Tuesday 21 April 2009


Here's another good piece by Gary. But he's wrong.

The idea that Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act makes photographing the police illegal is pure fantasy. It doesn't mention photos at all. Rather, it says that it's illegal to gather or publish information about the police or armed forces that is "likely to be useful" to a mad bomber, foreign spy or Osama Bin Laden.

... it's easy to see how that phrase can be misinterpreted

But it's not being misinterpreted. If you're planning to kill policemen, then photos of policemen on duty contain information that is useful to you. So the Act clearly outlaws the taking of such photos, whether it explicitly mentions photographs or not.

There's no problem with the law being misinterpreted here. The problem is allowing a law with a phrase as vague as "likely to be useful" in it onto the books in the first place. It can be used for anything.

Shahid Malik, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, on 1 April 2009: "... the taking of photographs in a public place is not subject to any rule or statute. There are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place ..."

From this, we can conclude that Shahid Malik hasn't read the Act. Or didn't understand it.

As Malik told Parliament: "Our counter-terrorism laws are not designed or intended to stop people taking photographs.

Oh, great. I eagerly await HMRC giving me back all my income tax, since the law establishing that was never designed or intended to do anyting other than fund the Napoleonic Wars.

It doesn't matter what a law is designed or intended for; it matters what it actually says — and I'd expect an Under-Secretary of State to know that. A whole bunch of people raised this problem back when the law was being written and debated, and were caricatured as paranoid extremist lunatics who didn't care if terrorists killed all our children. The fact is, Parliament had the opportunity, having been warned of precisely this outcome, to design a law intended to stop the police doing this — and to stop the myriad other abuses of RIPA. And they chose not to. The Home Office's protestations of innocence now should be seen as nothing more than, at best, admissions of gross incompetence.

I say "at best" because, of course, no incompetence has occurred. The Government itself demonstrated just a few months ago that it was perfectly willing to use anti-terrorist legislation against non-terrorists and non-criminals for something it was never designed or intended for, when it froze Icelandic assets. The Government, it seems, were quite happy to have such a usefully vague law on the books. Which is hardly surprising, since they put it there.

So I think it's safe to conclude that we're allowed to take photos of the police and bus-stops and bakeries and so on unless someone in the Cabinet decides it's inconvenient, at which point it will immediately be reclassified as terrorist activity. Just like moving money from a branch of your bank to its headquarters, or sending your child to a good school that's a little bit too far away from your home, or dropping litter.

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