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.’

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For more information on:

  • What is ‘Obstructing the Police’?
  • What are the police guidelines on dealing with the presence of the media?