Legal insight for journalists from one of the UK's leading legal trainers

A guide to the legal pitfalls associated with using airborne drones for journalism

You may have thought drone journalism involved covering some boring official pontificating about a regional structure plan.

It’s more exciting than that!

An American university has been looking at using drones – normally employed by the USA to eliminate Al Qaeda suspects – to cover stories.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications used one to report on the drought in Nebraska And ABC news have been road testing one recently

 

So maybe drones are journalism’s new thing. They certainly cut staff costs and are less stroppy than most photographers. And other industries already use them.  Why not us? In America, for instance, estate agents use drone-like machines to photograph properties in areas where there are low-flying restrictions. They’re also used to monitor oil pipelines and carry out scientific surveys.

But what about the legalities?

Aerial photography is not new. Daily Mail published aerial shots of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in 2010. Celebrities go to great lengths to protect their weddings (and fat cheques for Hello! And OK!) from aerial paparazzi attack.

But UK law actually offers little specific protection from drones.

The best legal precedent was in 1978 when Baron Bernstein of Leigh used trespass laws to stop a company called Skyviews flying over his country estate and taking photographs.

But he lost. The high court ruled that a property owner was only allowed rights in the airspace to ‘such a height as is necessary for the ordinary use and enjoyment of his land and the structures on it'. So you’re safe to send in your drone to photograph someone’s property, provided you don’t send it in too low.

Existing UK laws and the PCC Code give people the ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’. The code says: ‘It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent’, unless you can prove it was in the public interest.

This clause applies whether you take photos with a drone, a long lens or a carrier pigeon. But I suspect that a drone may represent a fairly substantial intrusion on personal privacy, and would have to be justified by establishing a proportionate level of public interest.

It’s unclear whether photographing someone using a drone would constitute harassment under the code. I suppose a reader could argue ‘persistent pursuit’ if it flew over them too often, but they might find it hard to ask it to ‘desist’. It might be quicker to shoot it down.

Remember, too it’s probably best not to send one over an area designated as a ‘prohibited place’ under the Official Secrets Act. For instance, using one to take shots of GCHQ for a ‘Cheltenham from the air’ feature might trigger a nuclear war.

But otherwise, the legal risks with drones are no greater than any  with any other form of media photography.

Drones, though, don’t come cheap – a US Predator will set you back around $4.5m, although you don’t have to pay a pilot.

But before you go out and order one, remember you will have to apply to the Civil Aviation Authority for permission to use it … there’s a useful leaflet on safety, pollution, noise and other regulations here

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law

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