan from the Telegraph reports the government’s response:
Photography and Section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000
The offence concerns information about persons who are or have been at the front line of counter-terrorism operations, namely the police, the armed forces and members of the security and intelligence agencies.
An officer making an arrest under section 58A must reasonably suspect that the information is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. An example might be gathering information about the person’s house, car, routes to work and other movements.
Reasonable excuse under section 58A
It is a statutory defence for a person to prove that they had a reasonable excuse for eliciting, publishing or communicating the relevant information. Legitimate journalistic activity (such as covering a demonstration for a newspaper) is likely to constitute such an excuse. Similarly, an innocent tourist or other sight-seer taking a photograph of a police officer is likely to have a reasonable excuse.
The key element of the petition for me is ‘can easily be mis-used by the police’; the key element absent in the response is any acknowledgment of that issue. Narrowly defining ‘legitimate journalism’ as the domestic activity exempt from the legislation leaves out situations like Gemma Atkinson’s attempt to hold the Metropolitan Police to account for a wrongful search on her boyfriend, and fails to address the reality that the police are frequently misusing this legislation to get away with unlawful behaviour. Why should you have to be employed as a photographer in order to be allowed to take photographs of the police? The Met’s current guidance says:
Members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel.
But it’s notable that they and the Home Office differ in their offical interpretation of this stupid legislation.
Impossible you say? Not in the Borough of Poole:
Steve Cook of Seeker Photography was doing a PR shoot on Sandbanks beach on Monday morning when he was approached by a beach warden. ‘He told me I wasn’t allowed to take photos on the beach,’ Cook tells BJP. ‘But I answered that I could and showed him a Bureau of Freelance Photographers’ rights card.’
The card states that ‘there is no law in the UK preventing a photographer from taking photos in a public place. Thus a photographer is perfectly free to shoot buildings, people, etc without breaking any law and with perfect freedom to do so.’
However, the Borough of Poole disagrees. ‘We ask organisations that are using the land owned by the council for commercial purposes to ask for permission,’ a press officer tells BJP. ‘We do that because we want to make sure who the people are, and to ensure the privacy of local residents. We also want to make sure that these professionals have proper public liability insurance.’
Bananas. Absolutely bananas. As the article goes on to say, there are no legal restrictions on photography in public places. From the wording it’s pretty clear it’s another case of council jobsworths, trying to save the world from paedophiles. They’ll demand ISA compliance for people going to beaches next. I’ve half a mind to go down there and get arrested for taking an entirely legal photograph, just to kick up a stink. I wonder if the I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist campaign has anything in mind…
On Saturday I attended the flashmob at Canary Wharf by the I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist project, in support of photographers’ rights. Most people don’t realise Canary Wharf and other, similar, not-quite-public spaces have restrictions on photography, in large measure in the name of combatting terrorism. Here’s a slideshow of my photos of what was a highly successful event by a project strongly supported by this website.
Our over-inflated fears about terrorism and paedophilia are continuing to attach themselves to photography and photographers, for reasons which still don’t make any sense to me:
An ugly incident marred this year’s International Birdman competition. As thousands watched human-powered flying machines being launched from Worthing pier, a man took some photographs of children on the promenade west of the Lido.
Fortunately a concerned citizen spotted him and alerted one of the event’s stewards, who immediately called the police. They were on the spot within seconds, according to Sharon Clarke, Worthing’s town centre manager. “What it showed was that with everyone working together, things can be stopped immediately,” a reassuring thought for the anxious readers of the Sussex-wide evening paper, The Argus, which led its front page on the outrage.
Officers arrested the offender and seized his camera. They then contacted Suffolk police, who searched the man’s home in Ipswich and took away computer data. So far, there seems no reason to suppose that anything untoward was found, but a Home Office laboratory is to conduct an in-depth examination of the material that was impounded.
It’s a strange world we live in when taking innocuous shots of children in a festival crowd can be presumed to be evidence of paedophilia. Of course it doesn’t mean that wasn’t the case, but the fact that it should be the initial presumption is just bizarre. It’s another symptom of the social malaise which led to the creation of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), with its free hand to make such presumptions without hard evidence of anyone in jobs which may involve contact with anyone the ‘authority’ deems ‘vulnerable’. Which came first, the Home Office’s pushing ‘protection’ as a solution, without a significant problem, or are these fears about paedophilia a reflection of other insecurities in society? We need to understand the causes of this moral panic in order to stop it and stop demonising an increasing number of innocent adults.
How ironic to find no reports of harassment of the Climate Camp protesters at their Blackheath camp or on their direct actions in the City and London’s Docklands by the Metropolitan Police, but instead to read about an alleged protester attacking the press:
Jonathan Warren, one of the freelance photographers who was assaulted, wrote on his blog: “As my colleague Marc Vallée and I were leaving climate camp we found a group of people arguing around the SWP stall that was selling newspapers and leaflets outside the entrance to the camp.
“As we went in to take photographs the group arguing with the SWP quickly turned their attention to us, shouting loudly that we had not asked their permission before photographing them.
“They were immediately aggressive and threatening, I managed to calm the ones around me and walk away, however, one young man was persistently threatening towards Marc.
“He repeatedly threatened to grab Marc’s camera and delete the pictures himself or smash the camera.”
Jonathan continued: “After a while we felt that the situation had calmed. Marc said that they should both shake hands and walk away and offered his hand. The man did not take it and as we turned to leave he tried to grab the camera off Marc’s shoulder.
“I stepped in shouting ‘Oi’ and as I did the man took a step back and kicked me hard in the stomach.”
(via Marc Vallee)
I was up there myself on the day they arrived in Blackheath, and remember feeling uncomfortable. I remember getting abruptly turned down for photographs, which for such an event I thought was quite strange. It’s even more strange that journalists should find themselves on the receiving end of alleged protester violence, considering their shared recent enemy. Was it one of the anarchists or were nerves running high during what was clearly, in part, a siege mentality? It’s ironic that it should seemingly have been protesters with prejudices against photographers, when it’s been photographers who have recorded the violence against them in the recent past. Could this even have been an expression of anger against the police’s forward intelligence teams (FIT), after the Met appeared to want to photograph every protester surreptitiously on their way in?
The Metropolitan Police’s active indifference to the Climate Campers throughout this event, and the media’s resulting lack of response to them, has shown just how sensitive the push and pull mechanisms are for 21st century protest movements. With the camp struggling to retain the media’s attention without police violence, did resentment against the mainstream media bubble over and get aimed instead against freelancers? What a pity. We’ll see where this goes next on October 17th.