Unless you have been in a coma or detained without charge somewhere this week, you have probably already read that several hundred professional and amateur photographers descended on New Scotland Yard on Monday to take photographs as a protest against the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 which came into force on that day.
Organised by the NUJ, BJP and BPPA and featuring a guest appearance by comedian Mark Thomas, the event was focussed upon s.76 of the Act which potentially fines or imprisons for up to 10 years anyone eliciting, publishing or communicating information on members of the armed forces, intelligence services and police officers which is "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism". This could easily be interpreted to mean any photograph of a policeman comprises a criminal offence.
If achieving press coverage was the aim, the photocall was a considerable success, with coverage in the national press and broadcast channels as well as photographic magazines and blogs. There's a good collection of links to coverage at Marc Vallée's blog.
It's unfortunate that all parties seem completely focussed on the egregious S.76 whilst ignoring the equally invidious powers of seizure of memory cards, cameras and laptops enabled by Part 1 of the same Act. It seems likely that the latter will actually be abused far more often - routinely - than throwing photographers in gaol for photographing policemen, but it's good to know HM Government have all bases covered for our protection.
Police were of course predictably affable during the event, despite the SOCPA restrictions that apply to much of the area, and nobody was mistaken for a terrorist despite the array of beards and dodgy bags.
Less predictable but extremely welcome was the support of the Metropolitan Police Federation, whose Chairman chairman, Peter Smyth, reportedly said he “shares the concerns of press and other professional photographers that poorly-drafted anti-terrorist legislation could be used to justify unwarranted interference in their lawful activities.” He joined MP Austin Mitchell's call for a Photography Code which would spell out legal rights.
The question remains whether Government is listening to any of the escalating debate. So far there is no reason to think so. Vernon Coaker, the minister for policing, crime and security, told the NUJ last year that photography could be limited "on the grounds of national security", in "situations in which the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order situations or inflame an already tense situation or raise security considerations", or "to prevent a breach of the peace". Home Secretary Jacqui Smith later followed this up with a letter to Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the NUJ, wherein she agreed that there were no legal restrictions on photography but nevertheless police could prevent or restrict it if they wished.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office told The Guardian that "the law was not specifically intended for photographers and concerns about how it would be used were speculative. It would be the job of the police and the courts to interpret the law."
That is, of course, precisely the problem. As Alex Singleton railed at Jacqui Smith in his Telegraph blog "It is a pig's breakfast of a law, and shows the complete disregard in Whitehall both for civil liberties and also for high-quality law making." The Counter Terrorism Act like so much other recent legislation enacted with the intent of protecting against terrorism is open to misinterpretation, misdirection and ultimately abuse of civil liberties. When establishment figures such as Dame Stella Rimington, ex-MI5 chief, warn publically that "the fear of terrorism is being exploited by the Government to erode civil liberties and risks creating a police state" we are right to be not only concerned but determined to defend what remains of our freedoms from destruction by our elected representatives.