Snapping coppers


6:30 pm - February 15th 2009

by Kate Belgrave    


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Time to go demonstration in Manchester

Yet another one for the government’s ‘helping ourselves to your liberties’ file:

The British Journal of Photography reports that from February 16, the thrill that is photographing coppers acting like arses will be taken from us by new laws ‘that allow for the arrest – and imprisonment – of anyone who takes pictures of officers ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’.’

The BJP continues:

‘A person found guilty of this offence could be liable to imprisonment for up to 10 years, and to a fine.

‘The law is expected to increase the anti terrorism powers used today by police officers to stop photographers, including press photographers, from taking pictures in public places.

‘’Who is to say that police officers won’t abuse these powers,’ asks freelance photographer Justin Tallis. Tallis, a London based photographer, was covering the anti-BBC protest on Saturday 24 January when he was approached by a police officer.

‘Tallis had just taken a picture of the officer, who then asked to see the picture. The photographer refused, arguing that, as a press photographer, he had a right to take pictures of police officers.

‘According to Tallis, the officer then tried to take the camera away. Before giving up, the officer said that Tallis ’shouldn’t have taken that photo, you were intimidating me’.”

Pity that photos of police intimidating the rest of us will be erased from history in advance by these laws – that, you can be sure, is the point of this little initiative.

Slipped into law as an unassuming adjunct to last year’s counter terrorism act amend to the terrorism act, these laws could see photographers banged up for ten years for catching a copper in an act that ought to get the copper a lot longer than that. Rodney King, anyone? How about the great war photos of Larry Burrows – one of a number of extraordinary and extraordinarily brave artists who helped change the American course in Vietnam with pictures that showed Americans at less than their best? (Members of the armed forces will also be out of bounds after 16 Feb).

And okay, we may not all be Burrows – but there could well be one out there who is stopped before even starting. Who knows what we’ll miss? We only know what we’ve been able get thus far.

I work with an NUJ phtographer who has taken a great many photos of police – partly for the thrill, sure, but partly because the police are impossible to leave out of the photos that we take at the events we attend these days.

They turn up, at least in their hundreds and often in their thousands, to every protest, march, and political action that takes place in these fair isles. Their numbers are often out of proportion – I’ve thought on more than one occasion that there’ve been more coppers present than protestors – and they’re greatly oppressive because of it. That in itself ought to be recorded by photographers, as they record this point in our history: we live in an age of terrific state paranoia, and we’re surrounded by cops as a result.

That’s the main reason why there are thousands of coppers in our photos, anyway. We rarely look for them – we’ve hardly ever gone out with the cameras with the sole intention of photographing the police. They look for us. They’re always there.

On the few occasions that we have looked for the police, they have done their best to stop us taking their pictures.

Not that long ago, we were in Shoreditch on a weekend, and saw a bunch of coppers gathered around a black guy on the side of the street. His Mercedes was parked just in front of us, and the cops were in a circle around him on the footpath. They saw us with the camera.

One of them sprinted over and demanded to see the pictures we’d taken. ‘You have to think about that guy’s dignity,’ he told us, indicating the black guy in the middle of the group of coppers. ‘It’s not fair for his dignity to take photos of him.’

I wanted to ask why – if they were so concerned about the guy’s dignity – they were making such a public display of their frisking of him, but decided against it. The cop was threatening, and we knew that he’d try and confiscate the camera if we pushed it.

Anyway – I have hundreds of photos of policemen and women on my site. Here are just a few. Their pictures are all over the header on my website as well, as they have been for more than two years. I can hardly photoshop the buggers out now.

We’ve even got a photo of coppers taking a photo of my photographer photographing coppers. Wonder if that’ll count?

Other posts on this: Chris Dillow and Septicisle. Also, the BJP reports that protests will take place tomorrow. Mark Thomas will attend.

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About the author
Kate Belgrave is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a New Zealander who moved to the UK eight years ago. She was a columnist and journalist at the New Zealand Herald and is now a web editor. She writes on issues like public sector cuts, workplace disputes and related topics. She is also interested in abortion rights, and finding fault with religion. Also at: Hangbitching.com and @hangbitch
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Our democracy ,Terrorism

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Reader comments


I send the pics I take on my iPhone straight to my Facebook page so even if my phone is confiscated the pictures are safe.

Yep, we’re going to have to do more of that, Shatters – bit more difficult if you’re using film, though. And I wonder when the long arm of the law will extend itself to the likes of Facebook – maybe as soon as someone features a bit of Rodney King-like footage of coppers getting stuck in…

Hopefully version 3 of the iPhone will have video. Not sure how easy posting from other phones is but as cameras, phones and the internet converge I’d advise people to get a backup of important pics somewhere safe as soon as possible, even if its just sending the pic to a friend.

