Last night I attended a meeting of a recently formed group called “London Calling Photographers”. Two days ago I’d never heard of them, but the meeting was announced on Spyblog and the subject matter, “Know your rights: Facing the police crackdown on public photography”, immediately sparked my interest.By some coup, they had managed to arrange for three professionals in photojournalism and law enforcement to attend and speak on new laws due to come into effect later this month: Olivier Laurent, News Editor of the British Journal of Photography; Superintendent David Hartshorn of the Metropolitan Police Public Order Branch; and Jeff Moore, Chairman of the British Press Photographers’ Association.
Throughout the evening, chaired by Moore, the three speakers gave an insight into how relationships between the media and police had developed over the past few years, as the government and associated authorities, in particular the Home Office and Police, have sought to restrict or remove civil liberties and privacy, and increase state sponsored snooping and repression – all in the name of our safety. Of particular interest to this group is the fact that photographers have seen daily harassment at the hands of the police, often in utterly ludicrous circumstances where the only illegal or dangerous behaviour is that of the police themselves, plus the fact that new laws are due to come into effect in a couple of weeks which specifically target photographers. For more on this, check here and check some of the links here for a plethora of horror stories.
Fortunately, the copper in attendance seemed to be very experienced, down to earth and pragmatic. He quite openly admitted that there have been some awful abuses by police officers, largely down to the deliberately vague wording of anti-terror legislation which allows rogue, bent, stupid, or simply badly informed/trained coppers to do what the hell they like and pretend it’s for the protection of the public. He also admitted that one of the ways this is manifested – in the targeting of individuals in public spaces with SLR cameras, large lenses etc, shows a distinct lack of intelligence on the part of those in uniform, wasting people’s time and subjecting them to humiliating public searches and potentially devastating reputational damage. Any idiot can work out that someone seriously wanting to conduct hostile reconnaissance for illegal activities would not be walking around with a camera bag and a great big piece of kit hanging around their neck. In the unlikely event that anyone would even need to leave their home to get pictures of specific locations, a mobile phone or compact point-&-shoot would be much more discreet.
Jeff Moore was keen to state that he was most impressed with the officer’s input to the evening, and that he had attended many similar sessions at which the police had either not attended, or simply spouted the party line, so to speak. However he also emphasised that the sort of views and observations Hartshorn was giving really need to be fed down to the inexperienced recruits being put out onto the streets. PCSOs, he suggested, are the worst offenders when it comes to abusing their powers (or rather getting ideas above their station: PCSOs don’t have many powers to start with!).
The meeting remained very orderly and respectful at all times, which considering the fact that many in the room had been unfairly detained or hassled by the police many times while out taking photographs was a good achievement.
However none of this changes the fact that in a couple of weeks, taking a photograph of a police officer (or members of the armed forces, and other organisations) could potentially lead to a 10 year prison sentence. Of course, this will not happen frequently, if at all. Convictions will (hopefully!) require proof that the photographs were to be used as part of terrorist activities. However, it will give dodgy or poorly trained police the ability to further hassle the public, particularly when they know they are being photographed behaving inappropriately or illegally in the course of their duties. We already read stories of police illegally deleting images or destroying film. They currently have no right to do so. They won’t have the right to do so with this new legislation either, but some of them will doubtless have their delusions of power enhanced by its existence and act as if they do have those rights.
Unfortunately it seems that despite his relatively enlightened point of view, Superintendent Hartshorn is not confident that things will get better in the short term. In fact he suggested that the next couple of years could see an increase in tensions between the police and members of the public going about their daily lives, engaging in perfectly legal activities they are absolutely free to do without abuse and harassment, particularly from the authorities who should be protecting them. However it was reassuring to see that at least one copper out there is willing to say quite unequivocally that he is not in favour of the introduction of more complex legislation that is unlikely to either make the public safer, or improve the public image of his gang. That is, I found it reassuring until my inherent distrust of the police made me wonder if the whole performance was a sham. Guess I’ll never work that one out, as even if he is a good apple, the barrel has enough bad apples to spoil the broth. Or something like that.
It was a very interesting evening. I should stress that it was an extraordinary evening for the group, the first time they’d attempted an event of that sort. They are not a politically driven group, their focus is photography. I intend to attend some future meetings to see how things develop on the more creative front.
For any Londoners interested, the group is currently organised via a wiki, here, and a Google group that you can find via the wiki page.