From snap happy to ban happy

The farce of a dad who was told not to photograph his daughter shows that we’re not always better safe than sorry.

Nick Thorne

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

It took a high-profile internet campaign to get a shopping-centre chain to reconsider its irrational photography policy. After security guards at Glasgow’s Braehead Shopping Centre stopped Chris White from taking a picture of his own four-year-old daughter, White set up a Facebook page called ‘Boycott Braehead’. In just three days it was ‘liked’ by over 20,000 people. Capital Shopping Centres has now announced that 11 of its malls will from now on allow family and friends to take pictures of each other.

So, parents can now take snaps of their kids eating ice cream, like White did, without worrying about security guards telling them they’re committing an offence, as White was told, or being taken away for questioning by cops who threaten to use anti-terror powers to take snappers’ cameras away, like an officer warned White. That’s splendid.

White’s Facebook campaign went viral and Braehead Shopping Centre was forced to apologise for its overreaction. Common sense won the day. But why was the photography policy implemented in the first place? And why was an innocent, everyday occurrence interpreted as a potentially dodgy, abusive incident?

A statement from the shopping centre explained that staff had become suspicious ‘after they saw a male shopper taking photographs of a child sitting at their counter’. The security guard who went over to investigate said that he had at no point been informed that the girl was White’s daughter. The automatic assumption, it seems, was that a man taking a picture of a child must be some sleazy scumbag.

Not only did the incident starkly reveal how ingrained the presumption has become that an adult interacting with a child could potentially pose a danger to that child. Also, it showed how some adults have become so cautious and cowardly that their response to suspecting a child might be in danger is not to go up and help her, but to call security.

The shopping centre’s statement gives two reasons for its ‘no photography’ policy, which, as it points out, has also been adopted by most UK malls. Firstly, the policy aims ‘to protect the privacy of staff and shoppers’. Braehead Shopping Centre is sure that ‘shoppers would not want strangers taking photographs of them or their children while they were in the mall’. The problem is you could use the same argument to justify a ‘no photography’ policy in any public place, too, so why not ban photography at Trafalgar Square, Alton Towers or Ben Nevis? So what’s the solution? An end to all holiday snaps? No more Kodak moments in public places with your kids? No more street photography or photo journalism?

Second, the statement goes on to say that ‘we live in a world of potential threats from terrorists… It is not uncommon for those intending to make some kind of attack to take photographs of their intended target as part of their planning before the event.’ But, again, this is such a spurious claim that nearly any photo taken in a public place or a semi-public space like a shopping centre can be seen as being potentially useful to a terrorist planning an attack.

While the character of terrorist attacks has shifted, it isn’t an ‘unprecedented’ threat, as we are so often told. The risk of an attack was far higher when the Provisional IRA was at its peak of activity. Not only was the IRA attacking public places but it almost succeeding in blowing up the entire British Cabinet during the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton in 1984. What is unprecedented is today’s anti-terror legislation, and the way that it extends powers to the police, community-support officers and security guards to clamp down on everyday activities in the name of ‘security’.

The shopping centre’s statement concludes that it is ‘better to be safe than sorry’ – an argument which has been used to justify a range of absurd precautions in recent years, from cancelling adventurous school trips to demanding Criminal Records Bureau checks from anyone coming into contact with children or vulnerable adults as part of their work or volunteering.

While Capital Shopping Centres’ retreat, after a large amount of embarrassing publicity, is a small victory, what happened at Braehead Shopping Centre is symptomatic of a much broader problem. In small, petty ways our civil liberties are being eroded in the name of ‘better safe than sorry’. But this attitude only breeds mistrust, suspicion and nervousness among the public – something to be truly sorry about.

Nick Thorne is an international relations graduate and an intern at spiked.

Meanwhile in Brighton…
by Dan Travis

Last Saturday, a man in Brighton was seen taking pictures of a child in a park. A woman with a view of the park called the authorities reporting suspicious behaviour. The child was the man’s son and he was questioned by police. Even the usually conservative Brighton Evening Argus thought this was a step too far.

The informal ban on photography is astonishingly draconian and represents one of the worst aspects of British society. In this case, cowardly, snitching neighbours reported a man who was doing nothing wrong to an equally cowardly set of authorities. Wanting to take photographs of your child is the most normal behaviour imaginable. Thankfully, there is a groundswell of opinion building that finds this ban obnoxious and ludicrous, and wants to put an end to it.

On Saturday 22 October in central Brighton, the Free Brighton Group will be holding a protest – ‘We’ll take pictures of who the f**k we like and not ask anyone’s permission’ – to get this ban overturned. See the Free Brighton Facebook group.

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Topics Politics


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