British Law Gives Police Power Overphotographers

By O'Connor, Robert | Editor & Publisher, February 25, 1995 | Go to article overview

British Law Gives Police Power Overphotographers


O'Connor, Robert, Editor & Publisher


Photographers in Britain are in particular danger when covering violent demonstrations.

The use by the police of legal powers to seize unpublished film in order to identify suspects has made the photographers the regular targets of hostile crowds.

David Newell, legal adviser to the Newspaper Society, which represents regional British newspapers, said that newspapers are not aware that the police are likely to be successful in their quest for unpublished pictures.

The police power to obtain a court order giving them access to the material is based on the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act. The Newspaper Society argues that newspapers should not give up the material unless there is a court order. But it recognizes that a court battle can involve hefty legal fees and almost certain defeat.

Newell said that, faced with the prospect of spending "X thousands of pounds on legal fees, some newspapers will take the short cut" and simply hand over the material when asked.

In such a climate, Newell said, protecting photographers on the ground becomes "a very real problem. There could well be an argument in some circumstances of events not covered or things done in more and more covert ways."

One of the safeguards against possible overuse of the bill was thought to be that the complexity of the court process itself would make the police unwilling to seek an order except in very unusual circumstances.

Another was the idea that judges would balance the need to protect news gatherers against the wishes of the police to bring criminals to justice.

But police have shown themselves to be eager to go to court. And David Feldman, a law professor at the University of Birmingham, said that the courts tend not to vary from the view that the public interest in apprehending criminals far outweighs any consideration of safety for photographers.

"The way things are going," he said, photographers "seem to be in danger of being unpaid stooges of the police if they attend a public disorder event."

The National Union of Journalist (NUJ) invites its members who fear that their pictures may be seized to deposit them with the union, which then sends them to the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels, where they are kept on file.

But this method has its drawbacks. Because of the workings of the law on contempt of court, photographers must give pictures to the union, not simply lend them. They also must do it before a court orders seizure. And photographers following this procedure lose all rights to the pictures.

According to Jacob Ecclestone, deputy general secretary of the NUJ, the method has been used five times.

"It's really to make a point" he said. "We take material. We put it in an envelope. We send it to Europe. But it's gone forever. We might as well burn it. But in our experience, photographers don't like destroying what they have produced."

Ecclestone argues that "the real villains" are not police, but editors who publish pictures of rioters and invite readers to identify them. "The editors of papers like the Evening Standard and the Sun," he said, "are quite happy as circulation boosters to run rogues galleries on behalf of the police. And they do it quite nakedly."

Ecclestone said such behavior helps to demean the press and makes its defense on points of principle more difficult. He also argues "there is no attachment to press freedom in Britain in the way that Americans think about it.

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