Cycle paths ... pigeon droppings ...

... bus stations ... an old printing works ...

These are all things that, over the past few months, innocent private individuals have been photographing in the UK when, to their dismay, they have found themselves interrogated, or even arrested.

It may all sound like a joke. But it isn’t. It’s getting serious. The British Police are busting a gut in their ‘War on Terror.’

For example, at the beginning of January, a UK Member of Parliament was stopped and searched for taking photographs of a cycle path in his own constituency. (See here.)

Then, a few days ago a prospective parliamentary candidate, Dr Rachel Joyce, and a colleague were similarly stopped and searched for taking photographs at a bus station.

And this was not the first time that this had happened to Dr Joyce. In September 2007 she was walking through Harrow town centre with another colleague when, in her own words “… we noticed a thick layer of pigeon droppings on some of the public seats. As this could be a health hazard, we took a photo of it to highlight to the authorities and we got stopped and questioned by PCSOs (Police Community Support Officers) under the Terrorism Act ...” (See here.)

Then there was a well-known London artist who was handcuffed, detained by the police for 5 hours and had his fingerprints and samples of DNA taken, all for photographing an old printing works he intended to draw (See here).

And last summer a team of armed police ... yes, armed ... swooped on six aging trainspotters, who call themselves the ‘Steam Boys’ as they waited with their cameras to capture an historic 1950s steam engine called The Great Marquess crossing the Forth Railway Bridge. The Steam Boys must have had a terrifying experience. Remember, not so very long ago, armed police swooped on another innocent man in a London Underground train and shot him dead.

The list goes on ...

If that wasn’t enough, on February 16th 2009 a new UK Counter-Terrorism Act will become law. Amongst other things it contains a clause making it an offence (punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine) to take photographs of police constables.

Slowly but surely individual liberties are being eroded in the UK.

And all for what?

There is no evidence whatsoever that taking photographs has played any role in the planning and execution of any terrorist act. There were no photographs involved in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre, the Madrid train bombing or the London transport bombings. The liquid bombers arrested in 2006 had taken no photographs. Timothy McVeigh didn't point a camera at the Oklahoma City Federal Building before he blew it to pieces. The Unabomber didn't photograph anything, neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Palestinian suicide bombers don’t take photographs, nor did the IRA.

Apart from anything else, there’s no reason for terrorists to take photographs. Why should they want to? If they require information about the layout of a location they can get it from maps, Google Earth and host of other information sources legally and freely available.

So why do the police have this fixation on photographers?

Could it be because that’s what happens in the movies?

In the movies, the baddies taking photographs before their dastardly act is a vital detail. It makes sense, doesn’t it? They have to check out their target and make their evil plans, don’t they?

And, of course, we viewers need a whole chunk of suspense-building before the climax. A bit of faffing about with cameras ... especially if the gear looks impressive ... is perfect as part of that suspense-building. The baddies have long lenses and big black cameras. They must be really bad.

And there’s another aspect too. These days the police have targets to meet.

This combination of the police inability to get to grips with reality, and the pressure of the targets they have to meet results in a lot of innocent people being intimidated.

And innocent people being intimidated is, of course, one of the objectives of a terrorist act. It is precisely the loss of our liberties, coupled with the development of fear and distrust of the authorities, that the perpetrators of such acts want to see.

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Some notes of advice (from the Police National Legal Database).

If you have the misfortune to be stopped and searched for taking photographs in the UK, you have certain rights:

  • the officer must tell you the grounds for the search;
  • the officer must inform you of the object of the search (e.g. to find drugs, an offensive weapon, etc.);
  • the officer must show you his/her warrant card if in plain clothes, or if requested;
  • the officer must tell you his/her identity;
  • the officer must also tell you to which station he/she is attached;
  • the officer must tell you that you are being detained for the purpose of the search

Further information here.

And a useful PDF file of photographers’ rights in the UK is available from this website.

1 comment:

Jim said...

You've missed out a vital point.

What the police seem congenitally incapable of understanding is that if potential terrorists do want to take photographs of a place they plan to bomb they're hardly going to do it in full view of everyone. Especialy not using long lenses and tripods.

You can take photographs without anyone realizing that you are doing it.

Lets face it. This is all about the police meeting targets that they've been set.