Police. Camera. Action?

by Quinn

Don Paskini recently pointed me in the direction of the blog of “Libertarian Lib Dem Charlotte Gore”, and specifically a post in which she explains why she will not be standing in a parliamentary election any time soon. This is probably a good decision on her part; among other reasons, Charlotte dismisses running for parliament because “It’s not for me, this life of trying to appeal to ‘people’.” Hmm. Libertarians “are at some point going to have to figure out how to address this problem about the “people” not wanting to vote for them,” points out Don, unless they are happy to run with

the alternative to winning popular support…to wait for a military dictator to do the hard work of securing power and then persuade him to hire them as policy advisers, as in Pinochet’s Chile. There’s nothing quite like having the overwhelming might of the state to crush dissent to enable libertarian ideas to get tried out.

Anyway, Charlotte does treat us to the sort of letter she would like to write to her prospective constituents, were she to ever give it a go and stand for election in Halifax. Her letter opens

Dear Halifax,
I’m looking for someone. It might be you. It might be someone you know.

It is at this point, were I to receive such a missive through the door, that I would probably scrunch it up and hurl it in the recycling; but this being the internet I did read on. And it’s an okay letter I suppose although somewhat simplistic, and certain points stated as fact are certainly arguable. However, it was Charlotte’s assertion that under this government “it has become illegal to take photographs of the police” that really caught my eye. Now, I don’t want it to seem as if I am singling Charlotte out here – the stated illegality of capturing the police on film is something I’ve read and heard umpteen times already and from many different sources, especially in relation to the footage of police officers’ actions during the G20 demonstrations – it’s just her misfortune that I’ve got a wee bit of time on my hands at the moment, so I’m able to put my thoughts, or what passes for my thought, down in words just now.

The prevalence of this complaint that it is now illegal to photograph the police lends me to believe that many people want this fact to be more widely known, and that they feel that not enough people are aware of this very serious assault on our civil liberties. I disagree. I think that in fact far too many people are aware of this “law”, and for one simple reason: it isn’t true. To inform others that photographing the police is against the law is at best mistaken, certainly hyperbolic, but at its worst it is a plain deception.

The law I’m assuming Charlotte is referring to is Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, which amends Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to additionally read

58A Eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of armed forces etc

(1) A person commits an offence who—

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

  1. a member of Her Majesty’s forces,
  2. a member of any of the intelligence services, or
  3. 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.

(2) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that they had a reasonable excuse for their action.

I’d say that is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory, certainly not a blanket ban on photographing the police; yet this is the piece of legislation that has been reduced by many journalists and bloggers to read “Wah! We can’t take a picture of a copper! Like not never!” just as the smoking ban was for some bizarre reason over-simplified by many to mean “Wah! I can’t have a fag in the pub!” Except, while it is at least true that you can’t have a fag in a pub anymore (it’s just that the law itself is somewhat more detailed that that) it is clearly not true to say that the law now prevents the routine photographing of police officers.

Now, that is not to say that I don’t have misgivings about this law. There are plenty of pieces of anti-terrorist legislation around already, laws to prevent the commissioning of and acts preparatory to terrorism. Section 76 certainly seems like a classic case of New Labour inventing a brand-new, poorly drafted and pointless offence when there are perfectly decent existing offences that could do as good a job. I am also not so naïve that I’m not fully aware that in practice this law is certain to be misused by some officious officers anxious to prevent their actions from being captured on film and then broadcast to and scrutinised by a wider, curious public. The point is, though, that if they do try to prevent someone from taking legitimate photographs they will be misusing the law.

And the thing is that any law can be misused, laws are already misapplied; but that doesn’t instantly mean we should criticise a law or exaggerate its powers. This press release from the British Journal of Photographers back in January complained about the then prospective implementation of Section 76, by showing existing examples of heavy-handed police behaviour using existing laws. Then there was the example recently of someone being arrested for theft when handing a found mobile phone into a police station; but the fault there lies in the dickish judgement of the officer in question, not with the law. In response to such a case we need to tackle that particular officer’s actions; we don’t decide that we need to repeal the law on theft, or go around spreading erroneous rumour about it now being illegal to hand in found property. Well, certain tabloids may, but they have their own agendas; it’s just what they do.

My argument here is not simply motivated by pedantry; I think that it is vital that we fully and accurately know our rights. If you are arrested when handing-in a mobile phone at a police station it is important to know that “theft by finding” is not a made-up law, as some commenters on the Daily Mail’s website seem to think; but also that theft only applies when you are seeking to permanently deprive the owner of their property, which clearly cannot be the case when you are in the process of returning it. Similarly, if you believe that it is simply illegal to photograph a police officer under any circumstances, then should an officer try to prevent you from taking a snap of him you may feel compelled to comply, feeling that the law, however unjust, is on his side (indeed, perhaps as importantly, from reading some blogs and newspaper articles bemoaning that fact that photographing police officers is now illegal, the police officer in question may himself genuinely believe that the law is on his side). Far better, surely, to know where you stand legally, and to refuse any attempt to prevent you from taking pictures by stating that you know you are fully within your rights.

It all suggest to me a most luxurious indulgence to be able to so exaggerate the police’s powers, something I doubt is required in North Korea or Burma, say, where I would imagine one of the few weapons against a genuine police state is an extensive, and most of all correct, knowledge of your rights. Ultimately, the point I guess I’m trying to make is that claiming that the police have greater powers than they do – and by extension that we have fewer rights than we in fact possess – may be of value if all you are interested in doing is giving New Labour or the police a good old metaphorical kicking; but if it is motivated by a genuine desire to defend our civil liberties then it is surely a thoroughly misguided and counter-productive activity.