Imagine the following scenario: You're a police officer, part of CNC (Civil Nuclear Constabulary) team. This is a national specialised police service (one of the few police services in the UK that are routinely armed). Your role is the protection of civil nuclear sites and nuclear materials.
One morning, in your morning briefing, you are alerted that today's a pretty special day: Hours before, Osama Bin Laden has died in an operation by the US military, and there's an increased terror alert.
You go through your business of getting kitted up as usual, take one last look at the picture of your wife and kids, and head out to patrol the grounds outside Sellafield, the site of an accident in the late 1950s, and plenty of controversy since then. You're used to protestors of all types, including anti-nuclear protestors, environmental activists, and the occasional nut-job. But most of all, you are on the look-out for people who can turn the Sellafield plant into a huge dirty-bomb: A large enough explosion could cause devastating nuclear fall-out across much of the UK, and with the wrong wind direction, the nation's capital - only 230 miles away from the power station - could be in peril.
In addition, you've been reading the internet, and information revealed by WikiLeaks last week included threats from a terror suspect interrogated at Guantanamo Bay who spoke of al Qaida unleashing a "nuclear hellstorm" on the West if bin Laden was ever captured or killed.
Needless to say, as one of the uniformed, armed police officers tasked with standing between the nutjobs and the nuclear materials, you take your job very seriously, and you are happy to use all the laws you have available to you to help protect this sensitive site.
Then, in the late afternoon, you notice a car pull up on the road leading to the nuclear plant's main entrance. The car contains five men, all appearing to be of Muslim origin, and they are using a video or stills camera, filming the site. Obviously, you and your colleagues go out there to have a chat with the men, who are all in their 20s, to find out what they are up to.
It turns out that the men are from Romford, in Essex, a town about 10 miles north of London, and that the five men are from Bangladesh - a country whose population is about 90% Muslim.
In a state of already heightened security, you decide that their story doesn't really seem to make any sense, and you arrest them.
What would you have done?
As a photographer, I'm always torn by stories like this: Yes, I believe in full freedom to take pictures and video of whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. I'm a photographer - freedom to take pictures is a big deal to me. I'm a journalist - freedom to publish whatever I want is an equally big deal. And it is. In the UK, it's guaranteed through law, as the country has ratified the European Convention of Human Rights, where section 10 protects the right to free expression.
However, another part of me is suspicious. Given the scenario above, I would have done exactly the same thing as the arresting officer in question: Find out what's going on, and if you're not satisfied with the explanations, make an arrest, start an investigation, and find out what's really going on. When you're at a higher state of alert due to circumstances, you're not going to be in a place to take any chances.
As it turned out, the five men were probably innocent of anything except carelessness, if not idiocy. Five people in their mid-20s, who fit the profile of a high-risk demographic, piled into a car, 250 miles away from home, video-taping a sensitive nuclear facility, without a reasonable-sounding explanation? If you're following the conventional approach to 'avoiding trouble', well, I guess most of us can agree that you've made an impressive amount of talent for bone-headed moves.
What would you have done?
It's a balance
Don't get me wrong - I think it's daft when people get arrested for taking photos, but it seems as if the police as an institution is cottoning on, as well: the official Photography Advice from the Metropolitan Police, for example, states that "[we] recognise the importance not only of protecting the public from terrorism but also promoting the freedom of the public and the media to take and publish photographs", and "Members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing".
If someone gets arrested or harassed by the police for taking photos or video, I think it's only fair that photographers cause a huge stink - but if you're keeping an eye on stories like these, you'll notice that, in the UK, they are fewer and further between as time goes on. The UK is, slowly but surely, becoming a better place to be a photographer, not least due to campaigns like the one by Amateur Photograher, where they gave away lens-cloths with photographer's rights on them to help raise awareness of what you can and cannot do when you're out and about with your camera, but also because the police itself is putting more effort into educating its own officers about how to apply the law, and how to deal with photographers in general.
By all means, join the fight for photographer's rights, but pick your battles with a modicum of care: I don't really see the use in vilifying police for doing their jobs in a way that everyone else would have done it, given the circumstances: Within the law, and within common sense.
Disclaimer - I'm a police constable and photographer based in London. The above (as all my posts) are exclusively, 100% my own opinions, and do not reflect in any way the official stance of the Metropolitan Police.
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