How the UK police can coerce journalists into surrendering photographs

Press photographers are fairly clued-up nowadays on how the law protects our right to do our job. One of those protections is that the police can’t seize our equipment or photos. But what happens when the police really want to seize them? It turns out that they have a nasty trick up their sleeve.

On an unusually warm morning last December I’d just finished covering a trial at the local sheriff court when there was an altercation between people involved in the trial. I photographed the incident. Minutes later my phone rang. It was a police officer, asking me to surrender the photos to the police to use as evidence against one of those involved.

Doing so would have set a dangerous precedent and would compromise the impartiality of myself and the other press photographers who work at the court. It’s quite foreseeable that one photographer handing over photos would endanger all other photographers at the court as we may be perceived as informers or allies of the police.

I took advice from the National Union of Journalists, who advised that there is a standard procedure in such cases: The police issue what is known as a production order, then the photographer either co-operates or the union contests the order. We told the police that the photos wouldn’t be handed over voluntarily. The only copy of the photos was placed in a secure off-site location.

It was at this point that events took an unexpected turn. The police chose not to issue a production order. Instead, the Procurator Fiscal (the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service in England, or the District Attorney in the United States) applied for a warrant to raid my home and seize “if necessary by force” all of my electronic equipment.

The scope of the warrant was unlimited. They could take everything: Computers, cameras, memory cards, phones, tablets, television, games console, etc.

One thing the Fiscal didn’t request was for me to hand over the photos.

The application for the warrant quickly made its way through the court. The NUJ brought in various solicitors and advisers from around the UK. We were working on the assumption that the court would grant the Fiscal’s warrant but it was something that we had to resist on principle.

I securely erased my computers and memory cards. I couldn’t risk the police being able to identify sources from other stories, or finding passwords to access my email and instant messaging accounts which could compromise other people’s sources.

On 28 December I attended the final hearing at the sheriff court. The NUJ representative, who had travelled for three hours, was denied entry. I wasn’t allowed entry by default and had to get special permission, although only to observe. The sheriff listened intently to the Fiscal’s case, nodding along. When my solicitor began talking the sheriff was visibly uninterested.

The sheriff put questions about journalism ethics to my solicitor, whose response to each question was that he didn’t have an answer. I wasn’t allowed to answer.

More specific questions were asked, such as would I have surrendered the photos if they showed other crimes such as shoplifting or a murder. My solicitor couldn’t answer the questions. I wasn’t allowed to.

Finally my solicitor raised the issue that the warrant was extraordinarily far-reaching and wouldn’t achieve the goal of obtaining the photos as I didn’t have them. He pointed out that seizing my cameras served no purpose and would prevent me from working, which the Fiscal accepted. My solicitor asked for the cameras to be excluded from the warrant.

After some brief consideration, the sheriff granted the warrant in full. My solicitor asked if that included seizing my cameras. The sheriff replied “yes” and that was the end of it.

Things then had to move quickly. We expected the police to execute the warrant immediately, before we could lodge an appeal. I’d already arranged for another press photographer to come to my home to photograph the raid. I felt it was important to document a scene of British police raiding a British journalist’s home to seize cameras and computers etc.

But that isn’t what happened. The Fiscal had a different plan. He advised the NUJ that if I handed over the photos within 24 hours then the warrant wouldn’t be executed.

That’s what it had all been about. I don’t believe the Fiscal had ever wanted to seize my cameras or computer, he just wanted the threat of it to use as a bartering tool: The police couldn’t legally force me to hand over the photos but if I didn’t do so then they would execute the warrant and put me out of business.

Again I took advice from the NUJ and they advised me to hand over the photos. We could appeal the warrant, but the police could simply execute it before the appeal was heard. I’d lose all of my equipment for possibly a year or more, and a 15-year career would be over.

Being pragmatic about it, I have a family to provide for. I had to choose very quickly between failing my family or failing my ethics. I took the NUJ’s advice. They returned the photos to me, and I allowed the police to seize them. I regret my decision. Everyone on this side of the case has reassured me that it was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t.

As for the warrant, it remains active, with no time limit. I now conduct my work knowing that the police could raid my home at any time, without warning, and take everything.

Two weeks ago a senior police officer at a road accident ordered me to stop recording audio and delete any video that I’d already shot. I didn’t delete the video so the officer took my press ID card, recorded my details, and told me that my camera would be seized.

UPDATE: 13 March 2017. The NUJ’s understanding is that the warrant is no longer active, since the photos were seized by the police.


30 thoughts on “How the UK police can coerce journalists into surrendering photographs

  1. This is disgusting treatment and I am amazed that it is legal.
    “We can’t force you to give us the photographs so we will force you to give us the photographs!”

  2. The Police Officer was acting illegally and should be hauled over the coals for asking you to delete the video. The Polis can’t have it both ways. If they don’t want people to photograph events then it is no use asking for pictures of those events. If they want the help of the public, then they have to ask nicely and not bend the rules like this.
    The Treatment of you in the Sherrifs Court is frankly shameful. I think you need to get your MSP/MP and the wider Media involved. To have an open ended warrant hanging over your head is horrible. I really hope that this can get resolved and the law in Scotland sorted out so that this sort of thing does not happen again.

