Thankfully, one of things that the Freedom of Information Act, and possibly the recent changes in policy that have seen Government data released into the public domain, is the fairly low incidence of problems between photographers and the law in Scotland, and the generalisation that this is largely an English problem, and one that can be further narrowed down to London town, and the Met Police.
However, it would also seem that the law is being made a fool of, and misused by that most wonderful group of individuals, the Jobsworths, who are such insignificant little cowardly creeps, the only way they can get any pleasure is by making others suffer by abusing their positions. We’ve all come across them, and even though they might never actually use the words “It’s more than my job’s worth…”, it’s never long before you know that regardless of whatever you may want to do, and regardless of whether they have the right to stop you, they will stand firm on their interpretation of the whatever rules they have access to, right or wrong.
This was brought home in an item covered by Law in Action, the BBC’s Radio 4 magazine programme about the law, which has been presented by Joshua Rozenberg, and who returned recently: BBC – Radio 4 Blog: Photography and the Law
In this particular programme, Rozenberg accompanied an architectural photographer around London, complete with radio crew. The photographer had written the script, predicting that private security guards would order a stop to the photography, even though it was taking place from the public footpath (and they’d be taking pictures using CCTV). A failure to comply would be followed by the police being called, and the photographer (and anyone assisting) could then expect to be searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, and police officers could inspect the pictures recorded on the camera.
After all that – unless those concerned were actually found to be terrorists – they would then be free to carry on taking pictures for as long as they liked.
As will be learned if you listen to the programme, the expected intervention occurred, and after everything was over, the police later assure Rozenberg that the law was not being broken.
That the predicted script was followed did not come as a surprise.
That the police used Section 44, but found that no law was being broken was also no surprise.
What did come as a surprise, and continues to do so, is the fact that the real cause of many of these incidents is not the police – who generally attract the adverse publicity and criticism – but the greasy little Jobsworths that call them.
One has to assume that they have done so on previous occasions, and with the same result, so why do they do it?
Is it an attempt to do something to look ‘big’, and show someone that they have not only private security guards under their control, but the police? Are they pathetic little people who have nothing better to do, and can only achieve satisfaction by abusing their positions of apparent authority?
Rather than more reports of the police being called to act under Section 44 (and let’s not forget Section 43 in passing), isn’t it time we saw the beginning of reports regarding prosecution or fines for those Jobsworth types that call them with no real cause or justification?
A few such cases where the individual concerned is fined, fired, or cautioned (for ‘wasting police time’ or possibly more correctly ‘interfering with police investigations’, or similar, I think) might lead to general improvement in this situation, and a reduction in stories regarding the abuse of this Act in relation to photographers.
The police are the ones that are traditionally made to look bad when these stories are repeated, but this has gone on for so long without correction, it may now be time to target the real culprits – the people that call them… with no real justification other than to prove they can (and make their day while they waste someone else’s as a result).
Not just old stories about harassment, but new stories popping up as well, and not only the Met down in London.
Like myself, Stephen Russell, from Thrupp, thought the sight of police massing in a street (in this case Kidlington High Street), was out of the ordinary, and worth taking a picture (or four) of.
In return, one of the officers demanded that he delete the photographs he had taken.
Mr Russell, described by the Oxford Mail as an ex-RAF engineer, refused, as it is not illegal to take photographs of police in a public place.
The officer then carried out a search of Mr Russell, and handed him a form which informed he was searched under authority of Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000, legislation which gives officers the power to stop and search a suspect ‘they reasonably suspect to be a terrorist’.
Probably not what he expected to come home with after leaving home only to buy some fish and chips.
Police “In fear”
Dating from before the existence of this blog, I used to be fairly close the cruise on Ayr Shore. Digital cameras were fairly rare and expensive then, but becoming more common, and playthings for anyone that wanted to look “kewl”.
While I didn’t witness any instances, the above story reminded me of tales circulated at the time that some visitors to the cruise along the esplanade found themselves being taken to one side by police officers who had been driving along with the cruise cars, and had been photographed along with them.
The story was that they would take the photographers to one side, and demand the film, or deletion of digital pics, either on the spot or after being taken to the station in the town centre. The reason given then was that the taking and publishing of pictures which showed the officers’ faces put them in fear for their safety, or some such story.
I don’t know that it was true, and can make no claims regarding something I did not witness or see, but it was a recurring tale, and could also be found on the Ayr Shore web site and forum, however this seems to have been wound up, so I can’t point at it.
