Sometimes when police or security people talk to you its just a matter of being friendly, but too often it isn’t. Sometimes it’s easy to think that they are fishing for information, and I’ve often been surprised by questions from police that reveal they know more about me than I might expect – and that some have been reading this blog or my web site or know about my movements.
Although I’ve never seen a police “spotter card” for journalists like the ones that have been found and published for demonstrators, I’m fairly sure that they exist somewhere, perhaps on police station walls and that at least at one time if not now I was featured.
I don’t believe in being rude or uncooperative, but I do think there are some questions we should not answer and some distinctions the police try to make that we should as a profession refuse to admit. So many statements I’ve heard have clearly been the police trying to distinguish between “good” and “bad” journalists – the good being those who work directly for the large circulation and mainly right wing press and the bad being those who contribute to the kind of ‘leftie rags’ in which my work has been known to surface.
So for some time, my response when the police ask “Who are you working for?” has simply been to say “These days we’re pretty well all freelances” even on those too rare occasions when I am actually on commission. It’s slightly more polite than what I’m thinking, which is that it is none of your business and letting the police decide who is a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’ is going far too far towards a police state. If we have the credentials to show we are a journalist – such as an NUJ card – we should be treated as such – end of story.
So I was interested to hear the story of a well-respected and widely published photojournalist where the police seem to have acted as they should when he was harassed by security while attempting to work:
About 9.30 earlier today (29.01.10), I passed through the police line, showing my NUJ press card, without hindrance. A few minutes later, in front of the main entrance to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, a man came over to me and asked who I was and who I worked for. He was wearing a plain white identity tag around his neck with ‘press officer’ printed on it. He aggressively and repeatably asked me who I worked for. I replied that I had identified myself as a working journalist to the police and I told him to stop harassing me and who was he ‘press officer’ for. I also asked for his name.He told me that I was on private property and that it was ok for me to be a freelance but that I had to be working for someone even as a freelance, and he demanded that I leave. He took me by the arm and I told him to let go or I would ask for his arrest for assault with intent. He let go of me and demanded again that I leave. I again asked him who he worked for and his name. He told me that he was the Conference Centre press officer and that his name was Bob Honey. He again told me to leave and I told him that I was working and to stop hindering me and that who I work for is my business.He then called over a private security guard who told me to follow him. I refused and replied that he, too, should leave me alone and stop harassing me and that I identified myself to the police. The security guard then walked away.
A couple of minutes later five uniformed police came over to me, one of them a high ranking officer with braid on his hat, asked me who I was and I identified myself again by showing my NUJ press card. The only question he asked me was to verify my name. I did and this satisfied him and I continued working.
It’s good to be able to report that the police behaved correctly both when allowing the photographer to access the press area and when brought in by security to deal with the incident. If they had any doubts about the photographer they could have checked up on the security hot line, but the card does carry a photograph.
The letter, sent to the union, continues with a request that the NUJ make a formal complaint to the management at the QEII centre pointing out that freelancers have equal rights as staff journalists and asking them to ensure that they are treated equally. I understand this is in hand.
This is perhaps another story which makes clear why photographers need to join the union. If you are a professional working in London, then the London Photographers Branch will welcome you.