Street trouble with the police and photographers

Photographers and Film Crews

Photographers and film crews encounter problems, when covering events such as protests, demonstrations and riots, that reporters do not because the former have to get right in the middle of the action for good photos or film footage. Thus a reporter, with only a notebook or audio recording device can blend into the background and avoid getting involved with any violence – whether it is from rioters or the police.

What are the warnings for Press Photographers?

Police officers have been known to arrest press photographers at tense, tumultuous events or the scenes of accidents. Members of emergency services have reportedly called for such arrests because they did not want press photographers or film crews there, not because of any legal reasons.

A delegation from the National Union of Journalists, concerned about reports over police treatment of photographers working for established media organisations, met in 2008 with Vernon Croaker from the Home Office.

What about Citizen Photographers?

There is no criminal law against citizens taking photographs in public and on the street. However according to the Bureau of Freelance Photographers police officers, in addition to police community support officers, have sometimes acted overbearingly against amateur photographers in the street.

In 2008, Austin Mitchell MP secured support for an ‘early day motion’ to try to tackle widespread concern that police and other officials were not acting in accordance with the law when it came to citizens taking photos in public places. Media photographers and others had protested that police were using counter-terrorism law in a wholly unjustified way to prevent photographs being taken.

In April 2009 Shahid Malik from the Home Office announced that guidance would be issued to police to aid photography in public places and to ensure that people are not unnecessarily stopped from taken photos.

What are the relevant Public Order Offences?

Arrests of media photographers can occur according to the powers granted to police officers under the Public Order Act 1986. This states that they may arrest anyone using behaviour likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ and is the most likely legal grounds for a police officer to warn a media photographer that he/she may be arrested.

Intent is not an integral element in assessing whether the behaviour of a media photographer has caused distress. For instance, if a person or a group of people do not want to have their photograph taken, then the mere fact that the photographer continues to do so can cause alarm or what could be seen as harassment.

One instance of a photographer being arrested is when an army officer who had defused an IRA bomb, complained about a picture took of this action. The officer felt that if the pictures were published then he or his family might be in danger from IRA group members.

A further example occurred when a BBC cameramen was arrested in 1995 after he filmed scenes of a coach crash. The police officers who arrested the cameraman stated that he had refused to leave a ‘volatile situation’ and that the arrest for as much for his own safety as anything. At an appeal, the judge remarked that he had acted without regard for the feelings and rights of others.

What is ‘Obstructing the Highway’?

Police officers have certain powers to arrest photographers in a public place if they do not move on when they have been asked to do so. The Highways Act 1980 addresses this issue in section 137 which states that it is an offence for a person to ‘without lawful authority or excuse, wilfully obstruct the free passage along a highway.’

One example of how this panned out with a member of the press occurred in 1995 when an agency photographer was held in a police van after an animal rights protest. He had taken pictures of the police who had been advancing on the animal rights demonstrators sitting down to block the road. When held in the police van, the photographer refused to accept responsibility or agreed to a caution and so he was charged with obstructing the highway. Later he was acquitted of the charge by magistrates but was not awarded any costs for his treatment by the police.

What is ‘Obstructing the Police’?

Section 89 of the Police Act 1996 states that it is an offence to ‘resist or wilfully obstruct a constable in the execution of his/her duty, or a person assisting a constable in the execution of his/her duty’. What constitutes an obstruction is quite wide; it does not have to be physical but could be a person making it more difficult, in whatever way, for the police officer to carry out his/her duty. In terms of photographers, this could include one who persists in taking photographs to the extent that they engage in an argument with the police officer, thus becoming an unwelcome distraction.

One useful example is the case of a freelance photographer who was arrested in 2007 for trying to take pictures of a man threatening to jump from a bridge. He had been charged with the offence of obstructing the police but was later acquitted by a district judge at a magistrates courts.

What are the police guidelines on dealing with the presence of the media?

The following summarises the relevant parts of the set of guidelines adopted in 2007 by the Association of Chief Police Officers and drawn up in part by media organisations.

  • ‘Where it is necessary to put cordons in place, it is much better to provide the media with a good vantage point from which they can operate rather than to exclude them’
  • ‘Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record. It is a matter for their editors to control what is published or broadcast, not the police.’
  • ‘Once images are recorded, we have no power to delete or confiscate them without a court order, even if we think they contain damaging or useful evidence’.