Arrest of man for taking pictures at bus station should ring alarm bells for the press

An incident in Shropshire last week raises some important questions for press photographers.

A man was arrested on suspicion of taking photos of some children at a bus station in Shrewsbury after a member of the public alerted a security guard.

West Mercia police put out a statement saying the man, 38, was arrested because he took ‘prohibited images of children’.

This statement intrigued me, and I asked West Mercia police to explain it. What exactly, are prohibited images of children? Prohibited by whom, and under what law?

After all, there are no criminal laws that prevent people taking photos in a public place – unless they are terrorism suspects. So in this situation, only privacy and trespass could apply. And both are civil laws and not a police matter.

The West Mercia police press officer’s media manager Rachel Anstee said the man had been arrested under the Protection of Children Act 1978 on suspicion of taking indecent images of children, and storing them on his mobile phone.

Police have seized the phone and inquiries are ongoing. He has been released on conditional police bail.

It remains to be seen what the children were actually doing in a bus station in broad daylight that could amount to indecency when photographed.

CPS guidelines on the Protection of Children Act don’t define indecency. They say it …’is for the jury to decide based on what is the recognised standard of propriety.’

The arrest sends out a worrying message to photographers.

Supposing a local paper photographer photographs two five-year-old children exchanging an innocent ‘sweetheart’ kiss during a school play … or of glamorous 16-year-old girls sunbathing at the local swimming pool for a spread on the hot weather … could they be arrested for taking and storing indecent images of children?

Anyone prepared to bet against it?

The Court of Appeal ruled in 1988 that the photographer’s motive for taking a photo is irrelevant when deciding whether or not a photograph is indecent under the PCA. It’s what’s in the image that counts – not the motive for taking it (ie -‘I am a press photographer’).

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law

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