Whilst the current news agenda is focused on whether police action against alleged phone-hacking by NoW journalists was tough enough, police officers nationally have been reminded to “cooperate with the media”.
Recent controversy over high-handed police action against press photographers has spurred the Association of Chief Police Officers to reiterate its guidance on working with the media.
Chief Constable Andy Trotter, chairman of ACPO’s Media Advisory Group, has written to all Chief Constables after what he described as “a number of recent instances highlighted in the press where officers have detained photographers and deleted images from their cameras”.
His letter, which is of significance for journalists working for local, regional and national papers as well as broadcasters, said officers should not prevent anyone taking photographs in public.
It said: “There are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place. Therefore members of the public and press should not be prevented from doing so.
“We need to cooperate with the media and amateur photographers. They play a vital role as their images help us identify criminals.
“We must acknowledge that citizen journalism is a feature of modern life and police officers are now photographed and filmed more than ever.
“Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether for the casual tourist or professional, is unacceptable and it undermines public confidence in the police service. Once an image has been recorded, the police have no power to delete or confiscate it without a court order.”
It follows a number of disputes between police and photographers. Freelance press photographer Carmen Valino claimed she was ordered by a Metropolitan Police officer to hand over her camera when she attended the scene of a shooting on assignment for the Hackney Gazette in July.
After she showed her press card and protested that the police had no right to take her equipment, reportedly her camera was confiscated for several minutes before an officer returned, asked her to show him the photographs she had taken and deleted them.
Also in July, freelance photographer Paul King had his camera seized by a police officer after taking pictures of a vehicle crash scene in Wokingham.
The images were deleted from the camera and only later returned to Mr King, on a separate disc, after he made a formal complaint.
Existing guidance to police, which was adopted nationally in 2007 having first been introduced by the Metropolitan Police in 2006, emphasised that journalists have a duty to report from the scene of incidents.
It said: “Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record.
“It is a matter for their editors to control what is published or broadcast, not the police.
“Once images are recorded, we have no power to delete or confiscate them without a court order, even if we think they contain damaging or useful evidence.”
The tide may now be turning gradually in favour of photographers’ rights. Recently the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that a stop and search power utilised by British police in some areas was unlawful.
Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 provides that uniformed officers may stop and search any pedestrian, and search anything carried by him, in any area where a prior “authorisation” has been given by a senior officer. A number of press photographers have been targeted under this statutory power since it came into force in 2001.
However, the ECtHR said the power was too arbitrary to be lawful having regard to individuals’ right to respect for their privacy.
And in July, Home Secretary Theresa May effectively curtailed the power when she told Parliament she would not allow police to continue stopping and searching individuals under S.44 unless they “reasonably suspect” them of being a terrorist.
Mr Trotter’s letter, sent to Chief Constables after lobbying from the Society of Editors, is a useful reminder to police forces across the country of the limits of their powers.
But judging from the large number of incidents that have been reported online regarding alleged police malpractice against press photographers, this is a widespread problem that will not be solved until all rank-and-file officers adopt a more cooperative attitude towards journalists.