Photo © David Hoffman

The UK War On Photography has been going through a difficult phase. First a photographer and videographer won separate damages against the Metropolitan Police in a case stemming from a 2008 demonstration outside the Greek Embassy in London.

Then the European Court of Human Rights rejected the British government’s appeal against its decision in January that ruled Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. S44 is the law much used by police to stop and search photographers, and the court ruling was celebrated yesterday by a flash mob organised by I’m A Photographer Not A Terrorist outside New Scotland Yard.

And between the two court rulings a group of Metropolitan Police officers earned the force much unenviable publicity when they detained and allegedly assaulted a 15-year-old photographer for taking photographs in a public place. When the photographer asked under what law he was being detained one officer replied: “We don’t have to have a law”.

Photos © Jules Mattsson
Jules Mattsson [above] was photographing a police cadet parade on a public highway in Romford when he was ordered to stop and give his personal details by an adult cadet officer, who incorrectly claimed he needed parental permission to photograph the cadets. The situation deteriorated rapidly with the intervention of a squad of officers under the command of one Inspector Fisher, who provided a textbook example of how not to interact with the media. Quoting a cocktail of imaginary laws and misinterpreting some genuine ones, the Inspector and his colleagues variously accused Mattsson of breaching the Terrorism Act, the Public Order Act, miscellaneous copyright and child protection laws and the previously unheard-of “public privacy law”. Unfortunately for them the teenager, son of a well-known press photographer, proved considerably more knowledgeable on the law than any of the police officers present.

Having lost the legal arguments Inspector Knacker and his squad did what any reasonable gang of schoolyard bullies would do to a lippy 15 year old: they tossed Mattsson down a flight of concrete steps, expressed concern for his safety and detained him. Mattson has a full account and audio slide show of the incident on his blog: skip to 04:30 in the timeline if you find legal jousting dull and just want the rough stuff.

The outcry in the blogosphere and some sections of the UK national media over the police behaviour was predictable; more surprising to many was how other police officers reacted to the performance of their Romford colleagues. “Rubbish”, “embarrassing”, “disgraceful”, “idiots”, “horrendously ill-informed” and “hopeless” were just some of the verdicts on the Police Specials forum. There’s a double irony here, since photographers frequently complain that the part-time Special Constables are often ill-informed with regard to the law and photography; yet in this case many of the Specials seem far better educated than their full-time Romford counterparts.

More than one of the Special Constables called for the sacking of the inspector involved in the Romford incident. That might actually be a very smart move for the Met. Senior police figures have repeatedly stated that there is no law against public photography in the UK; nevertheless a string of incidents shows that these statements are not reflected in the actions of many officers at street level. Photographers therefore conclude that either the senior police assurances are mere PR spin, or that UK police forces are unable to ensure that officers operate within the law regarding photography.

But if the Met were to sack an officer of inspector rank for illegally preventing a photographer from working those criticisms would ring hollow. Further, it would send a strong message to frontline officers that anyone tempted to emulate the Romford mob would have a short policing career. And if the comments on the Police Specials forum were anything to go by, such action would not necessarily be unpopular within the police services. In other words, the Met could transform the Romford fiasco into a PR victory of sorts if they so choose.

None of that is going to happen of course. Mattsson has already taken legal advice, and proceedings will surely follow: on the evidence publicly available the Met will lose, or at best manage to settle out of court. Either way the incident will cost the force at least a few thousand pounds, not to mention the attendant adverse publicity.

The most comprehensive legal advice currently easily available regarding photography, police and the law in the UK is a new article by lawyer Shamik Dutta on the EPUK website.  Meanwhile, one of the Special Constables has a succinct and accurate summary for the police cadet officer responsible for starting the Romford furore: “If you don’t want your picture taken, don’t leave your house.”

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4 Responses to “UK Police To Photographers: Law? We Don’ Need No Stinkin’ Law”

  1. Andy Hinds Andy Hinds says:

    That clears that up. I’d love to know where the pigs get their info from that causes them to harass photographers. I think that one line says it all, i.e. Senior police figures have repeatedly stated that there is no law against public photography in the UK; That clears that up then; in that case maybe some of these security guards they have at London railway stations should heed this advice as well and stop harassing rail enthusiasts for taking snaps of trains. I must get up to Kings Cross and try this out. Being a train driver myself it would be very interesting to see where this goes.

  2. Stephen Stephen says:

    Thanks Andy, you write:

    ” in that case maybe some of these security guards they have at London railway stations should heed this advice as well and stop harassing rail enthusiasts for taking snaps of trains.”

    Train stations are privately owned and therefore not technically public. For that reason the statement “here is no law against public photography in the UK” does not apply. You might think they should be public, but that’s another battle entirely. Our problem here is getting the police to remain within the constraint of the law as it stands. There seems to be no legal mechanism to do that. There is evidence of assault and misconduct in public office here. Yet there is no mechanism to ensure charges are brought. Civil litigation is not enough. We need criminal prosecutions for the police as for any other member of the public who commits crimes. They should have a fair trial, but where there is evidence of crime there should be a trial. The public interest surely requires it. In any case, it’s the law, is it not?

    The only redress we seem to have is political and depends on the media. Through shaming the police we can force them to back down somewhat, but that seems to be it. The Guardian did not report this story. The Independent did, but it elicited no comment in that paper so far as I can see. The Guardian then ran a comment piece by Emily Apple which mentioned the Romford Incident in the context of other similar abuses. Unlike the Ian Tomlinson case, however, the public is largely oblivious to this case. The BBC wouldn’t touch it. It has been contained so that only those who care deeply about the issue need know.

    Even in the Tomlinson case, take note that the killer of Ian Tomlinson has still not been arrested. I wrote precisely this on the Guardian comment is free website and they removed it claiming that it was litigable. So even with media coverage and public pressure it is impossible to bring a criminal trial even when there is a strong prima facie case of manslaughter. The CPS is sitting on the decision to prosecute. This tactic of delay and assuage until nothing is done (see Bloody Sunday where after 35 years and admission of wrong-doing is all you get) has a long history. If it is anything to go by Ian Tomlinson’s killer will not be prosecuted.

    So much for the rule of law in the United Kingdom. The law is an instrument used by the rich against the poor, and by the powerful against the powerless, not a uniformly applied institution for the preservation of the freedom of all of us equally. That much seems clear.

    Best Wishes,

  3. Richard Richard says:

    I was hoping for another informed piece about the police’s attitude to photographers, but there were so many inaccuracies in the first few paragraphs of this piece that I gave up.

    First (in the 2nd para) you said that “European Court of Human Rights rejected the British government’s appeal against its decision in January”, when what was rejected was the leave to appeal the January decision.

    Then (in the 3rd para) your reference to “a 15-year-old photographer” is wrong. From Jules’s own blog he states he is 16 years old. He should know, and your misreporting of this made me stop reading any further, and triggered this comment.

    If you can’t be more accurate, and don’t check your facts before posting, how can you get anyone to trust any of your postings.

  4. Jeremy admin says:

    Richard, you’re only half-right at best. In common with a number of other blogs I incorrectly referred to the appeal being rejected rather than leave to appeal being rejected. The end result is the same though: S44 gets tossed out.

    So far as Jules’ age is concerned you are completely wrong. On July 4 before posting I mailed Jules asking him his age, since I had seen him described in different stories as either 15 or 16. He replied “I’m 15”.

  5. […] And what about if you’re a child (16 years of age) and taking photographs in a public place? Is that a problem? It might be if you’re in the UK. […]

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