Police Censorship

Should Police Officers Censor What Press Photographers Photograph On The Public Streets?

A PCSO puts her hand up to cover the lens of Nicholas Razzell, stopping him from taking pictures. The Old Bailey. January 4, 2011. Photo: Ian Vogler

It’s a very worrying question, with an extremely worrying answer coming from some members of the Police force and even more so from Police Community Support Officers. Having several friends in the Police, I know for a fact that no where in their training does it state that officers should censor this country’s free press. As long as members of the press aren’t breaking Police cordons, or on private property after being asked to leave, the Police (and I include PCSOs in this) have no power, nor rights to interfere with a photographer going about doing their job; in this case gathering news.

Sadly, last week’s court case at the Old Bailey, where two of the racist murderers of Stephen Lawrence were finally jailed, illustrated just how ill-informed some members of the Police and PCSOs are. Just what the motivation is to stop a story like this being covered is baffling.

City of London police officers obstructing members of the press at the Old Bailey after the sentencing of David Norris and Gary Dobson for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. January 4, 2011. Photo: David Parker

Journalist, turned press photographer, Nicholas Razzell has been photographing high-profile criminal and civil court cases since 1999, including Jeffrey Archer, Paul Burrell, Kieran Fallon, Naomi Campbell, Paul McCartney, Charles Bronson, numerous murder and terrorism trials and more recently cases such as Julian Assange.

When asked about photographing these court cases, Nicholas says, “For most of that time the press and TV either self-police or on the odd occasion have had to work behind barriers. However, it is only in the last 5 years or so that I’ve found Policemen and particularly PCSO’s who have either no understanding of the law or it’s enforcement, getting involved”.

City of London police officers obstructing members of the press at the Old Bailey after the sentencing of David Norris and Gary Dobson for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. January 4, 2011. Photo: David Parker

“This came to head when Julian Assange was released from custody at the High Court in London when a Met Police Inspector (ably assisted by a Sky TV Producer) organised a “pool”…practically destroying any freelancers chance of getting a competitive picture.”

“Last week (Stephen Lawrence case, the Old Bailey) was just another occasion where we were prevented from doing our job. As yet there is no “right to privacy” in the UK (thank god) and it certainly isn’t up to uniformed and uninformed officers on the street, or PCSO’s to decide what we can and cannot photograph. Physically preventing us from getting a picture is one step away from moral and political censorship”.

City of London police officers obstructing members of the press at the Old Bailey after the sentencing of David Norris and Gary Dobson for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. January 4, 2011. Photo: David Parker

Another photographer adds, ” It was a complete joke. The Police officers couldn’t decide which side of the street to make us stand on. One officer said we couldn’t stand under the scaffolding (open to the public) on kerb opposite because “the building company haven’t given you permission” – to stand on a public street? Then they insisted we stand about 50 yards away (to do a car shot) and when the car arrived one officer followed me across the street to make sure he blocked my view. I asked another officer if this was still a public street? She refused to answer”.

One thing is for sure; a member of the Police force should not put up their hand to cover a photographer’s lens and stop images being taken. These newsworthy moments happen in a fraction of a second and are gone forever. Press photographers have a duty to bear witness, not only for the next day’s newspapers and websites, but for historical reasons too.

For any members of the Police force and PCSOs unclear about the rights of citizens (including members of the media, because we are after all, citizens too) who wish to photograph in public places, may I encourage you to read the official Met Police Photography Advice page?


Any member of the media, regardless of if they are a member of the NUJ or not, can report any incidents to the NUJ. Please make sure you have badge numbers and if possible, audio and/or video recordings. This will not only help the press to do our jobs properly, but will also help the Police train their officers and PCSOs better.

The Police Respond:

A City of London Police spokesperson said: “We work closely with journalists and photographers at the Old Bailey to make sure they’re able to do their job and the public are able to go about their business. We continue to liaise with journalists, photographers and the local community to ensure this is the case”.

32 responses to “Police Censorship

  1. When the police want photographs they ask for them (murder on Oxford Street) or go to court for them (Dale Farm)… I would like to know who decides when they don’t want them?

