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Blurred Privacy Law Line For Photographers

Blurred Privacy Law Line For Photographers - Peter Stevenson inverstigates why their relationship with the law is often fraught for photographers.

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Words by Peter Stevenson      
The law, the snapper and the budgie catchers: Life is full of contradictions for photographers.
peter stevenson
Following the recent riots in our major cities, the police made no secret of the fact that photographic images taken on mobile phones by onlookers and passers-by were providing a rich source of information and evidence in their pursuit of the wrong-doers. But the relationship between photographers and those responsible for law enforcement isn’t always so cosy; more often than not, it’s anything but. Here, Peter Stevenson from photographer insurance specialist InFocus Insurance explains...

There’s been reference to the part professional press photographers played in recording the fast-moving tide of anarchy and serious crime that took place last week. The police expressed their gratitude for the help and cooperation they had received in identifying lawbreakers.

However, in recent weeks there have been some interesting examples of police officers either overstepping the mark or failing to understand the rudiments of our laws regarding privacy, breaching the peace and the right to make images available to the public.

Crossing the blurred line

The line between criminal and civil law seems to have become somewhat blurred, too. Neither the police nor security employees have the right to interfere with a photographer at work when they are taking photos of the police, doing their job. If the police do have an issue, it should be settled in the courts, not in the back of a police van.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why individual police officers might be sensitive about being photographed in the course of their work. The image of a smiling neighbourhood bobby on his beat has long since been supplanted by pictures of helmeted and heavily clad squads of officers smashing down doors and making violent forcible arrests.

The identity of some officers needs to be protected. Fair enough. Their work can be dangerous and demanding. It doesn’t require much thought to see that they don’t want it to be made any more dangerous and demanding by the criminals being able to identify individual officers.

But this argument is a far cry from the situation where a Watford-based photographer, Simon Richardson, took pictures of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) employees who were working in his next-door- neighbours garden, while he stood in the street.

The Defra staff were carrying out a cull of the Monk Parakeet, a breed of bird which escaped into the wild in Borehamwood in the 1990s.

Defra claims the South American bird poses a threat to crops and pylons, due to their large communal nests, but Mr Richardson opposes the action.

The Defra officials called the police when Richardson attempted to make a visual record of their activities.

Hertfordshire police officers reportedly told Richardson that under ‘privacy laws’ he could be sued for ‘thousands of pounds’ for taking pictures of his neighbour's garden. He was also warned that if the pictures were to later appear in print, the police would become ‘officially’ involved.

Legal advice

Richardson took legal advice and was told that the police had no business telling him any such thing, as this was a civil, not criminal, matter.

The police later explained that they were merely striving to avoid a breach of the peace and regretted the ‘confusion’.

In another case, a photographer in Salford clashed with security officials after mistakenly assuming he was in the ‘public realm’ when, in fact, he was on private land.

According to the Public Realm Handbook published by Salford City Council's planning department, the city's 'public realm' comprises 'streets, squares, parks, green spaces and other outdoor spaces that are open for everyone to use'.

However, Peel Holdings, the owners of the £650m, 36-acre, MediaCityUK development, disagreed. Their spokesman said, 'MediaCityUK includes a 5-acre area of public realm capable of hosting events for 6,000 people but the whole development is privately owned. Permission should have been sought’.
Quite. You can spend millions promoting a ‘public space’ secure in the knowledge that it’s private land and you can turf photographers off it, when it suits you?

It is hard sometimes for the person in the street to recognise what is private land and where exactly it becomes public land. In the MediaCityUK case the security officers were not so sure themselves. The rights of members of the public, including photographers, is a grey area.

If the photographer is permitted to be on the private land or open space, which he was, and the taking of pictures is not clearly prohibited, if he is not causing a nuisance or obstruction or doing anything criminal, then they are free to take pictures in the same way as they are in public places.

Civil risks

The underlying theme here is that if the police, security officers, owners and local authorities aren’t sure where the boundaries of property (and the limits of the law) lie, then going about your business as a photographer is going to be fraught with some degree of civil risks.

Taking legal advice and engaging in legal proceedings can be a very expensive process.

The answer is to make absolutely sure that your professional indemnity policy covers you for such legally obscure eventualities. You wouldn’t want to breach the peace, invade personal privacy, take on the multi-billion-pound Peel Holdings or fight Hertfordshire police on your own, now, would you?

Visit the Infocus Insurance website here.

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alansdottir 9 60 7 United Kingdom
23 Aug 2011 12:09PM
Very interesting article, something we need to keep up to date with, for sure.

The link doesn't appear to work, though - I couldn't get the page to open! I hope it's because it's busy... :o)

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23 Aug 2011 2:40PM
Hello - sorry, our server went down for a short amount of time this morning, but the site is now up and running. www.infocusinsurance.co.uk. Glad you like the article!
Best Wishes
The InFocus team

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