The UK Home Office has finally issued a circular on Photography and Counter-Terrorism (012/2009) in response to the widespread complaints about police harassment of both professional and amateur photographers in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’ – which I covered here and here. The circular advises police of can and cannot be done under three separate parts of the Terrorism Act 2000: Sections 43 on searches, 44 on authorised area searches and 58A on eliciting and publishing information on members of the police, armed forces or intelligence services, which was introduced as part of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. This is of course to be welcomed, even if it is rather late in the day.
On Section 43, they make is clear that the Act “does not prohibit the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place and members of the public and the press should not be prevented from doing so in exercise of the powers conferred by section” and that it is the suspicion of being a terrorist that gives the justification for any search, not the fact of taking photographs.
On Section 44, they remind the police that neither the Press nor public can be prevented from taking pictures in an area defined as an ‘authorised area’ by the police, and that officers have no powers to delete pictures or seize film. And finally, on Section 58a, they remind officers that ‘reasonable excuses’ for taking pictures, even of subjects considered sensitive, include tourism, sight-seeing and journalism. Interestingly, however, they do not actually give academic research as an example of reasonable excuse!
Of course, all of this serves to remind us that the Terrorism Act was drawn way too vaguely and widely and gave too much discretion to individual police forces and officers in its interpretation. Earlier this year, Jack Straw promised at several meetings that the government was to review all of the legislation on terrorism and counter-terrorism – perhaps this guidance is a result but it is only about interpretation and does not make or propose any change to the law itself.