That’s also a rather disappointing find, as I know there were one or two ‘locals’ from the area who were determined to have the cruise banned, and although the genuine cruisers biggest sin was a little high spirits, there was an unfortunate attraction of undesirable types, and downright criminals on cruise nights, who the police presence did not seem to deter.
You really have to wonder if there anyone with an ounce (gramme?) of Common Sense working in the upper levels of the police authority, as its ground troops seem to be out to do their best to sour relationships with the public, at a time – given the number of times its officers refer to terrorism – when it would seem to be a better idea to foster good public relations, and public cooperation. See also Police continue to abuse people with cameras.
The Terrorism Act 2000, and in particular Section 44, has raised its profile and drawn comment in here before, if for no other reason than I have been happily wandering around both town and countryside with camera in hand, taking photographs for no other reason than personal interest. It seems that this may not be sufficient or good reason.
I now genuinely fear that the following videos illustrate that this is no longer a valid reason to such a thing if representatives of the country’s police force are nearby. And I do use the term representatives deliberately, as it would seem that Police Community Support Officers (PCSO) like to use this as an excuse to harass people with cameras. PCSOs are not proper trained police officers, but they are given certain powers, and it seems that some authorities think their use is dubious at best. Although granted the power to use reasonable force, they can’t make an arrest – other than a Citizen’s arrest such as you or I might to – and give all the outward signs of Jobsworths, and maybe even straying into thugs (see the witnesses in the last video below if you think this is an extreme interpretation). I was brought up to question the suitability for anyone that actually volunteered for such a job, as opposed to someone properly trained and assigned (to it). While I think this is a gross oversimplification, I now think it’s also a valid concern, and granting volunteers significant powers seems to be a major mistake – such powers should only ever be granted to those who are trained, and have proven their competence to wield them.
To confuse things slightly, but remain correct, it should be noted that in Scotland, a PCSO is a Police Custody and Security Officer, a civilian employee of the Scottish police force. Most (but not all) of the accounts relating to this problem arise in England, often within the area controlled by the Metropolitan Police.
Photographers’ video reports
The first video was shot by a photographer who ended up spending eight hours in the cells after being stopped twice by PCSOs, then detained by a police officer the third time he was stopped and declined to give his details, on the basis that he believed there was no good reason for him to do so, and was told that his photography was antisocial behaviour. A fuller account of the incident appears in this article.
The second video shows first a plain clothed officer and then a uniformed police office trying to justify their demands after a private security guard called them when a photographer questioned him. The private security guard had been insisting that the photographer only point his camera at the upper floors of the building concerned, and not at the reception area or fire exits.
In the third video, we see an Italian student who was stopped by PCSOs, one of whom appeared to be chewing gum throughout. When she said she was “Filming for fun”, his response was not to believe her, and when thwarted in his attempts to extract details from the woman, decided to remember he had seen her cycle the wrong way in a street. Witnesses (a group of nearby workmen who can be heard shouting in the original video) later described how she had been forced to ground while being arrested and handcuffed, and that one officer involved deliberately used more than reasonable force. After five hours in a police cell, she was issued with an £80 fixed penalty for “Causing harassment, alarm and distress in a public place” – which she had to accept if she wanted to leave.
In all these cases, and probably most others, the suggestion that the individuals concerned are suspect terrorists is laughable, or would be if it did not show how incompetent the official were. In one case, the way the photographer was holding their camera was cited as justification for what amounted to “Stop and Search”, and that they were being intimidating.
What would a terrorist photographer look like?
After looking at these examples, you have to wonder what a genuine terrorist out to take photographs would look like.
Would they take pictures openly and close to their subject, like the individuals referred to here, and risk being accosted by the authorities as per these examples?
Or would they be more likely to visit a target subject or area carrying cameras with stabilised lenses that now offer anyone the ability to shoot pictures at zoom levels of X15 to X30 (and more with high megapixel CCDs and digital zooming or post-processing) with little or no camera shake or blurring, and mean that provided you have a clear view of the subject, can shoot from a distance that means anyone watching for “terrorists” is relatively unlikely to see you before you have your pictures, and make your escape… unmolested.
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A shocking excuse is offered to a 27-year-old female filmmaker, who tells how undercover police officers allegedly handcuffed her after she tried to film their colleagues using her mobile phone:
An inspector from the local police station telephones her months later to offer the excuse: “They didn’t know what they were doing.”
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I wish it was finally, but I suspect that there will be more to follow.
