Despite repeated government and police assurances that it would not be happening any more, ordinary people are still being arrested for taking pictures in the UK, under the pernicious terms of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, and not just in London. This time, a photographer video camera user managed to film the process of his arrest. There particularly ridiculous aspects of this case are firstly that the officer, when challenged on his assertion that this was a terrorism-related offence, changed her charge to that of anti-social behaviour (which isn’t a crime as such, anyway), and secondly that the first officer was not even a proper police officer, but a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) AKA ‘plastic police’. PCSOs do not have the training or powers of the regular police but they are increasingly acting as if they do, and since they look almost identical to the untrained eye, they frequently get away with it. They shouldn’t: PCSOs need to be more clearly trained as to the legal and moral limitations of their role.
The second time he was stopped, it was by a police officer who had been informed by the PCSO, however the police officer too was unable to give reasons as to why they wanted the details of the photographer. They seemed to think that just because the officer was suspicious that was enough, whereas in law they must have a ‘reasonable’ suspicion. There were no such grounds. The officer refused to give reasonable grounds other than the fact they were taking pictures and refused to say whether they were being arrested. So they left, but they were later arrested by another officer for ‘anti-social behaviour’ (which is not a crime, and certainly taking pictures is not inherently ‘anti-social’ – or if it was, then the state’s CCTV systems would be equally ‘anti-social’). This seemed to have nothing more than a matter of the officers being annoyed by the fact that they challenged the officers. The police need to remember that they serve the public and are not there to tell the public what to do when they are doing nothing unlawful.
There is a disturbing film and story on The Guardian site which shows two London Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) hassling an Italian art student, Simona Bonomo, largely, it seems to me, because she wasn’t submissive towards them and stood up for herself. This comes several months after the Home Office issued new guidelines, yet it looks like photography and filming is still being treated as if it is inherently suspicious – as Marc Vallée points out.
The additional issue is that PCSOs are not even proper trained police officers in the first place, yet they increasingly seem to be under the impression that they can make the kind of judgements that senior police officers should be making. There need to be some changes to UK law here (amongst many of course!) – one to replace Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, since it seems clear that it can’t be interpreted appropriately, and secondly, the powers of PCSOs need to more carefully delineated and restricted.
For those involved in photography, video or film-making, in the UK or nearby, there will be a mass photography action, “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist!”, on January 23rd at 12 Noon, Trafalgar Square in London.
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.
After protest and parliamentary questions, The Register reports this week that the London Metropolitan Police have finally got round to reminding their officers that it is not in fact a criminal offence for ordinary people to take photographs or video in public places, nor even to take pictures of police officers. The way that many Met officers had been acting over the past couple of years with harassment of photographers, even tourists in some cases, and arrests under the Terrorism Act, there appeared to be a deliberate attempt to change or extend the meaning of the law by police policy. This was at the same time that the Met had been running campaigns stating that it was suspicious for anyone to be interested in CCTV. Part of this is also the fault of the Act (and others like it, including the recent Counter-Terrorism Act), which are very broadly drawn and easily subject to extreme interpretation by those who would want to abuse them to attack individual liberties.
This isn’t over yet however; there are many other police forces in the rest of the country and also quasi-police (community support officers, town centre managers etc.) as well as private security, who need to recognise that the public have a right to take photographs in public, and should not be harassed, assaulted or threatened with some non-existent sanction for a perfectly legal pastime.
In the latest dispatch in the British state’s ongoing war on photographers (or was that supposed to be terrorists?), a father and son from Austria have been ‘ordered’ by two policemen to delete pictures of bus and tube stations from their digital camera. Klaus and Loris Matzka were told that it was ‘strictly forbidden’ to take such pictures and the police took their personal details including passport numbers and the addresses of the hotel where they were staying.
This is harassment and intimidation, pure and simple. Later The Guardian quotes the Metropolitan Police as sating that they “had no knowledge of any ban on photographing public transport in the capital.” This is a curious way to put it. It is not a question of the police’s knowledge of a ban. There is no ban. The police are well aware of this.
The Met in particular, are currently way out at the edge of their powers and pushing the envelope rather too far, but it seems with relative impunity. As I have written before, they seem to think it is suspicious to be interested in CCTV. It is also apparently suspicious (if not ‘strictly forbidden’) to take pictures of almost anything. But there’s much more. This is also the same force that invaded Parliament mob-handed to arrest Conservative MP, Damien Green, for it now seems, entirely political reasons. This is the same force whose officers have been captured on camera beating protestors – and who may have caused a passer-by to die of a heart-attack. This is the same force that keeps tabs on law-abiding protestors nationwide in case they might break the law, and that provides offices to private organisations running their own intelligence operations (ACPO). And, let us not forget, this is the same force whose incompetent surveillance operation resulted in the shooting of an innocent Brazilian man in the mistaken belief that he was a terrorist.
The Metropolitan Police needs to have a serious lesson in the liberties that they are supposed to be protecting, not restricting. Rather than learning the lessons of inquiry after inquiry, officers (and whether it is more than indvidual officers, one cannot say) appear to be out of control and making de facto policy by intimidation. Surely, this cannot be allowed to continue?