Photographers’ rights: lawyer speaks

February 11, 2009

Photographers’ right to take pictures in public has been debated on BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action show.

The BBC contacted Amateur Photographer magazine as part of its research for the programme.

In the show, broadcast yesterday afternoon, presenter Clive Coleman interviewed lawyer Rupert Grey, a keen amateur and former professional photographer.

Asked to explain what the law states on taking photographs in a public, Grey said: ‘The law has got nothing to say on when you can and can’t, that’s the start point?’

Grey, from law firm Swan Turton, explained that too many amateurs have been stopped, mainly under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. He said this is a ‘general provision’ that allows police to stop and search people, without necessarily having suspicion of a terrorism related crime.

However, he said police must have specific authority to exercise such powers.

Grey also criticised police for being too restrictive when dealing with professional photographers, one of whom was photographing a wedding at the time.

‘They [officers] are entitled to stop and search, look at what you have got and that is the limit of authority under that Section [44],’ he said, emphasising that if police take matters further an offence has to have been committed.

He added: ‘What appears to have been happening after that is they have, in some cases, arrested and then de-arrested the photographer. In other cases they have seized their material. In one case they deleted the material – and that is, in itself, a criminal offence.’

Commenting on whether taking pictures of people in public is restricted by ‘privacy’ issues Grey stressed that there is no such law surrounding the taking of photographs: ‘You have complete freedom providing you are not harassing people. That is the key point as far as taking photographs is concerned.

‘It is the business of publishing photographs that the law of privacy has developed? This is a relatively new part of our system of rights.’

A fuss about nothing?

He explained that by posting a photo of a celebrity, such as Naomi Campbell, on an image sharing website such as Facebook, this would amount to ‘publication’ and give rise to a ‘potential claim’ for damages on grounds of invasion of privacy.

The BBC programme was recorded in and around Trafalgar Square in London. Despite using a tripod, the pair were not approached by any officers during the recording, prompting Coleman to ask Grey whether amateur photographers are ‘making a fuss about nothing’.

Grey replied: ‘No, they are not. There are too many incidents for this to go unremarked. And the adoption of the cause by the NUJ and other bodies is legitimate and proper and I support it.’

He said that a number of his clients have passed on stories to him in recent months. ‘Too often the police are taking advantage of rather general legislation in circumstances where they just should not be doing that and I think it is a genuine concern.’

He pointed out that the original human rights legislation came about after the war in response to ‘interference in private lives by the state’.

Right to record

‘It is really important that we are vigilant about our right to take photographs and our right to record and our right, as a photographic profession – as the press – to bear witness to the lives of ordinary citizens in this country. The moment the police or the state start interfering with exercise of that right – in ways other than are justifiable – then it is time for citizens to begin to say “hold on a minute, we just need to get this in perspective”.’

The Association of Chief Police Officers told the show: ‘Police Officers may not prevent someone from taking a photograph in public unless they suspect criminal or terrorist intent. Powers to stop and search are strictly regulated by law and once an image has been recorded, police have no power to delete or confiscate it without a court order.’

To listen to the programme in full see the Law in Action website.


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