Yep, backup copies are certainly important, but I think they can still getcha for publishing after the event:

Section 76 of the counter terroism act:

(1) A person commits an offence who—

(a) elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is or has been—

(i) a member of Her Majesty’s forces,
(ii) a member of any of the intelligence services, or
(iii) a constable,

which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or
(b) publishes or communicates any such information.’

It’s also impossible to avoid the police at so many things now. One of the advantages of having an NUJ pass – one of the points of it – is that you’re permitted by the police to enter zones that ordinary members of the public can’t, etc. Often, those zones are filled with police – for example, during the Gaza demonstrations, NUJ journos were allowed much closer to Downing Street. You can’t avoid snapping photographers there – they were lining the street.

And they photograph us…

This is utterly absurd. Any photograph of a policeman on duty at The Notting Hill Carnival in newspaper is now an offence . Any photograph of Trooping the Colour is now an offence. So any friend or member of the family carrying attending the Trooping of The Colour is now to be treated as apotential terrorist. What about passing out parades for those who have completetd their training or unit photographs? Does this mean that the CO of a regiment, ship, police or RAF unit could be prosecuted for allowing photographs to be displayed in the mess ? What about photographs in Army, Navy or RAF recruitment centres ? Are relatives no longer allowed to have photograhs of their loved ones in the Armed Forces?

That’s precisely what it says Charlie…great huh?

This government doesn’t know how to make law…or rather it knows how to make law so all encompassing that it criminalises or takes away the liberties of more innocent people than can ever be deemed proportionate.

Maybe we should ban ordnance survey maps and take down street signs like they did in WWII: these could easily be used by terrorists.

And printing maps of the London Underground in diaries is just asking for it.

I think bus timetables should be changed regularly too.

In fact, I think my local service is running a pilot scheme as they rarely turn up the same time twice.

Trains should also vary their routes: the train I take to work follows the same line day after day.

“Maybe we should ban ordnance survey maps and take down street signs like they did in WWII: these could easily be used by terrorists.”

Searching for maps is already the reason given by police for searching anyone at train stations under the terrorism act. They never do search people going in to the trains though, I find…certainly not as fiercely as coming out. I guess an angry commuter trumps “safety”

“likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’.”

And how exactly do they plan on gauging the likelihood of someone holding a camera being a terrorist? A simple ‘beard or no beard’ test, or would they try something a little more sophisticated like asking the photographer ‘are you a terrorist?’

Laws like this are just pointless. Either ban all photography of the police outright or just leave everyone alone, but this middle ground is ridiculous.

I think we should ban everything. Not doing so is giving terrorists a licence to kill people.

…point is, the police will be stopping people taking photos at political events, and of a ‘political’ nature, whatever that might mean.

I can see my partner and I falling foul of this almost immediately. He is often asked to attend various political meetings and protests as a photographer, and his photos are often circulated and/or used by other publications – recent photos of a protest outside of Barnet council ended up in a public sector journal, etc, as that journal covered a story about service cuts at that council.

These photos serve some sort of purpose, in that a lot of people want their events and meetings recorded – and their events, protests and meetings are worth recording. There are certainly plenty of them taking place at the moment, as people register their disatisfaction with government and council initiatives, etc.

You always find that a few police at least usually attend these events, or stop by to see how things are getting on. From today, though, they’ll be able to grab your camera as soon as you take it out of its bag – they’ll be able to say that they thought you were pointing it at them. And if you’re taking crowd shots, you may well be pointing your camera at them. What are you supposed to do at such times – draw attention to yourself by asking two coppers if they’d mind stepping out of shot?

I’d make the point, too, that the sort of lawful protest I’m talking about is hardly the stuff of international terroism. A bunch of nursery nurses and dinner ladies waving placards outside their town hall strikes me as an unlikely bin Laden seeding ground. The only conclusion you can draw is that this law is at least partly about eradicating evidence of political activity and protest from the public view.

The only conclusion you can draw is that this law is at least partly about eradicating evidence of political activity and protest from the public view.

I’m not sure that’s the only reasonable conclusion. An alternative reasonable conclusion is that our beloved leaders are incompetent, to say the least.

(These aren’t mutually exclusive, by the way.)

14. Mike Killingworth

Terrorism is defined in the Terrorism Act 2000

(1) In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where—
(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.
(2) Action falls within this subsection if it—
(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

This may explain why that Dutch politician was banned – because anyone who might have threatened him would, in law, be a terrorist!

It’s also noteworthy that the Act allows an organisation to be proscribed if the Home Secretary “believes” that “it is concerned in terrorism” – the belief does not have to be reasonable, and I’ve no idea what the legal definition of “concerned in” is.

It would at the least appear that being abusive to political canvassers (including the BNP, of course) is a terrorist act!

Sorry, I haven’t been at all constructive on this thread. I’m very much inclined to agree with Kate.

I would add that not only will we lack evidence of political activity, we will also lack evidence of alleged abuses of police powers, such as this video about Climate Camp ’08.

