Given that we live in an era in which, as one politician once claimed- ‘it’s your duty to shop’ and at which time that civic duty of consumption increasingly involves buying cheap hi-tech equipment for domestic use, usually a smart phone or iphone – with a hi-def camera, one would assume that the natural thing to do as an honourable consumer would be to shop in a shopping centre and photograph your family enjoying the pleasures of retail.
On Friday the 7th of October, Chris White, (45 years old, a married, mental health trainer from Glasgow) was shopping at Braehead shopping mall on the outskirts of Glasgow, with his daughter. In his own words, this is what happened – “I took (a) photo of my 4 year old daughter looking cute on the back of a vespa seat at an ice cream bar inside Braehead… Having just bought her some new jigsaws we were going to go look at some clothes shops but never managed to continue our shopping trip. Walking down the shopping mall a (security) man approached me … as I was carrying my daughter in my arms. He came from behind me, cutting in front of me and told me to stop… He then said I had been spotted taking photos in the shopping centre which was ‘illegal’ and not allowed and then asked me to delete any photos I had taken.”
The questioning that ensued, lasted 25 minutes and involved Strathclyde Police who were called in on the grounds that Mr. White’s had been acting ‘suspiciously.’ Mr.White claims that his daughter cried throughout the ‘interview’ and that he was ‘harassed’.
Mr. White also claims: ‘One of the officers) said that under the Prevention of Terrorism Act he (he) was quite within in his rights to confiscate my mobile phone without any explanation for taking photos within a public shopping centre, which seems an abuse of the act. He then said on this occasion he would allow me to keep the photos, but he wanted to take my full details. Name, place of birth, age, employment status, address. Had I not had my daughter with me, and the fact that we are trying to bring our daughter up to respect and trust police officers, I may have exercised my right not to provide those details.” White gave his name and details, and showed the police the images on his camera (which he had already posted to facebook). He was then allowed to leave the premises, with his phone and images intact. He was, however, so shaken by the event that he then posted his story on facebook. By Saturday morning 4000 people had LIKED his story and the media got involved.
What is most alarming about White’s story, however is that it is by no means a new story or an isolated case.
In January of 2010, a father was ‘branded a paedophile suspect’ for taking his son’s photo at Bridges Shopping Centre, Sunderland, by a security guard.
In 2008, a man in Ipswich was forced to undergo a ‘stop and search’ after he took a photograph of the annual xmas tree lighting ceremony.
Over the last five years the National Union of Journalists has been staging protests to fight for the right to photograph in public places without Police interference.
In prohibiting photography, the laws that the police invoke most frequently are the Sections 43 and 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000. Section 43 states that police officers have the power to view digital images contained in mobile telephones or cameras to discover whether the images constitute evidence that the person is involved in terrorism. However, officers do not have the power to delete digital images or destroy film at any point during a search unless a court order has been granted.
Under Section 44, police officers may stop anyone without reasonable suspicion, providing the area has been designated a likely target for an attack.
Similarily, the Protection of Children Act 1978 restricts making or possessing pornography of under-18s, or what looks like pornography of under-18s. And this act is also used by state police and private security companies when challenging people with cameras.
All of this, however, can only by a long stretch of the imagination, or very large legal grey area, have anything to do with Mr.White, his daughter and their trip to the mall.
The only law Mr. White was ultimately in breach of was a civiland not criminal one – that was the prohibition of photography in the mall by the mall owners. They had signs posted around the mall saying photography is not permitted, but even taking photographs in such a place would only amount to a minor civic issue.
This incident would not have been triggered had Mr.White been shopping on a city street, a town centre or a council owned shopping centre – an area in short that was not under the surveillance of a private company. It was the status of the mall as ‘private property’ that caused the framework in which ‘the offense’ took place. As White has said in a subsequent interview ‘Malls may say they are private space, but they don’t behave like it … they have their doors wide open, they have events.’
It is clear that many people in the UK do not fully understand that these large structures which now dominate the country’s retail landscape are not in any way ‘public’ – the laws of the land do not apply in these spaces.
This issue and the problems it raises has been more fully legally addressed in the United States – the home of the mall. In California and New Jersey court decisions have been based on the claim that “a mall is not like a house, a store or even a strip center” This means that a mall should therefore not be protected by the same private property laws as these places. “Instead, a regional shopping center is the functional equivalent of a city street, and the free speech rights that people enjoy in a downtown area – - to leaflet, for example, apply to shopping centers.”
New Jersey and California are far ahead of the UK in that the right to assemble and even to demonstrate have also been legally permitted within shopping malls.
In the UK the laws on private property and their loose connection with POT laws and Child Protection laws are creating a great deal of confusion, where both private companies and the state are exploiting these ambiguities to intimidate the public. It is almost as if, the state and private companies are covertly working together to stamp out civilian photography, while at the same time they increase their surveillance of the population.
Ewan Morrison is the author of Tales from the Mall – a book of facts, fictions and interviews about the ‘Malling of Scotland’. To be released in Spring 2012, by Cargo Publishing.