Tuesday, 17 August 2010

How Many Times Must ACPO Issue Guidance On The Lawful Treatment Of Photographers?

Andy Trotter must be feeling like a supply teacher struggling to make himself heard. Having risen to become the British Transport Police’s Chief Constable and the lead for the Association of Chief Police Officer’s media advisory group, he probably expects that by now, his instructions might occasionally be listened to.

Last week, Police Review reported that Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, had requested a meeting to discuss the ill-treatment of photographers by the police, after an incident involving Hackney Gazette journalist Carmen Valino. On 31 July, Ms Valino was forced to hand over her camera to police after photographing a crime scene from behind a police cordon and had images she had taken deleted. A couple of weeks earlier, the same thing had happened to Paul King, a freelancer who was taking pictures of a crash in Wokingham in Berkshire.

Today we discovered that the outcome of this meeting was a promise by Andy Trotter to re-issue guidance to police officers about dealing with the media.

The guidelines themselves, adopted in April 2007, are perfectly clear: they say that “members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel.” A 'clarification' by Andy Trotter, issued in December 2009, also said that “there is no provision in law for the confiscation of equipment or the destruction of images, either digital or on film”, whilst "it is not an offence for a member of the public or journalist to take photographs of a public building and use of cameras by the public does not ordinarily permit use of stop and search powers".

However, within days of this 'clarification', armed police in the City of London stopped and detaining an architectural photographer and in February this year, an amateur photographer was stopped three times in Accrington under anti-terrorism powers. So too was a member of the public in Oxfordshire who photographed police while buying fish and chips.

In June the illegal detention of photographer Jules Mattson in Romford prompted the Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson to tell the Metropolitan Police Authority that “very precise guidelines to officers” had been provided and that his force “keep re-issuing those instructions” – but still he could not guarantee that all officers would interpret the law correctly.

How many times must instructions to protect both professional and amateur photographers be repeatedly issued before they actually start to make any difference? What impact can we expect from Andy Trotter’s latest promise today? Looking at the way that officers on the beat have wilfully ignored him in the past, it hardly looks promising. But perhaps if officers like those in Romford were given something more than ‘words of advice’, things might change. For as the police media guidelines spell out plainly, there are "no powers" and “no provision in law” for what happened to Jules Mattson, Carmen Valino and Paul King. The conduct they experienced was unlawful. So why weren’t those responsible properly disciplined, or better still, charged with criminal offences?

Until senior officers are prepared to back up their pledges with drastic sanctions against officers at street-level who break the law, then chief officers like Andy Trotter will continue to feel as though no-one is listening to them - and that includes photographers, who will still suspect that police promises aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.

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