  3. “It was a police officer, asking me to surrender the photos to the police to use as evidence against one of those involved.

    Doing so would have set a dangerous precedent and would compromise the impartiality of myself and the other press photographers who work at the court. ”

    Uh what? You were an eyewitness to an event. Why wouldn’t you assist them in their investigation? Because you are “press” and need to be “impartial”? That makes no sense. There is no difference between you and some schmo who happened to take a picture of an event.

    • Because Mr. Shill – acting as a police informant makes journalists a target during any kind of public disturbance.

      • I’m curious in what world are you living? My very simple understanding is that during any public disturbance journalists are targets, too. Public disturbance essentially means no police is going to help anyone, and that applies when thugs are taking your camera or if they are raping you. I mean – you can seek justice after the deed is done, but heh…

        By definition if you are informant, that means you are part of crime. How in the hell you became police informant, when you are taking pictures as uninvolved person? Please elaborate the circumstances how that picture was taken and how giving this picture makes you a police informant? Because this very essential pice of information is very unclear in this story.

  4. If they couldn’t get a warrant for the photos then on what grounds were they able to get a warrant for your equipment?

  5. Kudos to the Procurator Fiscal for getting some uppity idiot who thinks they are a Special Snowflake to provide evidence to the police on request.

    • You’re using the term “snowflake” incorrectly (the term is used in the context of people’s feelings – which isn’t mentioned or in question here).

      Stop being a shill. The state should not be able to threaten arbitrary seizure of your personal property. Typical for the UK though.

  6. You are a journalist taking photos for publication. Publish the photos. Police get the evidence, the thugs get arrested AND you get to remain impartial. Win, win, win.

    Instead we have whine, waste an woe is me.

    • Because, you useful-idiot, it takes any journalist from impartial reporter of events to eyes of big-brother. Remember if you have nothing to hide – please post name, phone number, address, mother’s maiden name and bank account details.

  7. This is the second case I have heard of where the NUJ legal advice has been to roll over and surrender the material. I am a long way from being convinced that this is a sensible policy and it appears that you had strong grounds to fight. On what basis did the NUJ advise you to hand over the photos?

    • To be fair the NUJ did invest a lot of time and money in resisting the petition for the warrant. Their advice to hand over the photos was after the warrant had been granted, and the only options were to hand over the photos or lose everything. It was an ugly but pragmatic decision.

  8. This is disgusting and plain wrong, taken to a conclusion it would mean that the use of hidden cameras would become common and the first any officials would know is when the images are published. There is now a trend for the public to film incidents on phone cameras and post clips within seconds on line for all to see. Meanwhile the pro who does his job with a responsible attitude is made to suffer.

  9. Was this altercation inside the court?
    Search warrants are not open ended and must be served within 28 days of being issued. Furthermore the warrant will state what can be searched, who can search for it and under what legislation. Any high street lawyer could easily have had this dealt with a lot more professionally than the NUJ lawyer seems have done.
    As for the traffic cop, unless you were causing obstruction at the crime scene, the cop has no right to demand you delete images nor has he the right to seize your camera and delete them himself. This is a criminal offence and would result in him being charged and sacked. ( there is precedence for this in Scotland ). Human Rights Act, Freedom of the Press, criminal law, statutory law, Data Protection Act to name but a few of your rights.

  10. Leaving the photograph aside for the moment, you were presumably an eye witness to a criminal act. If you had been cited to attend court and give evidence as an eye witness would you have obeyed the citation and if not, why not?

      • If you didn’t go you would probably find yourself arrested and liable to proceedings for contempt of court. I am troubled by what happened here, particularly the action of the Procurator Fiscal who should have told the police to take a hike instead of acting as their poodle. At the same time I’m concerned that you seem to think as a press photographer you’re above the law. Would you seek advice from the NUJ if you saw somebody being stabbed when you were “off duty” in the pub or something similar?

    • Because its covered under PACE and classes as ‘special procedural material’. The police have no legal right to take your work. Its as simple as that. Should have resisted. Personally, i’d sue the court who made the order. The compensation could be in the millions.

      • In case you don’t know, Inverness is in Scotland. Scotland is not England. PACE is English law. PACE does not apply in Scotland. Hope I have spelled that out clearly enough.

  11. I smell shite, sounds like a John Grisham short story, the fact that a normal lawyer could turn this upside down and back into a pocket and not a professional with the NUJ, nah, reeks….read back what others have said. No one in their right mind would dare cross the line with the law, granted. Protect their family, of course, but the tale reeks…

    • He certainly wasn’t well served by his legal “representation”. Instead of running to the NUJ he would have been better off with a good local lawyer who knew the court and had the ear and respect of the bench. Union lawyers are a joke in the legal profession.

  12. Shocking that they allowed this to go so far.

    Is there a way to contact you, please? I have another tale of the state blocking media impartiality.

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