Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s assertion that it is not illegal to photograph a police officer, provided you have a ‘reasonable excuse’, has sparked confusion among photographers.
Brown issued the statement last week, as part of his response to an e-petition launched on the Number 10 website earlier this year.
The petition had called for Section 58A of the Terrorism Act to be withdrawn and for such ‘photography restrictions’ to be lifted. &
In response, the PM said: ‘Section 58A [introduced on 16 February] makes it an offence to publish, communicate, elicit or attempt to elicit information about any such persons which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.
Brown added: ‘Contrary to some media and public misconception, Section 58A does not make it illegal to photograph a police officer, military personnel or member of the intelligence services.’
The PM said that photographers have a statutory defence against criminal action if they can prove they had a ‘reasonable excuse’ to take the picture.
But John Tracy, chief executive of the Bureau of Freelance Photographers (BFP) told Amateur Photographer (AP): ‘No 10’s response to this e-petition once again clouds the issue. It implies that it is only legitimate to photograph a police officer if you are a press photographer or a tourist.
‘Yet the fact is, it is perfectly legal to photograph a police officer – or anyone else for that matter – in a public place. It is not just press photographers or tourists who have a ‘reasonable excuse’ for taking such pictures. By definition, you do not have to have a ‘reasonable excuse’ to carry out a legal activity.’
Mess will ‘get worse’
Keen photographer and journalist Alex Singleton, views the statement as far from clear cut.
Writing in his Daily Telegraph newspaper blog, Singleton said Brown’s comments will do nothing to reassure photographers and that ‘the mess will only get worse’.
He added: ‘It’s ignored the vagueness in the law and told photographers that what they need is to prove that they have a legitimate ‘excuse’.
‘It says that an innocent tourist or other sightseer taking a photograph of a police officer is likely to have a ‘reasonable excuse’ and that ‘legitimate journalistic activity’ (such as covering a demonstration for a newspaper) is likely to constitute such an excuse.”
‘But actually,’ Singleton added, ‘this just makes it more confusing. What does ‘likely’ mean in this context? Doesn’t it mean that even ‘innocent tourists’ could be committing an offence?’
AP news editor Chris Cheesman said: ‘Gordon Brown’s response will be seen ‘weasel words’ – merely inflaming, rather than placating, photographers by re-stating the Home Office’s response to the controversial legislation following its introduction earlier this year.
‘If the clumsily-worded Section 58A was not designed to confuse, it certainly has and is still doing so, eight months since it became law.
‘It seems that you are just as likely to be stopped taking a photograph of a police officer today as you were on 17 February, the day after it took effect.
‘The government might just as well have wheeled out its standard response to photographers’ complaints which is, in summary: ‘It is never our intention to stop photographers.”