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.
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.