Along with Northamptonshire County Council, Glasgow City Council leads a survey into local councils in Britain who can enter private property without requiring a warrant or police escort, having the most officers able to enter your home in this way, with almost 500 each.
The result is part of a report prepared by Big Brother Watch in a report published at the end of December 2008 Barging In: Estimated 20,000 Council Officers in Britain Able to Enter Private Property.
Headline items from the research (full report including breakdown by local authority available here) include:
- There are at least 14,793 officers in local councils nationwide who can enter private property without requiring a warrant or police officer escort
- That is equal to 47 officers in every local authority in Britain able to enter homes and workplaces
- Given that 115 (27 per cent) local councils either refused to answer our FOI requests, or failed to answer in an acceptable manner, this figure could be much higher and indeed be as high as 20,000 council officers in Britain
- Northamptonshire County Council and Glasgow City Council have the most officers able to enter your home with almost 500 each
Research conducted by Big Brother Watch has revealed that there are at least 14,793 officers in local councils nationwide who can enter private property without requiring a warrant or police escort. Due to the complexity of the question and the huge number of laws permitting power of entry, 27 per cent of councils were unable to answer the FOI request in full. If the average from those councils who gave a sufficient answer was extrapolated to the full number of councils nationwide, there could be as many as 20,000 local authority officers in Britain able to enter your home or place of work.
In a separate survey carried out by a web site in Argyll & Bute, similar requests for information from only Scottish councils under the Freedom of Information Act were said to have been rejected by almost 50% of these councils north of the border – not the most reassuring of results.
There’s little point in me making endless selective quotes and taking trivial examples from the reports and surveys mentioned above, much better that you follow the links and read all the presentations in context.
What I might suggest though, is that with so many council employees apparently able to exercise these powers, large councils, such as Glasgow for example, are either abusing the authority granted by the relevant Acts, or are behaving irresponsibly, by granting these powers to staff who have no right to have them.
I would assume, from my own experience of being granted authority over others, that this is only done where the individual (if they are to be accountable, as I was) has either passed suitable testing, or achieved some degree of qualification in order to prove their suitability to wield such powers. In exceptional circumstances, it may be that someone is granted a temporary approval, but if this becomes a matter of course, and the power and authority are routinely handed down to unqualified staff merely to expedite matters, then this is wrong, and those responsible should be exposed and dealt with accordingly.
It’s one thing to have someone qualified come banging on your door legitimately, but quite another if it is merely some little council “Jobsworth” out to make a name for themselves, with little or no accountability.
The treatment being handed out to people with cameras in Britain is fast becoming something that would have been held up as an example of abuse by the Stasi in East Germany, or the Soviets in the days of the Cold War before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Tourists are being stopped by the police and forced to delete pictures of railway stations under the Terrorism Act 2000. Likewise, press photographers and journalists are being stopped by police and having their cameras and memory cards confiscated or wiped. People stopping to take photographs in the street are being bullied by private security staff from adjacent office buildings, on the basis that they are not allowed to take photographs on adjacent ground because it is private and belongs to the building owners.
For details, see:
We’re photographers, not terrorists | Marc Vallée | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Society’s visual history is under threat of extinction. The government must scrap section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000
Photography is our right, our freedom | Henry Porter | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
The abuse of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is infringing on the freedom of photographers – it has to stop
I detailed the case of a photographer fined in Edinburgh for taking a picture of a girl who stepped out of a bar to be ill – back in October (2008) with: worrying decision by an Edinburgh Sheriff
Courtesy of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR): Just taking a pic is becoming a legal issue
Thanks to the media, anyone even seen holding a camera near a school is now likely to be accosted and accused of being a paedophile, or find that the someone has called the police to question them.
The latest story in this sorry state involves the police confiscating cameras from members of the public who had been waiting to see the Royal family. The royals had travelled to Sandringham to attend St Mary Magdalene church in Norfolk last Sunday, and while the party travelled to and from the church, the police looked after items which had been confiscated from the public who had travelled to watch. Sandringham Estate signs warn visitors that picture-taking is not allowed, but cameras have not been seized in the past.
A security officer responsible for the Royal Family said police were wrong to confiscate cameras from members of the public gathered to see them. Chief Inspector Stuart Offord said the “error” had been made in his absence.
The only consistent feature of all these stories would appear to be official statements assuring us that these abuses have been addressed and will stop, followed by their continuation and issue of apologies after the fact, and more assurances.
