Friday, 19 February 2010

Photographing the police or public places - Met guidelines improved

Summary of changes

In recent years it's been harder to take photographs in public places or to photograph the police in the UK, because some police officers have controversially used anti-terrorism powers to stop photography and/or delete pictures, whether taken by journalists or members of the public. This obviously curbs freedom of speech.

The good news is, sometime during the last week or so the London Metropolitan police changed their Photography advice for the better. (Their version last year had already been amended following criticism; these are further changes.) All this ought to apply to filming or videoing too.

The updated guidelines now recognise that:

  1. It's important that the public and media have the freedom to take photos.
  2. Police shouldn't delete images from a digital camera or destroy film without a court order.
  3. What really matters is whether the info from the photo "is, by its very nature, designed to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".
  4. It would normally be unlawful to arrest people photographing police officers in the course of normal policing activities, including protests - because normally there wouldn't be grounds for suspecting the photographs were being taken to provide practical assistance to a terrorist or intending terrorist.
  5. While a police officer can ask why you're taking their photo, they can only do that "for a lawful purpose" and mustn't do it a way that "prevents, dissuades or inhibits the individual from doing something which is not unlawful".

Of course it's up to a court as to how to interpret the legislation, but the amendments to the guidelines can only be helpful to photographers and members of the public taking photos in public venues or at public events such as demonstrations.

I wonder if the improvements to the guidelines are related to the £5k the Thames Valley Police which had to pay out in Jan 2010 to a photographer who was arrested after trying take photos of a road accident, or the lawsuit by a film-maker who was handcuffed and detained after filming police officers on her mobile phone…- see the interview where she recounted her experience.

While it's good that the Met are now emphasising that the power to prevent photography of the police or in public places has to be exercised properly, they also need to make sure that officers on the ground understand what they can or can't do - as this incident last year illustrates. And while I agree that lots of police officer are very helpful and sensible people - and not just because I've had friends who worked in the Met! - officers in the street do need to be proactively kept informed by their superiors, especially about things as important as this.

There are however still issues with section 44 Terrorism Act stop and search powers being misused, e.g. the British Journal of Photography's report of Lord Carlile's Report on the operation in 2008 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and of part 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006, 18 June 2009 (para 196 onwards of that report also deals with photography).

The text of the changes

Here are the changes to the Met guidelines, for anyone interested -

Intro

One paragraph now reads (emphasis added):

"We encourage officers and the public to be vigilant against terrorism but recognise the importance not only of protecting the public from terrorism but also promoting the freedom of the public and the media to take and publish photographs."

Was:

"We encourage officers and the public to be vigilant against terrorism but recognise the balance between effective policing and protecting Londoners and respecting the rights of the media and the general public to take photographs."

Deleting images from digital cameras or destroying film

Now reads (2nd sentence is new):

"Officers do not have the power to delete digital images or destroy film at any point during a search. Deletion or destruction may only take place following seizure if there is a lawful power (such as a court order) that permits such deletion or destruction."

Section 58A Terrorism Act

Again emphasis added, bold bits are new, notes in italics:

"Section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000 covers the offence of eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of the armed forces, intelligence services or police where the information is, by its very nature, designed to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. [the bit in bold was added]

Any officer making an arrest for an offence under Section 58A must be able to demonstrate a reasonable suspicion that the information was, by its very nature, designed to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism [was, "the information was of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism"].

It would ordinarily be unlawful to use section 58A to arrest people photographing police officers in the course of normal policing activities, including protests because there would not normally be grounds for suspecting that the photographs were being taken to provide assistance to a terrorist. An arrest would only be lawful if an arresting officer had a reasonable suspicion that the photographs were being taken in order to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. [Was, "It should ordinarily be considered inappropriate to use Section 58a to arrest people photographing police officers in the course of normal policing activities, including protests, as without more, there is no link to terrorism."]

There is ["however" was deleted] nothing preventing officers asking questions of an individual who appears to be taking photographs of someone who is or has been a member of Her Majesty's Forces (HMF), Intelligence Services or a constable so long as this is being done for a lawful purpose and is not being done in a way that prevents, dissuades or inhibits the individual from doing something which is not unlawful.

Following these guidelines means both media and police can fulfill their duties without hindering each other."

Source

Note that the previous version's wording is taken from Google's cached snapshot of the Met's photography guidelines page as at 11 Feb 2010, so may have been updated to the latest by the time you click the link to the snapshot.

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