Westminster Magistrates have dismissed charges of breaching the Public Order Act brought against a Greek tourist for taking photographs on the London Underground.
Had the case gone differently, we would have been forced to revisit our long-cherished assumption that the law does not restrict the right to photograph in the UK.
On 17 April, 53-year-old Athenian Pericles Antoniou was on his way to a photo exhibition at the Tate Modern Gallery. En route - and as he claims, in good spirits - he started taking photos of other people on the underground.
According to a letter he later sent to the Greek Embassy, a woman complained about the fact that he was taking photos of her daughter. He apologised immediately, showed her the photos and deleted them. Then, as he attempted to leave the tube, at Southwark Underground Station, "an unknown man claiming to be the father of the child", followed him to the exit and complained to some members of the British Transport Police.
They arrested him, took him into custody, and later charged him with offences under the Public Order Act 1986 s.5 (pdf), which suggests they considered he was using "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour".
According to Antoniou's account, the police held him overnight and refused to allow him access to legal advice or to communicate with anyone outside the police station.
Happily for Mr Antoniou, who travelled from Greece to London to attend the court hearing, the saga ended yesterday when Magistrate Howard Riddle dismissed the case, due to lack of evidence.
A spokeswoman for the Greek Embassy, which also sent a representative to the hearing, is reported as saying: "He [Antoniou] is going to be compensated for his tickets and money he paid to his lawyer."
According to a spokesman for British Transport Police, the arrest was in conection with the taking of the photographs, rather than any altercation with officers after the event.
He said: “Mr Antoniou was arrested on 16 April after a complaint was raised by a member of the public about photographs he had taken.
“Police have a duty to act on any complaint where a person’s actions cause harassment, alarm or distress to others.”
He further denied any suggestion that Mr Antoniou had been refused legal representation, or that the Police had failed to provide evidence in yesterday’s case: a file would have been submitted to the court.
According to City of Westminster Magistrates, the case file is marked NEO – “no evidence offered” – which may mean literally that the police provided no evidence in this case or that the courts deemed the evidence offered as insufficient to support the charge made out.
However, the law used and the fact that an innocent man could spend a night locked for merely taking a photograph must represent a serious wake-up call for all those concerned with defending the "right to photograph".
The fact that it took place on LU property underlines what may be the greatest real threat to photography in the UK. When we spoke to London Underground (LU) last year, they were adamant that people needed permission to take photographs on the Underground, and without a (paid-for) official permit, they were not allowed to do so.
They were very reluctant to be drawn on where the distinction lay between professional filming and ordinary tourist activity - intimating even that it might be unlawful to take photos of illegal activity occurring, such as an assault on LU staff - and it is this refusal to delineate a clear dividing line that gives police the power to intervene pretty much as it suits them.
Similar issues apply to taking of photographs in a number of locations around London, where a mixture of bye-laws and local council guidelines mean that council permission may be required – or may simply be "nice to have".
This case ironically echoes the case in 2001 in which British plane-spotters were arrested in Greece for the heinous crime of taking photographs of planes arriving and taking off at Greek airports. At the time, UK newspapers and politicans were full of righteous indignation at what they saw as the application of over-bearing and bureaucratic standards to individuals only interested in pursuing their hobby.
Athens-based journalist Angelos Stangos wrote then: "It is not uncivilised to arrest people who are suspected of breaking the law." He added: "One should also understand that the Greek authorities are very sensitive on matters of security for a variety of reasons."
What a difference a decade makes. ®