Should mobile phone videos of police be illegal?

31 Oct

Mobile phones have changed the way we communicate, but they’ve also changed the way we document.

It’s more difficult to find a phone without a video camera these days. A photo or video is never more than a few buttons away, which has made the world and all its intricacies a much more visible being. Soaring ballads at gigs are no longer welcomed with a sea of lighters, but a mass of battery-lit screens recording material to later share on the web. Eagle-eyed grammar junkies who prey on public notice typos need only wait minutes before spotting a comedic mistake and sharing the idiocy with the world. To many people this practice is seen as a social disease. But to journalists the advent of mobile video and photography has been monumental, because now nearly everybody can be a reporter.

Ian Tomlinson before being pushed by a policeman

Just think of the number of mobile phone videos that now take comfortable residence in the primetime news programmes, or the increasing number of stills taken from mobile phones that end up in our newspapers and magazines. There is often no need for a media organisation to call on their stringer, or to send out a reporter, as the Internet often provides the story for them. But more important  is the fact that mobile recording has meant a change in the type of stories we cover, and offers a fresh perspective to those consuming the story.


One area of mobile video recording that has operated on these lines – feeding debate along the way – concerns the recording of police officers on duty. In an idealistic world this practise would cease to exist because our police officers would be steadfast upholders of the law. But we know that on occasion this isn’t the case. Robert Reiner referred to the act of recording as a “counter-trend” to the main Orwellian narrative. In essence, it’s our chance to hold them to account. Last Thursday I came across this video of police officers quite evidently assaulting a man who had been stabbed. Whilst Supt Mike Shaw, of Merseyside Police’s professional standards department, said that CCTV images “never show the whole story”, in this case they formed a significant part of the story as people from around the country gawped at the shocking police behaviour before them.

This story’s images were gathered from a CCTV camera, but it isn’t hard to imagine footage such as this originating from a phone. Indeed, the controversial death of Ian Tomlinson and the police’s role in it only became significant when an American tourist gave a video of the incident to The Guardian.

Although the results of these cases may not be significant, both painted a picture of how pivotal video footage could be for accountability, for truth and for evidence.

Unfortunately, the legality of filming police officers is blurry. When living in Northern Ireland I once noticed a policeman acting aggressively towards a man he had just arrested. I started recording on my phone in case anything more untoward were to happen. An officer spotted me and ran over, ordering that I delete the video because I wasn’t allowed to record police “in action”. She insisted on seeing the phone and noted my details.

The only legislation, to my mind, that operates in this sphere is the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. s.76 of the act makes it illegal to elicit information of armed forces (including police), which could be used by a person ‘committing or preparing an act of terrorism’. This section of the act has caused some disquiet about its supposed abuse and improper application by officers. The vice-chairman of the British Press Photographers’ Association has said the problem wasn’t in the higher echelons of the police, but with “junior officers using the legislation to overcome situations that they find uncomfortable or where they make judgements about photography and don’t know how to apply the legislation on the ground”.

The law, in practice, remains vague. Talking to people within the media industry there’s a general consensus that the police feel they have a divine, yet unjustified right to stop you recording them. Is this right? Should our right to observe be the same as that of the police, or should the threat of terrorism be allowed to come in and cloud this? Whatever the answer may be, there are a whole lot of people with cameras in their pocket just waiting to find out.

video: Liverpoolechotv

picture: Daithi C


One Response to “Should mobile phone videos of police be illegal?”


  1. Questions over how police treat photographers under the Terrorism Act | The Moving Media - March 29, 2011

    […] the first post on this blog we looked at the issue of police confiscation of mobile video footage. Complaints of […]

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