Truly, a bad start to the year, and an almost immediate return to a subject I had hoped I might not have to keep on mentioning, lest it take on the mantle of a crusade.
No wonder I generally leave my cameras at home nowadays – and since I have no desire to carry a mobile phone, that means I do not carry a cameraphone to make this a hollow gesture!
One other point to bear in mind is illustrated by the dSLR image at the head of this post. According to the stories in the media, if you appear to be some sort of professional photographer, you will be given harder time and less leeway than an amateur snapper, and that classification will be made not on your qualifications or job, but on looking at your gear. Shoot with anything that looks like an expensive dSLR rather then a cameraphone or compact, carry a camera bag or use a tripod, and you will be assumed to be a professional photographer, or maybe a journalist of some sort, and treated accordingly. Bringing out a tripod in front of a building seems to be an excellent way of being accosted by private security guards from within, and invited to “Move on because you are on private property” (even if you are standing in the street) if the media stories are to be believed.
One of the realisations that had me rolling about the floor laughing came about when I discovered I was repeatedly discussing Google Earth, and other systems which provide aerial views, with non-technical people who had assumed the images they were looking at were live, and were somehow being beamed to their computer screens. They stopped thinking that when I told them the probable cost and technology that they would have to invest in to make that true.
The blank stares of disbelief and realisation provided another classic ROLF moment.
It looks as if the laugh could be on me though, as computer scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta having been showing some of their recent work, and have augmented the scenery by using video feeds from cameras around the city. Their augmented version of Google Earth incorporates sports scenes, traffic flows, pedestrians and weather, all combined to provide a view that could appear to be real time.
Even better, by using additional software to analyse the movement of objects within the scenes, they are able to predict object paths, and fill the motion in areas where there are no cameras observing the scene.
The possibilities are endless, as television and internet technologies converge, televised events could be inserted into online aerial views, allowing users to choose their viewing angle, and fly over and around the event.
Individual security concerns that may arise from the use of surveillance camera feeds have been addressed by adopting techniques which render objects such as people and cars as models which take their place, and are animated using stop-motion techniques.
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The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) allows public bodies such as the police to conduct surveillance in major crime-fighting and anti-terrorism cases, however it can also been used for surveillance by local authorities investigating such trivial problems as dog fouling and refuse collection. As a result, it seems the Government has now admitted that local authorities are abusing these powers and has ordered a review of the snooping law.
A Home Office statement has announced a public consultation on planned changes, which notes: “There have been some cases where RIPA has been clearly misused. “There have been a number of occasions recently when public authorities have used techniques under RIPA when most people would have regarded it as inappropriate to do so.”
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has said: “We must ensure that the police and other public authorities have the powers they need. But we must also ensure that those powers are not used inappropriately or excessively. The government has absolutely no interest in spying on law-abiding people going about their everyday lives. I don’t want to see these powers being used to target people for putting their bins out on the wrong day or for dog fouling offences.”
Within the consultation paper Smith said that she believed councils should retain some surveillance powers: “Those responsible for ensuring that taxpayers’ money is not abused by benefit cheats can use surveillance under RIPA to follow and film someone in public places. They might do that if the person has claimed disability benefits for many years on the basis that he cannot walk long distances, but he actually spends his free time competing in marathons – as has actually happened. In my view, this is entirely appropriate. It’s just common sense. But I share concerns about how a small number of local authorities have used techniques under RIPA when most of us would say it was not necessary or proportionate for them to do so. As I have made clear, I do not think it is right for RIPA to be used to investigate offences relating to dog-fouling or to see whether people put their bins out a day early. This, too, is just common sense,” she said.
Police and intelligence agencies can carry out more serious and intrusive surveillance into what happens in private, but local authorities can carry out surveillance on what happens in public. They can only do so legally under RIPA if that action is “necessary and proportionate”.
The Government is seeking to replace existing codes of practice with new ones with stricter rules on when RIPA surveillance should be used.
The public will have the chance to tell the Government if it thinks that authorisation for surveillance should have to come from more senior staff in councils than is currently the case, and if it should always involve the approval of an elected official.
Links to further relevant documents are provided within the consultation paper itself.
How to respond to the Consultation
Responses to this consultation must be made by 10 July 2009:
by e-mail to: RIPACONSULTATION@homeoffce.gsi.gov.uk
by post to: Tony Cooper, Home Office, 5th Floor, Peel Building, 2 Marsham Street, London SW1P 4DF.