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08-04-2009

The legal process will take its course over the filmed assault on Ian Tomlinson – the newspaper seller who died of a heart attack at the G20 summit protests after being pushed over by a copper – but if nothing else the incident highlights the vital importance of allowing the public to film the people employed to police them.

That right was cancelled by the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 which allowed for the arrest of anyone whose pictures “are likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”.

This could, for example, include people taking pictures showing how police operate during a demo. An Al Qaeda supporter planning a suicide bombing could, arguably, benefit from close knowledge of the “kettling” technique used to keep protestors penned in a particular area.

Imagine where we’d be now, if officers had decided on that basis to confiscate film and camera equipment from everyone entering the G20 protest zone.

It’s certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility – there have been dozens of instances already where the police (and others) have abused the new powers (see this youtube link here).

Nor does it help that the police are judge and jury in their own case.

In controversial cases, it could leave us relying entirely on the word of officers themselves for an explanation - which as we sadly know, is not always entirely to be trusted.

As the Ian Tomlinson affair proves, keeping an eye on those who keep their eyes on us is not a luxury, or a negotiable privilege – it is an inalienable right.

The restriction on filming and photographing officers is an extension of powers outlined in the Terrorism Act 2000 which potentially banned the taking of any photographs in a public place.

When Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker attempted to soothe journalists’ fears about the issue last year, he only inflamed them.

In an a letter to NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear in December (reprinted in the latest issue of Freelance magazine), Coaker insisted there was no blanket ban – but then claimed there were “special circumstances” in which the right to take snaps in public is restricted.

According to Coaker, these include occasions where national security might be compromised or where “the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order situations or inflame an already tense situation…”

The danger of such poorly defined parameters is that, in practice, anyone can be prevented from filming anywhere at any time – again, at the discretion of officers.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, bear in mind how the surveillance powers contained under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which was sold to MP’s as an anti-terrorism measure, but has since been used by councils to snoop on citizens for all kinds of minor infringements, including absenteeism and anti social behaviour (see link here).

Draconian powers, vaguely defined and putting the citizen at a permanent disadvantage compared to the authorities – these are all the hallmarks of an authoritarian state, not a free country.

Those of us who believe in using words as weapons, not fists and boots or bricks and bottles, need cameras in our arsenal, too, thank you very much.

As the Tomlinson case proves, seeing is believing.

(See The Guardian's video of Ian Tomlinson here)

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