Photographing the police


I once told someone in London that everybody in the North of England had a small coal mine at the bottom of their garden. 'Really?' they said. 'Well no,' I replied, 'Thatcher closed them all.'

Even though I was a young boy at the time of the miner's strike, and I didn't even live in a mining community, the effect that Thatcher's class war had on the north of England went a long way toward helping define the attitude of a lot of the people who lived and grew up there in the 1980's.

I have met a lot of admirers of Thatcher over the years and each and every time I hear the phrase 'She did a lot of good for the economy.' I feel like throttling the person. Sure, I think, she broke the unions, pushed the Labour party further to the political right and collapsed heavy industry, helping to turn us all into desk bound money grabbing opportunists, taking out a few communities along the way. She claimed there was no such thing as society and went about viciously making sure that society complied with being non-existent. Everything that was supposed to be great about post World War II Britain (The welfare state, the NHS, Pension funds, nationalised transport and education, public spending....) was swept away in favour of individualism and free market economics. Great if you have cash. Not so great if you don't. And plenty of people don't have cash. At least her policies provided me with a few derelict houses to play in.

In any case, the history is complex, and I am perhaps romanticising a bit. I am definitely over simplifying the issue.

The point of all of this is that I have watched as England has become more and more of a Police State in thrall to big business. I have watched as those in favour of greater socialism in British Society and Politics have been pushed out and marginalised.

Tony Blair was elected in 1997, ending 20 odd years of Conservative rule and then promptly became the enacter of more Thatcherite policies. I know plenty of people who voted for him then who were loathe to do so in the following years - myself included.

I have seen how demonstrations and picket lines have dwindled as law after law is passed to contain, prevent and control. We've had the Criminal Justice act, counter- terrorism legislation and expansion of the police powers to detain without charge.

10 years ago I was photographing a demonstration outside of Downing Street when I found myself - quite by accident - on the 'wrong' side of the barricades. I continued to photograph the police from behind their line until I was spotted and escorted - or should I say manhandled - by a police officer to the 'correct' side, with the protesters, where I continued to take photographs. Without further harassment I might add.

Protest against the U.S. bombing of Iraq, Whitehall, 1998.

If that event were to play out today, I may well find myself under arrest under section 76 of the Counter Terrorism act, which prohibits eliciting and publishing information - including photographs - of Police Officers or members of the British armed forces if that photograph may be used for the purposes of terrorism. Though you can defend the right to take the photograph in a court of law, this wouldn't stop the police from arresting you in the first place and as we all know, photographs often have a tendency to take on a life of their own and can end up in the hands of almost anyone, to be used for a variety of purposes.

As such, photographers in the UK are being harassed more and more. So much for freedom of speech, let alone freedom of the press.

All this brings me full circle.

At the miner's strike in 1984, photojournalist Don McPhee took this now iconic photograph at the site of one of the worst battles between police and protesters, Orgreave.




Paul Castle (far left) and George ‘Geordie’ Brealey (right) at Orgreave in 1984. Photograph: Don McPhee

Under today's laws, this photograph might not be possible. Police usedto virtually ignore photographers. Not any more.

An article on the two people in this particular photograph is the subject of this article, which makes for interesting reading.

You can also read more about the the events and protests taking place regarding the harassment of photographers in various articles and on blogs, including the BJP and on >Re: Photo.

Let's just hope that the majority of police use these laws sensibly and refrain from preventing journalists from doing their job.

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