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Photography, writing and terrorism

I keep meaning to write about professional development. Instead, here’s a rant about photographers, writers and terrorism.

It seems yet more photographers have been stopped, searched, question and briefly arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000. The link to this particular story is in The Guardian, 21 Feb 2010. The way this Act has been implemented has caused a huge amount of friction with photographers. Mostly they’ve been newspaper photographers but stories have also covered fine art photographers, academics taking pictures for architecture studies, amateurs (as in this case), and even the occasional tourist. There’s been a running dispute between the police on the one side and the National Union of Journalists, civil liberties organisations, etc. on the other and the crux of this has been Section 44 of the Act.

Essentially, Section 44 allows a police constable who is ‘authorised’ (within the meaning of the Act) to stop any person, vehicle, or person in a vehicle  and search them, their possessions and the vehicle if it is considered ‘expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism’. Section 45 states that this power can be ‘exercised only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism’ but ‘may be exercised whether or not the constable has grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of that kind’.

The upshot has been a huge number of people taking photographs in public places who have been stopped and questioned by the police, occasionally searched and sometimes arrested (if usually released shortly thereafter). In response to this the Home Office last year issued a circular that was supposed to clarify the law, though appears largely to just re-state it. And senior police officers also promised to apply the law more sensibly.
Incidentally the current state of play on photography in public places in the UK can be found at UK Photographers Rights by Linda MacPherson; the relevant bits of the Terrorism Act 2000 can be found here.

Having got through all this, it appears that in the Accrington case reported by The Guardian, the police officers informed the photographers they were being questioned under the Terrorism Act, but then, as the photographers appeared to know their rights, changed tack and alleged that (in the words of The Guardian) ‘the way the men were taking images constituted “antisocial behaviour”‘. All this, and the suspicious and allegedly antisocial pictures were of a Christmas street parade involving people in fancy dress, a band, and a Father Christmas.

By way of a digression, antisocial behaviour is described by the Home Office as ‘intimidating or threatening activity that scares you or damages your quality of life’ – and by this point I’m tired of providing references – the headline law is the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 but several more recent laws also deal with it. Yes, there are ways photography can be antisocial, such as where it constitutes harassment: but intimidating and scaring people and damaging their quality of life because you’re photographing a public event?

So where am I going with this? I think there are a couple of obvious points and a non-obvious one.

Firstly we all know since the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 (and probably before) that terrorists might be interested in taking pictures of potential targets, obstacles, etc. And they might pose as tourists for this purpose. But are they going to hang around in the way photographers tend to, looking for the right composition and waiting for the right light? And are they likely to use a biggish pro camera or the one on their mobile phone? It seems the people being stopped are those who have the hefty pro or pro-consumer cameras and who are being obvious about what they’re doing.

Secondly, something like 80% of us carry mobile phones and about 80% of these have cameras in the phone (I just googled these figures using terms like ‘proportion of population with mobile phone’). So that’s around 64% of the population at any given time who have the relevant equipment on them, day to day, to qualify as suspects. And think of the number of people, especially young people, who take pictures of each other in public…  In Accrington there must have been literally hundreds of people on the streets whose use of photography equipment (i.e. their mobiles) was equally ‘suspicious’ and ‘antisocial’?

But thirdly, while the furore has been about photography, the Terrorist Act (and for that matter relevant bits of the antisocial behaviour legislation) are much more wide-ranging. So if, for example, I’m sitting in the centre of town on a bench writing notes for a story (which I have done, because I had a notebook and pen and a sudden idea) could that be seen as suspicious or potentially antisocial? There certainly wouldn’t be many people doing it. What could I be writing? How about if I’m reading a book in a public place and sat there for a long period of time? How about if the book is, say Melanie Phillips’ ‘Londinistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within’ (2006) which I could have just borrowed from the local library? Would reading it in public make me a target for being labelled as a suspicious person of some kind?

I have some sympathy for the police and intelligence services, because there are threats out there and a good chunk of police work in this area, like many others, involves sorting out the 99.99% of irrelevant material from the 0.01% of significant stuff. Equally, there are plenty of stories of significant things being discovered purely by accident – the serial murderer discovered because he got stopped for a traffic violation and such.

But at the same time, the legislative structure and the way it’s being implemented seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, identifying potential threats in a particularly lazy way (especially, as in the Accrington case, if they know their rights and challenge the police – the details are in the Guardian link above), picking on easy targets, and challenging the rights and liberties that the state is supposed to be protecting.

It may be the Accrington case, and many others, is an example of a police officer getting huffy because the people they’re dealing with aren’t immediately compliant – the underlying story might thus be the old one known in criminology as ‘contempt of cop’. There are obviously a whole bunch of possible undercurrents running that may well never come into public view. But my take on it is that it’s photographers now, and the rest of us in the near future unless we reach some new way forward.

I could support this argument with a review of the literature on how the ‘War on Terror’ has been used in other ways to justify laws and controls that have relatively little to do with terror (if you’re interested try chapter 24 of the latest edition of the Oxford Handbook of Criminology – or just google ‘Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000’). But when I started the rant I didn’t think it would turn out this long.

How we negotiate, or renegotiate, this situation I don’t know. Maybe my traditional liberal/libertarian values are just becoming obsolete. But I do think that it needs to be handled with some sensitivity because  if the state itself starts to be perceived as the problem, rather than the solution (and I suspect many people already think this way) we’re going to be for a rough ride.

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