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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Taking Photographs

The controversy over government legislation that makes it illegal to elicit or attempt to elicit information about an individual who is or has been a member of the armed forces, intelligence services, or a police officer in Great Britain and also to publish such information continues to rumble on.

I suspect that debate about this legislation will grow simply because it is clearly misunderstood by both the public and the Police themselves and as a consequence their application of it will lead to incidents that will put the assault on Ian Tomlinson during G20 protests at the beginning of this month into some perspective.

The legislation itself clearly falls on the authoritarian side of the axis so cogently described by Alix Mortimer yesterday, a point that is further illustrated by Marc Vallée on the Guardian Comment is free pages last month:

In a nutshell, you could be arrested for taking and publishing a picture of a police officer if the police think it is "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism". Your defence if charged by the crown prosecution service would be to prove that you had a "reasonable excuse" to take the picture in the first place.

I can see it now: "If you don't stop taking pictures of me hitting this protester on the head, I'm going to nick you under section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008." When you add this to the comments made by Vernon Coaker, the minister for policing, in a letter to the National Union of Journalists in December, things don't look good.

The Coaker letter laid out when the police could "limit" photography in a public place. He wrote: "This may be on the grounds of national security or there may be situations in which the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order situations or inflame an already tense situation or raise security considerations. Additionally, the police may require a person to move on in order to prevent a breach of the peace or to avoid a public order situation or for the person's own safety and welfare or for the safety and welfare of others."

I have to say I find the for your own safety and welfare line a bit hard to swallow. Documenting political dissent in Britain is under attack and just in time for the political and industrial fall out from the recession. Think G20 in April or the Lindsey refinery dispute over the last few weeks.

Henry Porter took up the cudgel on his own blog on Thursday. He outlines the case of a young woman who tried to film her boyfriend being searched for drugs whilst travelling on the London Underground. Five Police Officers attempted to physically confiscate her phone despite there being no legal grounds for them to do so. When she asked for their names only one was prepared to do so. She has now made an official complaint. Mr. Porter sought clarification from the Home Office on the use of this law and records what he was told:

The Home Office has clarified new terrors laws concerning photography for liberty central and from what Atkinson has told me it seems clear that she was perfectly within her right to use a camera. "Taking photographs of police officers will not (except in very exceptional circumstances) be caught by this new offence.The new offence is intended to help protect those in the front line of our counter-terrorism operations from terrorist attack.

"For an offence to be committed there would have to be a reasonable suspicion that the photograph was intended to be used to provide practical assistance to terrorists."

In any case Atkinson claims that she and her boyfriend were told that the police were searching for drugs. What is important is that the physical treatment she received appeared to be unjustified. The police had no right to demand her phone or any of her details. The law requires them to give their names, the police station they come from and tell people why they are being stopped. Atkinson said that none of this happened, and she has lodged a formal complaint.

The more general point is the failure of the police to respect the rights of innocent people, whether they happen to be caught up in a protest, legitimately demonstrating or legally using a camera. The disturbing treatment of a young woman in a tube station is no different from approaching a man from behind and pushing him aggressively to the ground. The behaviour comes from the same hostile attitude to the public that seems to be common among undertrained, young police officers.

This advice is worth bearing in mind the next time anybody exercises their democratic right to protest or to record what they consider to be excessive behaviour on the part of a police officer.


But you know and I know that the police will take not a blind but of notice of any of this if they think they can get away with it.
The 'clarification' from Vernon Coaker gives the game away; it is so full of holes that the police can use it to do whatever they want. And they will.

For 30 years, the whole tenor of government has been to indulge police power and to institutionalise the police's officious tendencies. As often happens, Private Eye's satire transmutes into reality and their Police Log is too close to the true behaviour of the Met to be a caricature.
"...The behaviour comes from the same hostile attitude to the public that seems to be common among undertrained, young police officers."

Well, it was during the 1960's that police officers stopped walking the beat and went into Panda cars instead.

Result: the only time a police officer came in contact with a member of the public was when they were arresting them, likewise the only time most members of the public met a police officer was when they were the wrong end of a motoring offence.

Result: the police see the public as "criminals" and at best, "potential criminals" and the public see the police as thugs with pensions.

We have become a police state!

A number of people have said to me now, the UK is getting like 1930s Germany, laws were introduced that didn't seem to affect 95% of the population, but for minority groups like the Jews, Homosexuals, the Disabled and those with No Fixed Abode, life became very difficult.

I see that Government Minister James Purnell announced today that those with a Alcohol Problem will have to get treatment in order to continue claiming benefits.
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