Is it now OK to film public servants doing their jobs without their permission?
One of the most striking features of what now seem to be almost daily mass confrontations with the police in London is the ubiquity of camera phones being shoved in the faces of police officers.
Whether it was the regular BLM protests since 2020, the Kill the Bill protests, the Clapham 'vigil' or the recent anti-lockdown 'party' in Hyde Park that turned violent; the camera phones are absolutely everywhere.
In one piece of footage, I saw a small huddle of officers back to back like Custers Last Stand, completely surrounded by at least twenty protesters who all had their camera phones out filming them. I can only imagine how stressful this must be for the officers, particularly knowing that much of this will be then uploaded to social media.
It is not just protest where camera phones are everywhere. It is now almost 100% certain that when the police get involved in any sort of tricky or confrontational situation, at least one person and often several people will start filming the interaction. Watch this shocking example to see the sort of bullshit that the British police now have to put up with;
As if this isn't bad enough, there are also dedicated YouTube channels like Auditing Britain (https://www.youtube.com/c/AuditingBritain/featured), operated by a man who refers to himself only as AB and describes himself as a "Human Rights Activist that gathers information on what public officials and corporations do and act on public property and specifically, a right to record matters of public interest." (sic)
Most of AB's time is spent filming police stations, the staff entering and leaving, and he regularly wanders into private police station yards full of patrol cars and officers own vehicles, waiting to be challenged and then hoping to provoke a reaction. Watching some of these interactions with police officers is hard and I had to stop after a few because it was making me angry and upset.
In one video he films all around the MI5 building in London before eventually being approached by two armed Met officers, who were incredibly polite, but even here I could see that they were worried about their powers, and anxious not to be filmed doing or saying anything that would get them into trouble. Personally, I would have asked him one or two questions and at his first refusal to answer them, he would have been warned that he would be arrested under S.58 of the Terrorism Act (Suspicion of conducting hostile reconnaissance).
But of course actually arresting him would be a complete waste of everyone's time and probably a 'sledgehammer to crack a nut'.
Protesters push the Neo-Marxist narrative that they are the ones defending us all from police oppression.
We live in an incredibly liberal and tolerant society in the UK, but the Neo-Marxist narrative pushed by BLM, Kill the Bill, Anti-Lockdown etc isn't just a false narrative; it's a dangerously false narrative.
As I pointed out in my recent podcast on this website with Tony Long, the ex-Met firearms officer surreally charged with murder ten years after shooting an armed criminal during a police operation, the British police service is incredibly benign, and has the fifth lowest rate of police killings in the world. There has been a stable rate of 0.5 people killed by the UK police per 10 million of the population over the last seven years. Norway and New Zealand kill four times that number, and the French police kill eight times that number. Swedish police kill twelve times that number and the USA kill nearly sixty times that number. If you're curious, and need the answer for a future pub quiz, the worst offender is Venezuela, whose police kill 3200 times more of their citizens than the UK.
However, if we listen to the noisy activists, consumed by their ideology, it would be easy to think that the British public are living in an oppressive, totalitarian regime where the police are likely to spirit you away in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.
Why is it wrong to film police officers trying to do their job?
The argument for allowing people to film the police probably goes something like this.
'The police are public servants who abuse their power, oppress citizens and stop them from going about their lawful business. Filming them makes them accountable and social media puts power back in the hands of the citizen.'
In reality, the British police service is one of the most regulated and accountable organisations in the world. Body worn video records every difficult interaction and arrest. Every police station and cell block in the UK has CCTV and audio recording in almost every space. Police cars are all fitted with GPS tracking, audio and video recording. There is CCTV in almost every public space now and every action of the police is governed by reams of policy, regulation and law, overseen by the IOPC, the courts and internal complaints departments. So in spite of all these numerous safeguards, why on earth do people feel that they still need to shove camera phones in officers faces every time they try and do their job? In truth, I think that the reason that they do it is because they can do it.
What is the impact on officers?
As part of the research for the Tango Juliet Foxtrot book, I interacted with hundreds of officers. Some are ex-colleagues, some are on social media and others contact me directly. I think it's fair to say that the impact on them can be summed up in two words; massive stress.
There is currently a mental health crisis in policing, and no bloody surprise after the most appalling cuts to policing over many years, combined with ever-growing demand. Many of the officers that I speak to are at the end of their tether with it all and 8500 (!!) resigned in the last three years.
Would it be permitted or acceptable to sit filming a secondary school teacher trying to teach her class? Would you be permitted to sit filming the doctors and nurses going about their work in A&E and then upload it to YouTube or Tiktok? No, it definitely wouldn't be either permitted or acceptable. So why is it acceptable now for this to be done to police officers who have no ability to stop it, and where is has a massive impact on their mental health and human rights?
What is the answer?
I'm going to put on my experienced police officer head now and speak directly to currently serving officers.
Firstly, it's important to point out that this isn't going to go away any time soon. The camera-phone wielding activists and deluded members of the public will continue to do this I'm afraid. Much as we would all probably love to take the phones off them and smash them to pieces, that's a really bad idea. Don't do that! Therefore, you need to do a number of things;
Keep calm and take the moral high-ground.
Stay professional at all times and don't give them any reason to make your life any harder than it needs to be.
Keep your Body-worn video switched on and record the interaction yourself.
Know the law!! Know exactly what you are allowed to do and then do it unapologetically and with confidence. Let them film if they want.
The next point is for policy-makers and senior police officers. Wake up! This is truly bad for policing and bad for public safety. Officers are increasingly going to refuse to deal with difficult situations, and that will be bad for everyone. We urgently need legislation that does a number of things;
Make it an offence to film any public servant (not just a police officer) doing his or her job (unless you are an accredited journalist), without their express permission.
Make it an offence to upload footage of any public servant doing his or her job to social media, without their express permission. If necessary this needs to be included in the forthcoming Online Harms Legislation.
Make it an offence to share footage of any public servant doing his or her job, other than in the context of a formal complaint or in a court.
By the way, I don't think point 1 is realistic or achievable in a mass protest scenario.
Police officers are human, and as such they should be afforded the same dignity and human rights protections as anyone else.