I wonder where we are going with all this. I’m sure our beloved leaders don’t intend for us to live in a police state or surveillance state or whatever, but that is where we are heading (if we aren’t there already).

‘An alternative reasonable conclusion is that our beloved leaders are incompetent, to say the least.’

Too true, ukl.

I just tend to take that one as written these days, and so no longer write it. I think I will go back to writing it, though. It’s cathartic, apart from anything else.

So, let’s all get our knickers in a twist shall we? Follow knee-jerk Jack’s example? Let me know when some intelligent people post and comment on here. Nurse!

‘Let me know when some intelligent people post and comment on here.’

I’m here!

Dying to twist your knickers, jailhouse. Let me know when you finish your shift.

Sorry, “coppers acting like arses ?”

Would it be possible to post something more intolerant and prejudiced? I am sure after all there would be no problem with the phrase “Mulisms acting like terrorists?”

Such prejudice towards those who take physical risks to protect the safety of others is simply shameful.

And “arses?” Is this even meant to be a serious site any more?

This is a weak contribution to a serious debate.

I don’t understand jailhouselawyer’s point. I think the reasons to oppose this legislation have been more than adequately set out by Kate, Chris Dillow, and Septicisle: in short, the honest and law-abiding individual will be legally chilled from taking photographs, for whatever reason, that may have police in them; the police have been given even more power to seize evidence of their potentially unlawful actions, and thereby feel more able to commit said actions; and the people this law is ostensibly targeted at are unlikely to be deterred at all.

It is bad law.

I would add that a ‘free press’ is recognised to be essential to the proper working of our ‘democracy’. We should scrutinise very carefully any limitation on it.

Afternoon James,

Would you let me describe the coppers who kicked Rodney King in as arses…? Arses seems to be a better choice of word in that instance than, say, Samaritans. Dunno that those coppers were taking physical risks to protect the safety of others. They certainly made King take physical risks, but that is surely not the same thing…

And yep – I would be happy to use the phrases ‘Muslims acting like terrorists’ if I thought that’s what they were doing. Don’t have any romance about religion, me. Have been happy to use phrases along the lines of ‘Christians acting like buttholes’ over abortion, etc, so would cheerfully extend that to other faiths.

Don’t quite see how a copper asking for Tallis’ camera at a BBC Gaza protest (as per my original post) is putting oneself in the line of fire for the safety of the rest of us, or how telling me not to photograph a guy a bunch of coppers had arrested and encircled is taking a physical risk for all of us, but you perhaps see more romance in those actions than I do?

Feel free to elaborate, old boy.

I think James read too much into what Kate wrote. In my view she did not suggest all police officers act ‘like arses’. Merely that those that do will be more likely to get away with it as a result of this law.

That is a serious point.

Agree with this post 100%, which makes a nice change. The government have got to realise that there is such a concept as giving the police (or any particular body, really) too much power. Power and authority is a delicate balance, it’s not just about “well, the police are good and criminals are bad so let’s give the cops as much power as possible.”

I’m going to be all pop culture and say ‘Who watches the Watchmen?’

Not us, apparently.

Maybe CCTV should be turned off when police are present: the operators might see something they shouldn’t.

Incidentally, the cops who beat Rodney King are assholes, not arses. I don’t think we should impose British terms on our American chums.

On BBC London 6:30pm , reporter stated that he has heard that the Police Federation opposed this law. This must be the first time the PF have opposed a new law.

The PF technically opposed the 42 day pre-charge detention on the basis of how it was written in the bill. They’re power hungry (as arguably any good police force should be), but they’re somewhat self-aware of what might get them more trouble than it is worth…which is more than can unfortunately be said for those willing to hand over the power.

How is this going to effect tourism? Bobbies on the beat are as British as routemasters but carting tourists off to Belmarsh for snapping photos isn’t going to send their families home with tales of a happy holiday. Its the sort of welcome you’d expect in North Korea.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New blog post: Snapping coppers http://tinyurl.com/dyod9g

  2. Why the ban on photographing police officers matters to ordinary people « UK Liberty

    […] that anyone taking a photo of the protest cannot help but take a photo of a police officer, as Kate Belgrave at Liberal Conspiracy explains. point is, the police will be stopping people taking photos at political events, and of a […]

  3. links for 2009-02-16 « Embololalia

    […] Snapping coppers Slipped into law as an unassuming adjunct to last year’s counter terrorism act amend to the terrorism act, these laws could see photographers banged up for ten years for catching a copper in an act that ought to get the copper a lot longer than that. Rodney King, anyone? How about the great war photos of Larry Burrows – one of a number of extraordinary and extraordinarily brave artists who helped change the American course in Vietnam with pictures that showed Americans at less than their best? (Members of the armed forces will also be out of bounds after 16 Feb). […]





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