Tom Sutcliffe: Let the snoopers be snooped upon

Social Studies: If the state feels entitled to film us, we should be entitled to film it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When he promised the "biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832" last month, Nick Clegg invited members of the public to nominate laws that might usefully be repealed. A few days later, the Queen's Speech underlined that commitment to pruning back oppressive little offshoots of the War on Terror with a promise that legislation would be "brought forward to restore freedoms and civil liberties, through the abolition of Identity Cards and repeal of unnecessary laws".

And, just in case he hasn't had lots of letters about this already, I'd like to suggest that the Government take another look at Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act, which came into force last February – making it an offence to "elicit or attempt to elicit information" about a member of the armed forces, intelligence services or a constable "of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism" – or to publish or communicate such information.

At the time, photographers – professional and amateur – worried that this would only exacerbate the harassment they often encountered when photographing police officers . And they worried with justification. Some over-zealous police officers seemed to regard the possession of a camera and the willingness to point it at a public building as suspicious behaviour in itself. Others found that they suddenly had an impressive-sounding bit of public legislation with which to back up an entirely private dislike of having their actions recorded on film. And given the vagueness of the law's wording – how do you establish what might be useful to an as-yet hypothetical terrorist? – it reinforced the idea that in filming the police the public were taking a liberty they weren't entitled to.

Policemen – like the rest of us – don't much care to have a camera pointed at them in a suspicious way. One can understand that. It isn't pleasant, although the rest of us – attending public meetings of the kind that arouse the interest of the police or demonstrating in a public place – have long had to put up with it. But it's not a good idea for their understandable dislike of civilian inspection to be given any kind of formal backing in law.

Interestingly in the US, three states have now made it illegal to record an on-duty police officer, extending existing wiretapping and eavesdropping laws which insist on all-party consent – and so making it effectively impossible for a citizen to record the true circumstances of his own arrest – or what happens when someone else is arrested. Unless, of course, the police think the resulting photographs have captured their good side.

We haven't quite reached that stage here – though the presence of Section 76, explicitly including constables in its provisions, edges us closer to such a state of affairs. Reciprocity is the very least we should expect here. If the state feels entitled to film us, we should be entitled to film it – so that it can be held to account when things go wrong. Precisely the same argument that is used to justify CCTV – if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear – applies in reverse. In fact the Government should go further and explicitly make it a right to photograph policemen in the course of their duty. But repealing Section 76 would be a good start.

* I visited Antony Gormley's new show the other day – and found myself thinking about the changed economy of the art exhibition. Very crudely speaking you used to trade your money (or time – entry to the Gormley is free) for a lot of moderately sized new things, often relatively complicated in their novelty. Single works of art were rarely expected to be "vaut le voyage" in their own right, and when they were – Frith's Derby Day for example – they were prodigies of detail and narrative incident. But the rise of the installation means it's not inconceivable now to make a trip for just one very big new thing, often pointedly pared down and minimal in its nature.

In Gormley's case it is Breathing Room III – a construction of luminous rectangles which is something like a walk-through screen-saver (he is showing some new iron sculptures as well, but this is very obviously the main course). The popularity of the Tate's Turbine Hall commissions – and other Gormley works such as Blind Light, in which he filled a glass cube with a dense white vapour – suggest that people are more than happy with this deal. But is it because they appreciate the extra time for contemplation (since there's only this one thing to see you feel it's only decent to spend a bit of time with it). Or is it that experiencing one thing is easier than looking at – and discriminating between – lots of them?

* I found myself thinking about downloading a new iPhone app the other day – Project 365, which offers users a template to take a picture a day, ultimately creating a kind of visual diary of a year in the life. It's not a particularly new idea – but it did seem to me a good one until I looked more closely at the screenshots on the download page in iTunes. This summoned an imaginary user who appeared to have spent one day – 9 December – watching a basketball match and the following day drifting down the Yangtze. On 19 December they were in Paris snapping the Eiffel Tower and three days later punting down the Cam, before celebrating Christmas Day itself by taking to the air in a paraglider. Suddenly my own likely entries (five consecutive shots of an untidy desktop) looked appallingly bleak by contrast.

I suffer a similar depression whenever I look at the simulated photo-albums Apple use to promote their photo software – which tend to be filled with improbably beautiful young people having strenuous, unblemished fun in unattainably beautiful locations. Either I'm going to have to make my life a lot more photogenic before I start or it's going to be The Year of Living Drably.

For further reading :