  2. This is terrible. What Legislation do the Police think the photographers are breaking. They are preventing you from earning your living.

    I can understand that they need to guard people and assist in access and egress from the court but actually blocking lenses with their hands is stupid and pathetic.

    You should note the ID numbers of the police (on their shoulders) and photograph them and then make a formal complaint about their behaviour. That does not help you get a shot that might sell but if enough photographers raise formal complaints then the Police will be tied up in their own paperwork dealing with the complaints that they might have to train their Police force correctly in the first place.

  3. Press photography is an absolute necessity for recording information and . providing a support service for all media groups. We are living in the midst of a historical moment in the development of the middle eastern , As groups all over the Arab world have rebelled for their voices to be heard. Press photography has played a vital role in recording and providing information at this time. Yet we are in danger of surrendering the legal right to report and record real time historical events here as other new democratic states take their tentative steps towards free speech. I am genuinely concerned for the future. As rights and openness that are part of the role of Journalism and press photographers is suppressed by police who are meant to protect these very ideals.

  4. We live in a Democracy, hopefully. Seems like some of the law live by the old rugby dictum “What goes on tour, stays on tour”.

  5. Obviously not bothered to read this from the Met’s own website then 😦 Again!

  6. “Contact with photographers, reporters and television crews is a regular occurrence for many officers and staff. The media influences our reputation so it’s crucial to maintain good working relations with its members, even in difficult circumstances.” – They know, they say it; now they only have to act accordingly.

    • Thankfully, the situation has improved; a few years ago it had reached a ridiculous position. The BPPA and NUJ have put in a lot of effort to make relations better. Alas, the message isn’t getting through to everyone and especially the PCSOs appear to be extremely ill informed. As any photographer knows, once the moment is gone, it’s gone and these childish games of covering the lens or purposefully blocking the view for no reason other than censor what is seen by the press is absolutely outrageous and damaging for society.

  7. Until we report every such incident to our professional organisations and make an official complaint on each occasion these assaults on photographers will continue. If we want to make a change then let’s make our 2012 New Year resolution to follow up every single case of unlawful obstruction.

    • I completely agree and definitely encourage any member of the media this happens to, to get shoulder numbers and make an official complaint.

      • What happens when they remove their shoulder number as in the Dale Farm incident?

      • A valid question as this behaviour does happen from time to time. I would suggest definitely taking a photograph or video clearly identifying the officer and then lodging a complaint. It will be harder, but if the incident is bad enough to warrant an official complaint, the Police force in question will be able to ID the officer in question in time. You could also find a senior officer on the ground and bring things to their attention, and take their details to follow up with.

  8. we need to get the scale of the problem visible , what is required is a central logging website of all incidents where the police attempt to prevent lawful news gathering, the scale of the problem is huge with dozens of incidents every day, who supports the idea of a central reporting and incident database ?

    • Perhaps the suggestion needs to be made to the BPPA or NUJ? Meanwhile, it’s every photographer’s right to pull the Police up on this type of behaviour; it’s imperative that at the minimum, badge numbers (on the shoulder) are written down or photographed, and in situations where there is a verbal altercation, a recording is made using the video function on the camera or a mobile phone.

    • There already is such a site run by the NUJ.
      The problem is the traditional one – photographers’ apathy…

  9. Cheers David.. Bookmarked

  10. MPS sergeants are advised to try to accommodate the press when deciding cordons etc so long as it does not obstruct, or in any way compromise any investigation. A further duty on us is to try to keep roads unobstructed.

    Many officers do not wish to have their faces photographed as it puts us at risk of attack at our home addresses (especially those of us that live in inner city areas or dodgy neighbourhoods) or might preclude future undercover or covert work or squads.

    However all the arguments against police you have above refer specifically to City police, not the Met. I am sure they would love you to point out Met rules to a totally different force/service, but they actually probably have their own rules and it might be better to dig out those and quote them at their officers. In the meantime perhaps a small stepladder would assist you in getting that money-shot?

