Tuesday, February 17, 2009
In that brief time not long after he became Prime Minister, when Gordon Brown was regarded as a serious political figure and one refreshingly less artful than his predecessor, he delivered a speech at the University of Westminster on liberty. It was an erudite and thoughtful exposition of this country’s difficult, and sometimes bloody, attempts to come to terms with the countervailing demands of individual liberty and state power.
I recall being impressed that a prime minister was making such a weighty and thought-provoking speech. I even kept a copy, though it can be found on the Number 10 website; and after last week’s decision to ban a Dutch MP from visiting Britain because of his views on Islam, I thought it apposite to read it again.
“Too often in recent years the public dialogue in our country has undervalued the importance of liberty,” Mr Brown said. “Now is the time to reaffirm our distinctive British story of liberty – to show it is as rich, powerful and relevant to the life of the nation today as ever; to apply its lessons to the new tests of our time.”
Yet, not for the first time, what the Government does bears no resemblance to its rhetoric. From today, new counter-terrorism laws come into effect that will entrench a growing tendency by the police to prevent anyone taking photographs in public, especially if they (the police) are the subject. There has been a worrying increase recently in police arresting or seeking to prevent what is a lawful activity.
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Andrew Carter, a plumber from Bedminster, near Bristol, took a photograph of an officer who had ignored a no-entry road sign while driving a police van. This might have appeared a somewhat petulant thing to do, but taking a photograph in a public place is not a crime. Yet the policeman smashed the camera from Mr Carter’s hand, handcuffed him, put him in the back of the van and took him to the police station, where he was kept for five hours. When he returned to answer bail the following week, he was kept at the station for another five hours. He was released without charge, despite an attempt by the police to claim some spurious offence of “assault with a camera”.
Whereas in the past the police have not had the power to prevent photographs being taken of them, from today they have. Under the new Counter-Terrorism Act it is an offence to take pictures of officers “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. This is such a catch-all measure that it can be used – and, in view of recent trends, will be used – to prevent photographs to which the police object merely by invoking counter-terrorist requirements. While it is important for officers involved in such operations to maintain anonymity, many photographers fear these powers will be abused.
In an article in the British Journal of Photography, Justin Tallis, a freelance photographer, recounted how he was threatened while covering a protest against the BBC’s decision not to broadcast a fundraising film for Gaza. He was approached by an officer who had just been photographed. According to Tallis, the officer tried to take his camera away, but gave up as other photographers captured the incident.
A few weeks ago, an amateur photographer was stopped in Cleveland by officers when taking pictures of ships. The photographer was asked if he had any terrorism connections and told that his details would be kept on file. According to the Government, while there are no legal restrictions on photography in public places, “there may be situations in which the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order situations or raise security considerations”.
This article was posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 10:28 am