Photographer’s rights in the UK (or lack of) / by Neil Alexander

The number of articles posted on the web these days detailing problems that photographers have come across whilst shooting in public appears to be growing at a frightening rate. Carlos Miller’s blog is one such site, but there are many many more. However our cousins over the pond seem to be having it easy compared with us poor British photographers. Only last week the British Journal of Photography posted this article regarding a letter received by the National Union of Journalists secretary general, Jeremy Dear from the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith in response to his letter expressing concerns over the police surveillance of journalists, in particular photographers. In her letter Ms Smith clarifies that she understands that in the UK “there is no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public space” and that “there is no legal restriction on photography in public places”, however she also states that “Decisions may be made locally to restrict or monitor photography in reasonable circumstances. That is an operational decision for the officers involved based on the individual circumstances of each situation.” Interpret that how you will.

On from there, over at Photorights.org, this article appeared on Friday titled “42 days and hand over your flash card”. The article explains that whilst the 2008 Counter Terrorism Bill has received widespread attention, there are a few points buried in there that have yet to receive much notice. In short: “The new Bill will allow police performing a S43 search under the Terrorism Act 2000, to seize and retain for examination any 'document' found. A document is defined at S9 of the new bill as "any record and, in particular, includes information stored in electronic form'. That means memory cards, cameras and mobile phones, PDA's, laptops - anything containing digital information, as well as letters, notebooks etc. will be able to be removed and kept by police for up to 4 days even though no offence has been committed.“ The law only states that the Police only need to have “reasonable suspicion that the person is a terrorist” in order to justify that the officer “may remove the document to another place for examination and retain it there until the examination is completed”. Obstructing said removal of any “documentation” can result in up to 51 weeks in prison and a fine!

HOWEVER, on further reading it’s not quite as bad as all that! ACPO (The Association of Police Officers) advice is "Based on reasonable suspicion that the person is a terrorist, the purpose of the search is to discover evidence that the person is a terrorist". So essentially (assuming you’re not a terrorist and that you can demonstrate such to them on the spot) if the Police were to try and retain your photographs, then it would be unlawful.

BUT, the infringing of photographer’s rights isn’t just an act that’s exclusive to the Police. On many an occasion I have been confronted by an over eager security guard, community support officer or some such demanding that I stop taking pictures of whatever. Some have even had the balls to demand that I delete whatever I have shot or hand over my camera! Just how stupid do they think I look? (That’s rhetoric by the way.) In fact some overzealous clueless security guards or even police officers can be so intimidating that I have heard reports of uninformed or just plain bullied photographers giving up their precious snaps. Case in point here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VfQrDK9YHas or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeTIv9UkY8c

Which brings me to my final point. I recently watched an outstanding movie by the name of “The Lives of Others” or “Das Leben Der Anderen” as it’s titled in its native German. The film is about the Secret Police or “Stasi” in East Berlin in the years just before the Wall came down and revolves around a writer and his friends who, to cut a long story short, try to write an article and get it published in the press in West Berlin. The article is about how the authorities in East Berlin stopped collecting statistics on suicides in the mid-70’s, the theory being that life there was so oppressive that many opted to take their own lives as the only way out. The state believed that by collecting these statistics it would reflect badly on their regime and the film details the ensuing quest to trace the author of the article. The film also shows the lengths to and the cunning with which the state would go to “know everything”.
Compare this with the number of CCTV cameras in Britain, recent stories about council employees spying on people by opening mail and eavesdropping on telephone calls, and the ever draconian “Stop and Search” powers the police are amassing. See any similarities??

Anyway, the long and the short of this is, if confronted, don’t delete your images, and don’t whatever you do hand over your camera to some half-witted security guard who thinks because he’s got a walkie-talkie, he’s the law!

And for those who tacitly repeat the old “I’ve got nothing to hide so why should I care” adage, all I can say is try getting your head out of your arse and maybe you’ll see what is going on around you.

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