    • Many thanks for the reply and for rightly pointing out that different Police forces do have different guidelines. However, I doubt that any Police force in the country has been told to interfere with the free press we are all privileged to have; one just has to look at what is happening to the oppressed people in the world to realise that a free press is essential. In fact, this country goes to war and makes many sacrifices to help out the oppressed in other countries.
      I have been a press photographer since 1989 and although the situation is improving with the Met, things have never been this silly overall. Officers going out of their way to stop photographers from covering a murder trial; what’s the point? Are the City of London Police trying to keep racist murderers from being photographed or the Lawrence family expressing their feelings as they finally begin to see some justice done for their murdered son?
      As fas as the security of officers, this is a valid point (in a few cases) and often something can be achieved by conversation and not bullying. I have many times worked with officers and members of the armed forces who genuinely need anonymity and have respected this and done my best to either have them in silhouette or obscured their faces somehow. However, there are countless tourists with cameras, CCTV, and at the end of the day, the country’s law states that anybody can be photographed if they are in a public place. To add to this, I can guarantee that this particular story did not need a shot of a Police officer – it was about the murderers and the victim’s family. Lastly, any picture of officers at work, doing what is an absolutely essential and important job (one for which I have the highest respect), should be seen positively. In modern lingo, this is all good PR. Pictures of officers sticking their hands over lenses or forming lines so press photographers cannot work, isn’t good PR and is plain childish and without reason. At the end, society suffers.

    • …forgot to add! The stepladder suggestion, whilst extremely useful in certain situations, wouldn’t work in this type of fluid news story and would end up not only being a hindrance, but could even become a hazard to the public as no doubt they would have to be left aside at times.

  11. What should be pointed out is a lot of these so called cordons placed by police are unlawful in themselves, they are strict protocols and applications to be made to senior officers for “cordons”, what we are seeing up north on a regular basis are “press cordons” I have been physically man handled out of areas the public are allowed in freely to “press cordons”, we have our descriptions and car registrations circulated on police radio and we are often stopped from entering areas the public have free access to just because we are journalists with cameras.
    They are always more than one way to skin a cat, we will get our picture, with or without the consent of the police.

    • This is clearly out of order and you should definitely, along with the NUJ, ask for a meeting with the most senior officer. As far as the Met Police guidelines, press cordons are there are a suggestion for where the media may want to stand; they are not enforceable and any place that is open to the public, is open to the media as well.
      My advice would be to document this absurd behaviour fully and get in touch with the NUJ and set up a meeting with your Police force. In London we have spent years meeting the Met Police to discuss similar issues and a lot has been achieved – you need to do the same for your area.

  12. As for the comments regarding step ladders, I have just been told to get off my small steps in case people in front move and knock me off. That was a Policeman telling me that whilst I was in a fenced area at the Royal Film Premiere of Warhorse tonight. They were then going to confiscate the steps if I stood on them again. What’s that all about even though I had already shown them my Press Pass.

  13. Can’t believe this is still happening !!!! Orwell must be turning in his grave. SadBritain, there is certainly nothing ‘Great’ about it.

  14. This mess has arisen because of the actions of the tabloid press…private companies now ban stills and video on their premises because they are frightened of sloppy ( make it up as you go along) journalism. Added to the mix the image of a baying paparazzie and invasions of privacy and you’ll find few members of the public have any sympathy.
    The public and the private sector now adopt the attitude of banning everything photographic… Because its the safest option as they see it.

    • John Watts-Robertson

      Nonsense! This crappy portrayal of all photographers as ‘baying paparazzi’ has nothing to do with the illegal actions of an out-of-control and unaccountable police force here in the UK.

  15. Appauling situation with Illinformed miscalculated actions from the police SERVICE! They should be reminded that they are a SERVICE and no longer a “force” and they should serve all members of society of which the media are included.

  16. This time regarding the fact (as mentioned above) that the Met and the City of London Police are different forces
    I draw the posters attention to the Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines about photography (of which the Met Police ones are a subset)
    Those guidelines say exactly the same and apply to all forces via ACPO so the “different Police Forces” argument doesn’t fly I’m afraid

    Sorry … but the points stand

  17. Pingback: Censorship & the Police | effthecc

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