A Crash Course in Media Law

A journalist is never really off duty. We live for this game, it’s a fact – and we often find it difficult to switch off from work. This very post is being written on my day off, having just witnessed a fairly interesting story on the Nottingham Ring Road.
Western Boulevard, Nottingham, this lunchtime.
All very exciting stuff – at least visually. Three cars had crashed and there was a huge police presence. In an adjoining street I saw police dogs being deployed and two people were arrested. What’s more, I happened to have my camera with me, so snapped a few pictures for our website, and possible use by my colleagues in television.
Then the really interesting bit happened. As a police officer moved the crowd away and erected a cordon around the scene, she approached me and said : “You do know that your camera may be seized and any pictures used as evidence, don’t you?”
“Actually, I’m a journalist, so you can’t do that without good reason.”
“Then I’ll need to see some ID then.”
I promptly showed the officer my NUJ Press card and she backed off – but still insisted that I stayed behind the cordon.
Police have no legal right to put up barriers to bone fide journalism.

The point is, this kind of treatment of journalists is nothing new. Photographers, in particular, seem to come in for the most flak – frequently being told they cannot take photographs, are somehow acting illegally – and some have even been arrested for obstructing police operations.

Yet the Association of Chief Police Officers has made it clear that journalists should not be prevented from going about their professional business. Their guidelines make interesting reading

    • There are no powers preventing the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place. Therefore members of the press and public should not be prevented from doing so.
    • Once an image has been recorded, police can only sieze the film or camera at the scene on the strictly limited grounds that it suspected to contain evidence of a crime. Once the photographer has left the scene, police can only seize the images of a court order.

Today’s shenanigans made me smile when, after I’d identified myself, the police officer wryly replied “Then you know the routine, don’t you?”

Yes I do, thank you. But I wonder whether you’re aware of what the law actually says?

So far I’ve not been contacted to hand over my pictures, and I don’t expect to be. But if I am, I’ll instruct my lawyers to read up on this case last year, in which Thames Valley Police admitted it had acted unlawfully in seizing a journalist’s equipment and downloading his photographs.

And respected journalist Roy Greenslade has his own theories about this kind of practice.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of this is that many police forces claim that all of their officers and civilian staff have been given personal copies of the ACPO Guidelines. In Nottinghamshire, these came in the form of a handy credit card sized document that was apparently circulated with pay slips, so it was hardly something that could or should have been ignored.

Police and journalists have a two way relationship. Officers on the ground need to remember that.

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