How many people are being arrested for taking pictures in public in Britain?

It seems that what is going on is a battle to control the power of visibility, the power to make images. The British state, and other ‘responsible’ bodies (generally commercial organisations) are attempting to make us increasingly transparent whilst at the same time reducing the ability of ordinary people to render the state transparent…

I’m seeing more and more local and self-reported stories of ordinary people being harassed and arrested in Britain, for taking photographs in public. Today BoingBoing is reporting on this Manchester man who was arrested because the police thought he might be photographing sewer gratings. I reported last year on the case of an online acquaintance who was arrested and humiliated over several days in London. It is increasingly not even police but the growing multitude of ‘plastic police’ – Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), neighbourhood wardens and private security guards – who are at the forefront of this tendency. But because most of these stories are never taken up by the national – or even local – media, it is difficult to have a good idea of how widespread this has become.

This is even before we have seen the effects of the new Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 which under Section 76, gives power to the police to prevent people from taking pictures. Most of the arrests have come under Section 44 or 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 which allow the police to stop and search photographers and in the latter case, to arrest people for possessing material (generally photographs in this case) likely to be of use in the commission of an act of terrorism.

At the same time of course, there has been a huge expansion of CCTV particularly by the state. It seems that what is going on is a battle to control the power of visibility, the power to make images. The British state, and other ‘responsible’ bodies (generally commercial organisations) are attempting to make us increasingly transparent whilst at the same time reducing the ability of ordinary people to render the state transparent, in other words to hold the state accountable. A situation of rowing asymmetry is developing with regards to the visual image. This renders the whole public rationale for CCTV expansion highly questionable. We already know that CCTV operatives are spending more of their time searching for these kinds of social and public order offenses rather than actual crime.

This tends to support the argument that I have been making that several democratic countries, with Britain and Italy at the forefront, are drifting into a kind of ‘soft fascism’, a creeping totalitarianism that is presented as reasoned and reasonable. It allows supporters to claim that opponents are being ‘extreme’ and underestimating the ‘real danger’, that all of these measure are ‘for our own good’. Yet we have arrived at a point where even untrained, ill-educated street-level minions of the state can now decide whether wee are allowed to take pictures in public. When people like ex-MI5 chief, Stella Rimington are saying that we are in danger of heading towards a police state, even the cynics, and the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ crowd, should be taking some notice.

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

9 thoughts on “How many people are being arrested for taking pictures in public in Britain?”

  1. Thanks for this! I’m teaching a digital photography module in a ‘children and technology’ where we look at the protection of children’s information, etc. This will really broaden the scope of the discussion.

  2. No problem, Jason… I’ll continue to keep an eye on it in future, especially as the new Counter-Terrorism Act starts to be used.

  3. This subject often crops up at Geograph, mainly in the Privacy, Legality and Related Issues part of the discussion forum (for which registration is required).

  4. Remember that the new Terrorism Act 2000 section 58A Eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of armed forces etc. covers much, much more than photography of Police constables in the street or at demonstrations and protests.

    The threat of 10 years in prison for “attempting to elicit” information, of any kind, whether you are actually successful in obtaining that information or not, regardless of whether you personally have any criminal intent or not, but which might be of some use, to some terrorist (who you do not have to have any proven links with at all), somewhere in the world, some time in the future, has a chilling effect on on all sorts of investigative journalism and blogging.

    Given that the offence specifically applies also to people who currently are, or who were formerly members of the armed forces, the intelligence agencies or police constables, then much academic historical research and biographies will also be chilled or censored.

    I am having second thoughts about a potential follow up to the stories of possible misconduct or corruption, which surrounded Sir Iain Blair, the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and the multi-million pound contracts awarded by the Metropolitan Police Service to a company run by his long time personal friend and skiing holiday partner. These allegations surfaced in the media, and were starting to be investigated officially, but have now been dropped as a result of his resignation under the new Mayor of London.

    Remember that by the time your case has come to court, and you have tried your “reverse burden of proof” defence of having to prove a good reason for your “attempt to elicit information”, (rather than the prosecution having to prove, beyond reasonable doubt that you did not have a good reason),you willhave beenarrested,fingerpinted,DNA tissue sampled and profiled, photographed,
    and probably will have had all your computer and camera equipment seized.

    You will then be blacklisted as a “terrorist suspect”, for the rest of your life,on various secret national and international intelligence and financial and travel blacklists /watch lists, something which may also extend to members of your family, regardless of whether you are ever charged,or prosecuted and even if you are found not guilty.

  5. Thanks for that – I had forgotten about the ‘eliciting’ information clause. It seems that there is a kind of stealthy extension of this kind of law to civilian police, and who knows who next… PCSOs? Neighbourhood Wardens? Private Security?

    BTW, I will add your blog to my list…

  6. > a creeping totalitarianism that is presented as reasoned and reasonable

    It’s definitely not reasonable anymore when people don’t understand why they end up in jail. Here’s how Gareth Peirce was describing the effect of Section 58 more than a year ago:

    Defendant after defendant has discovered that a long-forgotten internet search has left an indelible record sufficient for a conviction under the profoundly disturbing section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows prosecution for simple possession of an item likely to be useful to terrorists, and carries a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment. While the record of use remains permanently, no equivalent reconstruction is available or even required of the mindset of the user at the time. The common elements in each conviction have now become familiar: the defendant had not the slightest idea that such possession was inconsistent with the right to freedom of thought; was not remotely involved in any terrorist activity; and was Muslim.

    You can find some other notes on the new section 76 at Poor at mind reading? Snap a copper and get ten years in the slammer

    br -d

  7. Thanks, David – I agree entirely. I was not claiming that these laws are in any way reasonable, only that they are presented as reasonable – largely by the fact that they are just ‘little’ extensions or adaptations of existing law which the government assumes have proved their necessity. And who could be against stopping terrorism?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: