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.

Britain ‘risks a police state’

Following the damning reports of the House of Lords Constitution Committee and yesterday, the International Commission of Jurists, now Stella Rimington, ex-Head of the security service, MI5, has warned that Britain risks becoming a police state. In an internview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia reported by the Daily Telegraph, Ms Rimington attacked government plans for the National Identity Register and the soon-expected plans for a database of all communications (delayed from last year). If even ex-heads of the security service are now asking the government to change direction, in addition to civil liberties experts, independent judges, and just about everyone else, their stock of excuses must be rapidly diminishing. The current cabinet must know that their actions smack of the desperation of a failing government desperately searching for votes in being ‘tough on crime and terrorism’… but they seem to be locked into a trajectory of ever-increasing surveillance and security that they cannot justify but cannot escape. You do wonder who is actually advising them that this is all a good idea…