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Photography v Terrorism

Photographers are massively important to our culture, and i've always been a bit uncomfortable with the rules that limit what they can do. The most often used rules are ones born out of terrorism legislation. I don't think anyone would disagree that terrorism legislation is very important, but it becomes all too easy to forget basic legal principles when interpreting and applying it.

Lets look at Lady Justice for a moment. In one hand she carries the Scales of Justice, and these scales represent what i consider to be the most important legal principle; balance. Check out this video. In it you will see a journalist innocently recording what appears to be the Gherkin. He was approached by security officers, a plain closed police officer (i think) and then two uniformed police officers. It is very clear that all the police officers involved do not really understand the terrorism act, and certainly not its application.

The principle of balance is endemic in all aspects of justice. On the one hand, in this situation, we want to protect London from hostile reconnaissance, and on the other hand we want to protect freedom of the press. I tend to put these on equal footing, until there is a reason to limit one for the protection of the other.

A journalist recording or taking pictures of public buildings is normal. The mere presence of a camera is not enough to satisfy the limiting of press freedom, as there is no objective evidence that he is anything other than an innocent journalist. There needs to be something more to suggest criminal behaviour.

So much for not being allowed
to take a pic of the reception
It may be annoying to police officers when they are challenged on their powers. There will almost certainly be times when it is not appropriate to enter into a debate about powers. Butit is an essential part of a democratic society and those who hold an office over a citizen must recognise the citizens right to ask "what power are you using?".

In the above video we are seeing a journalist asking that exact question. We don't know what had happened before or after the video, nor do we know why the police officers involved wanted to perform this stop and search. It would be unfair to enter into a debate about a set of circumstances we know nothing of. What i think is important to note is that the officers involved were unable to give an explanation as to their grounds or the legal power used. Police officers are required by law to be clear about the legal authority they use.

The journo in this video seemed like a reasonable person. Had the officers been clear about their grounds and their authority im sure he would have co-operated...he was exercising the principle of legality, and the officers failed to justify their actions.

So, it is clear that s44 Terrorism Act 2000 is used wrongly, and this view has been supported by the European Court of Human is an example of why being party to the European Convention of Human Rights is invaluable to UK citizens. In the case of Gillan and Quinton V the United Kingdom the court ruled that our Article 8 rights to respect for private life were violated by s44 Terrorism Act 2000.

The above video was filmed in 2009. The court made their judgement in 2010. So in theroy, we should never see this sort of situation again.

My advice to police officers? 
  • Be prepared for citizens to exercise their right to challenge the legality of your actions. You need to be totally sure of your powers, be humble enough to explain them where doing so is appropriate, and be totally confident that you can justify your actions.
  • Some people may not like having their, or their buildings, photos taken. Make your own assessment, and remember that the mere presence of photography equipment is not sufficient to establish suspicion of criminal activity. Politely remind building owners and security guards that your not going to do their dirty work for them.
  • Take a balanced approach to terrorism. We need to protect our citizens from terrorism, but the word terrorism doesn't give us the power to set aside common sense and reasoned, measured assessment and responses.

Here are two great articles on terrorism stop and search powers;
Here is a list of interesting YouTube videos on the subject of Terrorism v Photography

    This is the video discussed above

    Here is a great piece from BBC Breakfast. CC Andy Trotter explains
    what can and cannot be done...keep in mind that s44 has now been declared unlawful.